The Trump Government is Not Democratic: To Replace Him, We Need a Pacted Transition

With less than 100 days until the 2020 US general election, we are at such a low point in American democracy that we regularly hear discussion of whether or not the elections will happen at all, or whether President Trump would accept a defeat. In a repeat of 2016, the President recently refused to acknowledge that he would respect the outcome of the 2020 elections. Of course, his victory in 2016 rendered the point moot. But with the COVID-19 crisis battering the United States, the current odds are not in the president’s favor.

A number of analysts have been writing over the past several years about what happens if the President loses the election but refuses to concede, either by challenging the results in court or through some other means. Greg Sargent has a “doomsday scenario” but there are others: if you’d like some concrete scenarios to worry about, listen to the recent webinar on free and fair elections in the United States by the American Democracy Collaborative. Scholars like Maria J. Stephan, Candace Rondeaux, and Erica Chenoweth have written about how popular social movements might help to safeguard the integrity of the election in the event of a “November surprise.”

Not everyone is so convinced that the President would refuse to accept defeat. But I think it is now plain that the Trump government is not democratic*: the president has repeatedly portrayed opposition as disloyal, factual news as a conspiracy, protest as riot, and he has repeatedly questioned the democratic participatory rights of large swaths of the American electorate and worked with his partisan allies to make voting difficult.** Sarah Kendzior has long been writing that we should listen to Trump’s words (e.g. here). I agree.

I do not anticipate that the President will attempt to stop the election from being held, but I do believe that unless there is a truly massive electoral repudiation of President Trump, he will challenge the outcome in November. The transition process will not be orderly. I hope that I am wrong. But if you’re risk averse like me, and you wish to ponder how to remove an executive from office, read on.

Political Settlements and Pacted Transitions

There is a body of thinking that can help us to understand how leaders who do not wish to leave office and who do not respect formal institutions or the will of the majority may be removed peacefully. Such insights are the core insight of the literature on democratic transitions, which asks how dictators are removed from office and replaced by democratic governments. It may seem odd to think of the defeat of President Trump as the breakdown of an authoritarian regime; after all, I do not hold that the current American political regime is a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime. But on the assumption that President Trump’s government is not democratic, and that he is indifferent to the rule of law or the will of the majority, the problem of how to remove him from office is the same.

I find the literature on political settlements, often used to think about political transitions in the development policy community (and, regionally, very commonly applied to African cases), to be particularly useful. An earlier version of this literature that focused more narrowly on elites was applied to cases as diverse at the Glorious Revolution and the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos.

Political settlements describe the problem of transition as trying to find a way for various competing elites in and out of government to establish a framework through which to transition peacefully from one regime to another. These politics are often hidden from public view, involving compromises between regime insiders and the opposition. Events and outcomes are hard to predict. But in this view, process matters. It bears a strong resemblance to the process-theoretical approaches to democratization the emerged in responses to events in Latin America and Southern Europe in the 1970s and 1990s. This work introduced concepts like regime cleavages, elite splits, and pacted transitions.

For many (most?) academics, this literature is inherently unsatisfying because so many outcomes are contingent and unpredictable. It is hard, even impossible, to predict the conditions under which democratization is possible: when the settlement is feasible, or when the pact can be made, or why spoilers don’t stop it.*** But it is useful nevertheless to think through some key features of how pacted transitions/political settlements work even if we cannot predict when they emerge.

  1. Splits between “hardliners” and “softliners” within the regime.
  2. Informal agreements by the opposition not to pursue all possible punishments against all bad actors in the ancien regime.
  3. Long time horizons, enabled by political trust among elites.

We might not know why or when or what conditions make these things are possible, but we do have a good sense of how they work to ease leaders from office.

You can apply these ideas to the current moment. John Kasich’s announcement that he will speak at the Democratic National Convention, for example, looks something like a split within the GOP elite. So, too, the Lincoln Project. These are politicians and political operatives who intended to participate in politics in a post-Trump world, and are attempting to drive towards such a world.

But why is this is not just normal electoral politics? Because the goal here is not simply to convince of swing voters, the standard stuff of campaigns and elections. From a political settlements/pacted transitions perspective, the goal of such actions is to show the President and his government that challenging the electoral outcome will be futile. It is to demonstrate the strength and breadth of the anti-Trump coalition. It is to say “you better not try to challenge the election, because there are enough of us Republicans who oppose you to make it futile.”

The Politics of Compromise

There is a difficult politics about the coalitions necessary for such a pacted transition. You can see this discussion already among Democrats: groups like the Lincoln Project are not vehicles of Democratic Party politics or that advance progressive interests. Plainly, neither is John Kasich. And the reverse is true. Conservative Republicans who detest the President and wish to stop the damage that his presidency has done to the American constitutional order must make temporary peace with groups whose ideology they detest. This is very unpopular, given that the expected outcome will be a government that advances interests directly in opposition to theirs.

The point is that both are right. Both the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and traditionalist Republicans of the Lincoln Project may believe that they can exploit the other to their own advantage. But that is the deal. The politics will play out later. For now, the coalition holds if both prefer that gamble to either (a) more Trump or (b) the other route to oust President Trump from office, which is civil violence.****

But perhaps even more difficult than this is the question of how to deal with the crimes or excesses of the previous regime. Very frequently, a core compromise is that those who committed crimes and violations under the previous regime are not punished after the transition. Plainly, they will not make common cause with the opposition if they know they will be punished by that opposition when it comes to power.

This means that under a political settlements or pacted transitions approach, the urge to extirpate all legacies of the previous regime—to rip it out, root and branch—is suppressed in the name of an orderly transition. This has costs. From the policy review document above, we read that

At the heart of PSA is the idea that societies cannot develop in the midst of all-out violence or civil war; yet the way different societies solve the problem of violence, the political settlement they craft, creates powerful path-dependencies for the way they do or do not subsequently develop. And while different authors and organisations have defined ‘political settlement’ in slightly different ways, there is increasing convergence around the idea that PSA is about understanding ‘the formal and informal processes, agreements, and practices that help consolidate politics, rather than violence, as a means for dealing with disagreements about interests, ideas and the distribution and use of power’ (Laws and Leftwich, 2014: 1), and that these will play out across two levels, involving both intraelite and elite-non-elite relations (Laws, 2012).

The post-transition political order will need to deal with these legacies of the previous regime that were left intact as a precondition for the transition. This makes the politics of the transition itself very difficult, because mass actors do not have the same ability to credibly commit not to punish former regime elite that elite actors do.

Such tensions are plainly in sight right now, between Democratic Party elites and the progressive movements who desire a reckoning with Trump administration. To observe this tension is not to criticize either side, simply to identify that it exists, and to clarify that it shapes the politics of a pacted transition.

If reading this makes you feel dissatisfied, you’re not alone. But if you truly believe that President Trump will not respect any outcome of the November 2020 election in which he is not declared the victor, it is time now to start thinking about how to remove him. “Laws and institutions” won’t do it, because institutions are not self-executing. People will have to choose how to remove him, and it won’t just be the protesting masses in the streets who make that happen.


* This is different from asking if the President himself is an autocrat or not. While it is interesting to speculate about what is in the President’s heart, democracy and autocracy are features of systems, not individuals.

** This in addition to his long list of other illegal behavior: repeatedly violating the emoluments clause, the Hunter Biden affair, and so forth.

*** I wrote a whole book on this question, basically.

**** This is not the space to write about that, or the ethics of such violence. But there is no “forcing Trump from office,” in the event that he does not want to go, that does not involve either violence or a pact of some sort.