The Rise of Hybrid Elections: Lawfare, Disinformation, and Division

This year’s US election has been a peculiar one, even more so than 2016’s when Donald Trump as the underdog Republican candidate managed to defeat Hilary Clinton – the epitome of the American political establishment. Another former official of the Obama administration has attempted to take the reins of the presidency, this time succeeding. Despite Trump proclaiming an early victory and continuing to believe in this by refusing to concede his defeat, it seems American politics will return to some form of normalcy under Biden. Then again, it would be naïve to believe this for a number of reasons.

A Pyrrhic (and Confusing) Victory

Winston Churchill once stated that ‘a knell rang in the ears of the victors, even in their hour of triumph’ after the allies secured victory in World War I. Whilst Donald Trump’s defeat seems to be a relief for those who opposed him, celebrations feel delayed due to the more immediate problems Biden inherits. Because of this, Churchill’s comment made over one hundred years ago rings true for the US’s current situation. This is not only from what is most likely to come for America – whether its the coronavirus’s impact on the world economy; increasing hostility from Russia or China; or the re-emergence of foreign conflicts that may need American mediation – but also due to the methods America’s own political processes have adapted to that are becoming part and parcel of international relations and security.

The means of conducting politics are becoming more ‘hybrid’ as the world resides more within digital networks than in physical reality. The US election has been testament to this whilst our lives are more isolated both mentally and physically by the epidemic. How politics are conducted from here onwards is therefore reminiscent of our lives accordingly. It is potentially the start of a form of politics that becomes less accountable due to the confusion it inflicts on its participants, whether they consist of candidates or voters. Approaches that are traditionally unacceptable thus become more easily utilised by those who wish to defy the democratic system.

An Imperial Presidency (Again)

The plethora of recent statements made by Trump regarding lawsuits maybe nothing more but a desperate attempt by the president to sustain his administration. Trump is continuing to claim that ‘[t]here is tremendous evidence of wide spread voter fraud’, concluding that it is ‘unconstitutional’. Whilst his argument is unsurprisingly supported by his most enthusiastic voters, they themselves only make his claims look less substantiated and just another populist appeal to these individuals. Criticism from mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times against right-wing websites ‘backing baseless accusations’ also hardly ameliorates this matter.

Yet the use of legal loopholes and acts of amendment to surpass democracy is nothing new for the cabal of the American political system. It is not a Trump phenomenon. When Trump was impeached last year, media commentators could not help but compare him to Richard Nixon – a comparison that will be enforced due to their mutual distrust for the media and respect for each other being recently revealed through uncovered letters between the two. Despite their liking for each other, Trump – regardless of what his reputation will be for posterity – is no Nixon, just like Mike Pompeo being no Henry Kissinger despite others thinking he would be.

However, Trump is but the latest addition of presidents who fall to hubris or circumstance that lean them towards what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. referred to as an ‘imperial presidency’. Leaders of the US who seemingly have the greatest of intentions for their electorate have frequently succumbed to this. Even John F. Kennedy has been accused by revisionists of using the Cuban Missile Crisis to ‘score a victory’ amongst the American electorate; his successor – Lyndon B. Johnson – of using the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which was fake) to gather congressional support for a resolution to use ‘all necessary measures’ as Commander-in-Chief that led to American escalation in Vietnam. Richard Nixon and his involvement in the Watergate scandal evidently makes him no exception. It should be noted that the former two presidents were Democrats, showing that the criteria to become an imperial president is indiscriminate in its choice of parties. Why then should it be assumed that Biden will be any different to his predecessors?

The continuity of this theme should not be in doubt. Instead, what should be questioned is the structure of American politics and its elections being altered through the international system the US has largely led. The world rarely remains static – it does not know stalemates. As it evolves into a ‘hybrid’ environment where everyone is a participant and influences each other – whether knowingly or not – does the ability to moderate a leader’s use of power become more difficult.

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Lawfare: A Hybrid Means of Politics

As the world becomes more connected, the distinction that separates certain things from others becomes blurred. What is real and what isn’t (deepfakes being a haunting, and sometimes amusing, example) is less clear through the rate of information being exchanged and the occurrence of events being more rapid than ever before. This ‘information overload’ becomes all too much for our brains to process, especially if accessed through social media platforms where one cannot siphon ‘useful’ information from junk.

Trump’s tweets have been an example of this. One of his most recent was his claim that election officials ‘wouldn’t let our Poll Watchers and Observers into the Counting Rooms’. A critic directly commented on Trump’s post that ‘[t]his is false, and your lawyers even said it was a lie in court. You are embarrassing yourself’. Whilst this comment is true, it omits the fact that Trump’s lawyers have done this in order to not put their licenses at risk. Whilst it would be easy to state that Trump has got it wrong – especially with his record – the self-preservation of those who represent him hinders the possibility of the truth being made clear, regardless of Trump being correct or not.

If Trump dares to continue his crusade against Biden, and by extension, against the American political system, it will be a David versus Goliath event. Attempting to delegitimise or waste the time and money of several US states is called ‘lawfare’, something Trump does not have the funds of achieving successfully. Nevertheless, it is a symptom of the several hybrid approaches that are coming to define contemporary politics, including Trump’s attempt to consolidate his power through his successful nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as a judge in the Supreme Court.

So what lies ahead for Biden? The election has been more of a choice between ‘the less senile of two old men’ than evil for some. Biden, like Trump, is not a harbinger of truth. He has falsely stated that he was ‘arrested’ when he was ‘on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him [Nelson Mandela] on Robbens Island’ (Biden also saying Robben Island incorrectly) and that he had opposed the Iraq War. Regardless of the several conspiracy theories surrounding Biden’s health and his bizarre comments, Biden is to Republicans what Trump is to Democrats – both being perceived as mentally and physically unfit for office by their critics. Now that Biden has entered the White House at the age of 78 and has surpassed Trump’s record of becoming the oldest person to assume the presidency, these concerns are even greater than they were for Trump in 2016. At the same time, it makes the opportunity to peddle disinformation even greater.

Kamala Harris: (Vice?) Presidency through Lawfare?

Biden’s old age leaves him vulnerable as president, so there will be no doubt that he delegates much of his authority to his subordinates. One doesn’t get an aura from him that he will say ‘you’re fired’ at a moment’s notice like Trump, nor give ‘The Treatment’ like Johnson did in the 1960s. Instead, we may see an extensive use of authority by the vice-presidency that has not been seen since Dick Cheney’s role under George W. Bush.

Kamala Harris is a trained attorney and served as the Attorney General of California between 2011 and 2017, so the law is certainly not alien to her. How far she will take the opportunity to use her powers is yet to be seen and it all depends on how far Biden will let her utilise them. If her own attempts to secure the Democrat nomination for the presidency this year is anything to go by, it suggests she will be very keen to make the most of them. Above all, anything can happen to Biden in the next four years. Interested observers will have to watch this space.

However, this will not be as easy as it has been in the past. American politics have proven that nothing will ever be simple in terms of political developments – this year being the perfect example. Whatever happens in the US is often reflected onto the rest of the world it is still trying to lead. Lawfare is part of the evolving dynamics the international order currently endures. Whilst it has had an impact on the US, the latter will make its own contribution to it through its influence on the world. It will be interesting to see what Biden’s presidency will entail. Whether it will be a breath of fresh air from the Trump presidency, or an exacerbation of the complexities that are already in motion, remains to be seen.

Featured image credit: Clay Banks on Unsplash

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