BRUSSELS – The 2020 U.S. presidential election is unlike any other in living memory. Previous contests have been rancorous and some were described in existential terms. But never, at least in recent times, have Americans faced the realistic prospect of the incumbent rejecting the outcome, and rarely have partisan divisions risked escalating into armed conflict.
We at the International Crisis Group (ICG) have a mandate to end, prevent, and mitigate violent conflicts wherever they emerge. While our efforts over the past quarter-century have taken us all around the world, not until this year have they required us to focus squarely on the United States.
In many countries, elections often come with a risk of bloodshed, owing to such factors as extreme political polarization, winner-take-all stakes, a proliferation of weapons in the hands of armed groups with political agendas, and flawed electoral processes that leave many citizens doubting the results. Under these conditions, elections can be particularly dangerous when each candidate has a sizable and committed base of support.
These risk factors are all in some measure present in the U.S. today. But the one that stands head and shoulders above the others is the incumbent’s refusal to commit to respecting the will of the voters. U.S. President Donald Trump continues to insist that the only way he could lose is if the election is rigged, and he has yet to call on his supporters to refrain from violence.
If the world were to look at the U.S. the way the U.S. often looks at younger, less robust democracies around the world, it would see a country still experiencing the lasting legacies of slavery, civil war, lynching, segregation, labor strife, and the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples. It would observe a country awash in firearms, where the number of gun homicides each year is unmatched by any other high-income country. It would find that there is a deeply rooted white-supremacy movement that the U.S. government’s own experts warn is growing in virulence.
The wider world would also shake its head at the racial discrimination, economic inequality, and police brutality that constitute chronic sources of tension in the U.S., periodically bubbling over into street demonstrations and, sometimes, civil unrest. It would note that many major American cities have heavily militarized police forces that deploy weapons and tactics similar to those used by U.S. soldiers in warzones and interventions abroad. It would see that the dominant political parties are at loggerheads over profound questions of national identity, with many Democrats framing the election as a make-or-break moment for democracy, and many Republicans viewing Trump as a bulwark against cultural and demographic changes to the nation’s character.
In short, outside observers can see in the U.S. today a lot of what the U.S. historically has warned others about. Moreover, the 2020 U.S. election is being held under the cloud of a runaway pandemic. A massive increase in mail-in voting will likely create openings for Trump to contest the outcome. Given the perceived stakes, both sides can be expected to fight any dispute over the result fiercely. And, given how convoluted U.S. election laws are, a contested or inconclusive result could lead to months of tense indecision.
Equally worrying is the gathering threat posed by armed far-right cells, like the 13 men who were recently arrested for plotting to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. These groups may try to intimidate voters at the polls, and could stir up trouble if the outcome is disputed. If they take to the streets, they will most likely be challenged by activists from the left; violent fringe actors could join in the mix, raising the risk of bloodshed. A clash that disrupts voting or ballot counting in a crucial state could escalate quickly, particularly if Trump claims victory before the formal procedures are complete and calls his backers into the streets.
To be sure, the U.S. has a fair chance of making it through this difficult moment without a spike in violence. It still has advantages that other countries studied by the ICG typically lack, including an apolitical military, a vibrant press, and a well-developed civil society. Leaders from both parties (including, notably, senior Republicans) have already signaled that their candidate could lose, which helps to head off demagogic claims of vote rigging after the fact.
Nonetheless, the situation warrants extraordinary precautions. State and local officials, along with the relevant civil-society groups, should be acquainting themselves with the legal tools at their disposal and preparing to use them to ensure that voting and ballot counting proceeds without disruption. Media outlets that have not already done so should establish policies to avoid declaring a winner prematurely, and the major social-media platforms will need all hands on deck to police disinformation.
Foreign heads of state and government also have an important role to play. Trump might try to declare victory pre-emptively on Nov. 3, claiming that only votes tabulated that day should count, and pressuring his foreign counterparts to recognize his purported success. They must resist doing so. Until one candidate concedes or the process has run its course, foreign officials should refrain from making any congratulatory calls. And should things take a turn for the worse, those with direct channels to Trump and his inner circle should send a clear message: “If you interfere with the vote count or refuse to accept a peaceful transfer of power, you will be on your own.”
With luck, and perhaps a little help from its friends, the U.S. can dodge the 2020 election bullet and start repairing the social fractures that have helped bring it to this dangerous precipice. For that to happen, it will need to apply some of the lessons it so frequently dispenses to others.
Robert Malley, a member of the National Security Council staff under President Barack Obama and President Bill Clinton, is President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Stephen Pomper, a member of the National Security Council staff under President Barack Obama, is Senior Director for Policy at the International Crisis Group. © Project Syndicate, 2020.
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