The US 2020 election saga has entered the phase where little-known local officials are suddenly thrust into international celebrity. During the 2000 contretemps, that person was Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state whose not-so-subtle finger on the recount scales helped hand the White House to George W Bush. Now it’s the turn of Brad Raffensperger.
Mr Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, earned his fame for publicly censuring allies of President Donald Trump who were pressuring him to fiddle with ballots in his state, won by Joe Biden by nearly 13,000 votes. But Mr Raffensperger represents something else, something more important: proof that American government institutions are still alive and functioning.
Mr Raffensperger’s arrival on the national scene — along with fellow travellers such as Matthew Brann, a Republican-backed federal judge who, over the weekend, contemptuously dismissed Mr Trump’s attempt to stop Pennsylvania from certifying its results — has been fortuitously timed. The mood in Washington has darkened.
For two weeks, Mr Trump’s quixotic attempt to reverse the November 3 election results was treated with barely concealed ridicule, even among close aides, who viewed the effort as a way to humour the pouting president.
But Mr Trump is no longer just papering the nation’s courts with frivolous lawsuits. His troop withdrawals risk reigniting anti-coalition violence in Afghanistan; his curtailing of the US Federal Reserve’s pandemic rescue funds could tip the economy back into contraction; and, perhaps most alarmingly, his attempts to tamper with the selection of presidential electors in battleground states threaten the very legitimacy of the democratic process.
Governance and institutional legitimacy are among the dullest of all the political sciences. But anyone who has spent time in a failed state, or even a dysfunctional developed country, can attest to how ephemeral trust in government institutions can be.
This is something most Americans have never contemplated. It is a blind spot that has occasionally had fatal consequences for US policy, such as when the Bush administration sent thousands of well-meaning trainers and bureaucratic experts to Iraq to recreate a functioning state out of the rubble of war. A generation of Iraqis abused by Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus were not so easily convinced by well-scrubbed Republican political operatives that they could trust government institutions again.
One need not travel to a war zone to see how hard it is to rebuild credibility in government institutions once trust is lost. A top European finance official once told me that this was the fundamental difference between France and Italy, two similar-sized economies with similarly proud histories. The French trust their institutions and the state functions; Italians don’t trust their government and the state lurches from crisis to crisis.
The fear in Washington is that the US is fast approaching its Italian moment. Mr Trump seems so hell-bent on destroying faith in American governmental institutions — the courts, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — that the US could cease being a functional state, let alone a model for the world. Steve Bannon, who still remains the closest thing to an intellectual touchstone for Trumpism, never made a secret that his true goal in backing Mr Trump was the “deconstruction of the administrative state”.
But what if the reverse is true? What if Mr Raffensperger proves the rule rather than the exception? The most likely course of the next two months is that the courts continue to dismiss Mr Trump’s wild conspiracy theories, that local authorities complete their election certifications, that troops abide by their oath to the constitution rather than any individual, and that Mr Biden is sworn in as president on January 20 without incident.
In other words, the American institutions that were set up to protect the state from the authoritarian impulses of a president like Mr Trump will have worked exactly as they were designed. They will have performed admirably against the most dire of threats: a sitting US president, with all the powers the office commands, mounting a frontal assault on their foundations.
For all the shame the next two months may bring to Mr Trump, US institutions could well emerge with newfound appreciation from the American public. They are learning that their bureaucracies are filled with decent civil servants like Mr Raffensperger. Rather than the beginning of the end, it would be their finest hour. And a grateful nation would have all the Raffenspergers out there to thank.