For weeks, President Donald Trump has put America's democratic institutions under unprecedented strain as he fights to hold power despite losing his bid for reelection. But the institutions so far are holding firm.
On Monday, the Electoral College did its part, formally confirming President-elect Joe Biden s victory over Trump. Electors in all 50 states cast ballots that reflected the will of their voters, despite pressure from Trump to subvert the results.
“The flame of democracy was lit in this nation a long time ago, We now know nothing, not even a pandemic or an abuse of power, can extinguish that flame," Biden said shortly after the final electors cast their votes.
The Electoral College vote was indeed the most important affirmation to date of Biden’s victory and the integrity of the U.S. election, which has come under sustained and baseless assault from Trump and his allies. Yet historians and democracy experts said they feared that the tumultuous post-election period had exposed the fragility of the instruments of democracy set up to protect the will of the voters.
“There’s certainly some relief in the short term but I am deeply worried about how these institutions could buckle under further strain,” said Alex Keyssar, a professor of history and public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “We’ve seen a willingness to depart from norms that are necessary to keep fairly creaky institutions functioning well.”
Trump and some of his allies made clear Monday that their attack on the election will continue — perhaps up until Biden takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. They signaled they intend to challenge the electors and may contest their final approval by Congress on Jan. 6.
Anything less than certification of Biden's victory would amount to an unprecedented undermining of a free and fair American election. Yet many Republicans have indeed stood with Trump's efforts thus far, including 126 House GOP lawmakers who backed his calls for the Supreme Court to overturn Biden's wins in four battleground states.
There were signs Monday that some Republicans were ready to move on. Several GOP senators who have previously refused to plainly acknowledge Biden's victory affirmed Monday evening that the Democrat was indeed the president-elect, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump.
That was little comfort to Edward Watts, a history professor at the University of California San Diego, who said Trump has likely laid the predicate for future leaders to challenge election results with little evidence to back up their claims.
Trump's tactics “are quite likely to be tried again by other people,” Watts said. "And when they are, the attempt will be more effective and powerful and we need to be prepared for that.”
Trump's attempts to derail Biden's victory were thwarted from the start, with the courts and a handful of Republicans in key positions forming the guardrails of American democracy.
The courts were particularly aggressive in fending off Trump's baseless charges of election fraud, which is notable because the president has pointed to his packing the federal courts with Republican judges as a signature achievement of his time in office. Nearly every lawsuit filed by the president and his allies has been rejected, with some judges showing little patience with GOP attorneys.
“Voters, not lawyers, choose the president. Ballots, not briefs, decide elections,” Judge Stephanos Bibas wrote when the 3rd U.S. Circuit panel refused to stop Michigan from certifying its results for Biden. Bibas, a Trump-appointed judge, called the demand “breathtaking.”
Some Republican officials have also stood up to the president, including the governors of Georgia and Arizona, two key states carried by Biden. After both governors certified the Democrat’s victory, Trump cast them as traitors to his cause.
Attorney General William Barr, one of Trump’s closest allies and most forceful defenders in the administration, said in an interview with The Associated Press that there was no evidence of fraud that would overturn the outcome of the election. Shortly after Biden's Electoral College victory was confirmed, Trump announced that Barr was departing the administration before Christmas.
Barr and other Republicans, however, have been outliers. Huge swaths of Trump’s party have either rallied to his side or stayed silent, giving him space to attack the integrity of the election and challenge Biden’s legitimacy. Last week, 126 House Republicans backed a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the vote in four states Biden won. The high court rejected the request.
Former Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican who backed Biden in the election, said the GOP lawmakers who backed Trump’s legal efforts have been “very injurious to our country.”
“I’ve never known an institution of governance that has so embarrassed the country as this one has at this time,” said Leach, a moderate who served for 30 years before his defeat in 2006. “It also appears to have a movement that’s going to continue. How long-lasting and embittered it’s going to be is a question mark.”
The nation’s democratic elections have come under serious strain before. In 1876, as the nation was still working past the divisiveness of the Civil War, both Republicans and Democrats claimed victory in the presidential election and each submitted their own slate of electors. That election is widely viewed as one of the most contentious in U.S. history, with a congressional committee ultimately deciding the election in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, whose supporters had made a dubious bargain to effectively end Reconstruction in exchange for support.
More recently, the 2000 election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore hinged on the outcome of an exceedingly close contest in Florida and ultimately landed before the Supreme Court. The court ruling gave Bush the edge, and Gore quickly conceded and issued a call for national unity.
It's all but certain that Trump won't follow Gore's example in the weeks to come. It's unclear even whether he'll attend Biden's inauguration and he has floated the prospect of immediately starting a campaign for the 2024 Republican nomination.
Steven Feldstein, a former State Department official during Barack Obama’s presidency who is now a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the scope of the strain on America's institutions will depend on what happens after Biden is sworn in.
“The question is, is this a moment in time that fades away as Trump leaves the presidency, or is this the beginning of a new authoritarian foundation that people build upon and use in the future to undermine the essence of democracy,” Feldstein said.
AP writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.