America passed a grim milestone of 150,000 Covid-19 deaths. It was announced that the economy had shrank at an unprecedented 32.9% annual rate between April and June – more than three times the previous record set in 1958. This was dreadful news for a President already flailing in the polls, and thus what came next could be interpreted as a classic Trump tactic of tweeting something controversial, hoping to change the agenda and distract voters. The President tweeted accusations of electoral fraud, questioning if the vote should be delayed :

With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???

Suggestions of delaying the election made by a sitting President are utterly remarkable in a country that has held votes during its Civil War, the Spanish Influenza Pandemic and World War Two. They are also in material terms utterly meaningless. No President can delay the election without the approval of Congress – something no Democratic Senator will vote for – or changes to the constitution.

Nevertheless this tweet shouldn’t just be dismissed. In 2016 as we approached polling day, Trump spoke increasingly of electoral fraud and of the possibility that the ‘swamp’ would stop his election. In the end this didn’t matter – no winner will claim the result was fixed. But if in 2020 Trump does lose, then tweets like this could leave a damaging legacy on American democracy.

After the 2000 Al Gore vs Bush election was decided in the Supreme Court, despite complaints from all sides, the result was – on the whole – accepted, and Bush was seen as a legitimate President. America is in a very different place than it was in 2000. There is a far more polarised atmosphere on Capitol Hill, between politicians, the public and significantly in the media.

Statements made by any President push back against and define the boundaries of the acceptable. And this one will give enormous weight to certain personalities online, and in America’s polarised media to utter similar accusations of electoral fraud if Biden wins in November. Regardless of the fact leading Republicans have spoken out against the idea of delaying the election.

But in some ways this tweet’s impact won’t be decided in Capitol Hill. It will be determined by loyal supporters of Trump on social media and amongst certain online personalities and commentators. If these voters and personalities, already aggrieved enough at Washington to vote for the consummate populist outsider Trump, are encouraged by the President not to accept the election result, then I’m not sure American democracy will survive as well as it did back in 2000.