BRUSSELS – The 2020 U.S. presidential election is unlike any other in living memory. Previous contests have been rancorous and some were described in existential terms. But never, at least in recent times, have Americans faced the realistic prospect of the incumbent rejecting the outcome, and rarely have partisan divisions risked escalating into armed conflict.
We at the International Crisis Group (ICG) have a mandate to end, prevent, and mitigate violent conflicts wherever they emerge. While our efforts over the past quarter-century have taken us all around the world, not until this year have they required us to focus squarely on the United States.
In many countries, elections often come with a risk of bloodshed, owing to such factors as extreme political polarization, winner-take-all stakes, a proliferation of weapons in the hands of armed groups with political agendas, and flawed electoral processes that leave many citizens doubting the results. Under these conditions, elections can be particularly dangerous when each candidate has a sizable and committed base of support.
These risk factors are all in some measure present in the U.S. today. But the one that stands head and shoulders above the others is the incumbent’s refusal to commit to respecting the will of the voters. U.S. President Donald Trump continues to insist that the only way he could lose is if the election is rigged, and he has yet to call on his supporters to refrain from violence.
If the world were to look at the U.S. the way the U.S. often looks at younger, less robust democracies around the world, it would see a country still experiencing the lasting legacies of slavery, civil war, lynching, segregation, labor strife, and the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples. It would observe a country awash in firearms, where the number of gun homicides each year is unmatched by any other high-income country. It would find that there is a deeply rooted white-supremacy movement that the U.S. government’s own experts warn is growing in virulence.