The US election is upon us. There are, unusually, more than two scenarios. There are three: Trump wins, Trump loses with a landslide victory for Biden and goes away quietly, Trump loses with a narrow margin and the country is plunged into uncertainty as he contests the vote.
The last scenario isn’t improbable. If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that there is very little that Trump won’t do, and that there is very little that can stop him from doing it. Whether that happens or not, the fact that it is even on the cards is an indication of something that will outlive Trump whether he stays or goes.
What has happened during Trump’s tenure is not a temporary suspension of convention that will be reversed once the followers of the protocol return to office, it is an erosion. Trump has exposed the fragility of US political institutions, the ease with which they can be compromised for partisan reasons, and the almost absolute power of the executive office.
More than anything, he has revealed the customary nature of so much of US politics, how little of it is codified and how much of it is managed by informal arrangements of protocol. The trampling over the last wish of Ruth Bader Ginsburg not to be replaced until after the next election is an example of this termination of the understanding that both parties have to behave within a certain range of reasonable behaviour, otherwise the system will descend into smash and grab chaos.
Once these sorts of unspoken agreements are assailed, it’s impossible to build up the confidence and trust in the system again. No matter how much of a restorative force Biden is, a transition candidate whose purpose seems to be an aggressive return to normal and the poetic American exceptionalism of the Obama era, the sense that American democracy is so fragile will be hard to erase.
So much of our trust in political processes is about upholding a sense of structure and solidity, an integrity that is stronger than whoever is in the ruling chair at any time. Once that illusion is gone, the ramifications are huge. People will then begin to doubt and challenge political processes, the judgements and decisions of the legislative and judiciary, if they feel that the way they came about was due to a random conspiracy of people and events.
More than anything, they will come to understand that there is another route to power – not through following the democratic norms and respecting their institutions, but subverting them. This paves the way for another Trump-like candidate not too far in the distant future, who will benefit from the path that Trump has cleared. Even if Trump goes next month, his legacy extends far beyond his presidency.