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On 20 January 2020, Joseph R. Biden will be sworn in as the new president of the United States. For months, the ousted President Donald Trump and his supporters tried to prevent this from happening. But they did not understand how the American federal system actually works – writes ReCentGlobe researcher Megan Maruschke in the first segment of her two-part blog post on American right-wing populism.

The federal structure of the US is important for understanding the failures of the Trump presidency as well as his inability to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Four years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president, I wrote an entry for the blog of the SFB 1199 (which has since been removed). My thesis at the time was “don’t panic” – American federalism will almost certainly stand in Donald Trump’s way. Major policy in the US from health care to environmental policy to education are enacted at the state level. This limited Barack Obama’s range of action as president. For example, during the Obama administration many states with Republican governors or legislatures did not expand Medicaid, a public health insurance, following the healthcare reform of the Affordable Care Act, limiting its scope. Similarly under Trump, federalism, I argued, would certainly allow for pushback from states as well as limit the damage Trump can inflict, and it did. In the election itself, Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric and the populist base seemed not to grasp the structure of American elections: very little power to elect officials rests at the federal level.

A lot of this thesis came under intense strain, but manifested itself with a flurry of activity from states and major metropolitan cities that negotiated internationally on climate action, filed lawsuits against the administration, became “sanctuary cities” for migrants without legal documentation, and California, for example, continued to set its own stricter auto emissions standards despite lawsuits by the Trump administration. California’s emissions standards were supported in 2020 by 22 other states. The bulk of environmental laws and other regulations rest at the state level. The Trump administration came to grasp this only after a significant amount of time in the president’s term had passed.

There is no doubt that Trump, as a populist “authoritarian style” leader, has been sowing the seeds of claims of voter fraud since the 2016 election, but his supporters’ outrage at the federal government has not (yet) been matched by local ire. His claims largely rest on the idea that Washington DC has been captured by an elite and that only he can deliver it back to “the people”. We are unfortunately all familiar with his slogans like “drain the swamp”, which does not seem to include state politics. His style and mobilization of “the people” has worked well at the national level directed at DC, but the outrage that it fuels seems to fade somewhat at the local level. An exception here are the pandemic restrictions. Most policies to deal with closures and regulations come to life at the local level, which agitators grasped immediately. The politics of pandemic restrictions shifted the far-right’s focus to the state and local level.[1] For example, the life of Governor Whitmer of Michigan came under threat earlier this year by a kidnapping plot. Over the summer, in what appears now to have been a test to mobilize his personal army, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” along with several other states, and his supporters followed. But when it comes to the election (not the pandemic), the events of 6 January again point to the US Capitol as a site where the most intense anger was and is directed.

Elections are local affairs in the US. Even national elections are controlled at the state level, and counties or districts are important. They are run at the county level and state level by elected officials. Americans elect many levels of government from sheriffs to judges. Due to the local nature of national elections, in election news coverage we are not bombarded with information about the popular vote tallies but by results from, for example, Maricopa county and Clark county. To suppress voter turnout without a federal mechanism to do so, Trump had to weaken another federal institution, the postal service, and sought to slow down mail-in ballots to try to impact the election results. At the federal level, he was forced to attack the election process indirectly.

While a majority of Republican voters seem to believe Trump’s claims of voter fraud, with a minority who are willing to violently assert their will, when getting specific about states and counties, localism seems to win out – with a pride in how local elections were carried out under the difficult circumstances of the pandemic and with the largest turnout in absolute numbers ever recorded and largest percentage of voting population (two-thirds) participating in 120 years. We see Republicans in the US Senate and Congress backing Trump’s voter fraud claims. But at the state level, from Georgia to Michigan to Pennsylvania, secretaries of state, legislators, and governors, from both sides of the political establishment, more often than not claimed that there was not voter fraud in their state and that they would certify the election results. Trump, his “lawyers”, and supporters shifted their focus to the state level only after election day (with the exception of a few court filings beforehand). Trump’s legal team has filed over 60 unsuccessful court cases, which even Trump-appointed judges found to have no merit. His supporters did rally at election counting facilities during the evening of the election and the following days, but with most of their vitriol directed at the federal government, they seemed unable to navigate the path forward. In fact, for most Americans, the electoral journey between 3 November and 20 January was illuminated for the first time.

I would never deny that Trump’s lies and rhetoric are not extremely dangerous. We now have evidence of just how dangerous they are. At least this time, despite widespread calls for reform of American institutions and elections, American institutions have proven much more stable than the harm done in, say, Hungary or Poland, in terms of the separation of powers (and independence of the media) – not only between the legislative, executive, and judicial branch but also in how power is distributed between states and the federal government and even cities. There finally appears to be some logic to the chaotic way in which the US is organized that allowed Americans to endure, for now, the last four years as well as this election. Trump was late to recognize the power of states to control their elections, and his attempts to overturn the results culminated in phone calls not only to Georgia’s secretary of state but also to usually invisible volunteers for bureaucratic tasks involved in the certification process and invitations to state legislators. That was hardly a sustainable approach to overturning election results and frankly looked more pathetic than it did threatening.

The violence at the Capitol on 6 January is at once a success and a failure for its planners. Yes, the insurrectionists/terrorists were able to breach the building and by now there appears to be no doubt that if they had found senators and congressmen and women, let alone Vice President Mike Pence, they could have been attacked, murdered, or held hostage. But focusing their ire on the Capitol, which had only a ceremonial role in concluding this election cycle, was never going to overturn election results. Moving forward towards the inauguration and without clear direction from their populist leader – the only one holding these strands of evangelicals, firemen, ex-soldiers, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis together (and these are not mutually exclusive categories) – reporters suggest that this band of insurrectionists are debating whether to focus their violence on state capitols around the country or again at the US Capitol leading up to and on inauguration day, 20 January 2021. Can they really occupy them all? Which weapons are legal in which states and cities? Does this city have an open-carry gun law? How can they get their guns across state lines? These are the messages that reporters tell us continue to appear in the public chats in the now hidden corners of the web – that is, how to overthrow the government in a federal republic when you cannot locate the government.

[1] And despite the populist momentum “shaking up” American politics, the 2020 election cycle was still characterized by traditional two-party stances on the role of the federal government: should the federal government play a larger role in managing the pandemic?