The emperor had no clothes, after all

One of the most telling moments during the cumbersome U.S. election process, happened on Thursdafy, November 5. With the counting process well under way, President Trump held a press conference in the White House, denouncing what he considered massive electoral fraud. The most amazing thing, however, was that almost all the major networks simply cut away from the press briefing and went on with their own news program. Obviously, something had already changed. The change did not occur in the rhetoric of the president, since for a long time he had been complaining about mail voting and the counting process. Almost every one of his claims had been voiced before, without bringing in new evidence.

It has to be remembered that on that moment, President-elect Biden had not achieved a majority in the Electoral College yet, so formally President Trump was still fully in power. It took two more days for the media to feel sufficiently confident to project Joe Biden as winner of the elections. While the contest was still fully open, it was clear to everyone who kept an eye on the counting process that the Biden-Harris ticket would gather sufficient support.

The comments following the Trump statement were even more clearly devastating. Most reporters denounced the false claims by the president, and the dreaded word “lie”—something they had hesitated to voice previously—was now openly used. So, on Thursday evening, it was already clear that Trump was no longer treated with the respect and the decorum that one associates with a U.S. president. In the days following that statement, the announcement that the team of President Trump wanted to launch various legal procedures, was seen as irrelevant. It was clear for everyone that Donald Trump from now on could be considered as a loser and an outsider.

This abrupt reversal of a deferential attitude toward the incumbent president is extremely revealing about the dynamics of the Trump presidency. Former U.S. presidents are usually treated with respect. Even if their term in office was not an unqualified success, after a relatively short period they easily can dress in the cloak of a senior statesman, reflecting back on the political process. There is not much a former president can do wrong, given that visibility traditionally is highest when opening presidential libraries and attending funerals.

The very quick and abrupt withdrawal of respect for President Trump suggests that this kind of venerable future will not be self-evident for this president. The rapid fall from grace is much more a pattern we find in authoritarian regimes: once it is clear that the authoritarian leader no longer is able to cling to power, he rapidly loses every form of respect, and he is even singled out for mockery. This is a process we could clearly observe in 1989, when the authoritarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe were toppled. The rapid fall from grace of Donald Trump fits this pattern; it is not the standard exit for a legitimate and democratically elected head of state.

One could say that the loneliest place in hell is reserved for former dictators: they do have followers as long as they are in power, but as their hold on power is based on fear, and not on loyalty, this vanishes from the moment they are expelled from the corridors of power. The fall from grace, therefore, illustrates the way authoritarian leaders exert power. The statements of Donald Trump on November 5 did not have anything exceptional: already years ago he made a habit of sending out twitter messages sowing doubts about the legitimacy of the electoral process. Already during the summer of 2020, The Washington Post estimated that, while in office, President Trump had publicly uttered more than 20,000 “false or misleading claims”. As long as he was well shrouded in regal habit, apparently these claims were faithfully reported by the news media. This tells us a lot about the dynamics of authoritarian regimes: even when it is very clear to everyone that the leader has lost any sense of reality, no one actually dares to voice that sentiment. Over the past years, President Trump has made a number of statements that are clearly wrong, and some of them even endangered public health. However, there was not a single news outlet that decided to stop repeating those misleading claims.

The four years of President Trump have raised numerous questions about the stability of liberal democracy. To some extent, this might even be the most important question: the respect that is routinely attributed to political leaders, to a large extent renders them immune for normal intellectual scrutiny. Liberal democracy is based on a free exchange of ideas, but the system clearly was not designed to withstand a whole barrage of systematic misinformation, that is duly accepted as being within the norms of the acceptable. We all know that screaming “fire” in a crowded movie house can cause immediate harm. One could wonder whether that strict provision is sufficient to safeguard the future of liberal democracy, in an era of increasingly sophisticated misleading communication efforts, and the apparent readiness to accept such claims.