Roughly 12 hours after most polls closed, there is an elevated risk of post-election violence and instability in the United States, according to the indicators I proposed on Tuesday. The president’s false statements about the results are the primary driver for the increased threat. While many consequential developments are still to come, the majority of the indicators remain neutral and reflect residual resilience that could act as a counterbalance to the president’s inflammatory pronouncements. Here is how I judge the situation with respect to each indicator.

Political leader responses are likely to have the greatest influence over many of the other actors and factors that follow, including how the public, media, and foreign actors respond.

Current impact: INCREASED RISK 

  • President Donald Trump’s false claims that he was winning decisive states, had won the election, and that his opponents were attempting to steal the election are antidemocratic and incendiary. They reinforce for his supporters the incorrect view that any outcome in which he does not win is illegitimate, thus increasing the likelihood they reject that highly plausible scenario. His statements also confirm opposition fears that he will attempt to steal the election, increasing the probability that they will reject the results if he were to win fairly. The president implicitly criticized lawful election procedures and pledged to turn to the Supreme Court, which risks undermining trust in the independence of electoral and judicial institutions. He has continued advancing this argument on social media, and his campaign is using the message to raise money. This is the single most consequential of the indicators, and the president’s assertions are likely to play a continuous and central role in shaping the probability of violent conflict.
  • Senior Republican leaders have largely remained silent in response to the president’s claims. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did say it is not clear who won, but he defended the president’s premature claim of victory and his potential effort to challenge results in the courts. Some current and former Republican officials expressed more pointed concerns in media commentaries about the president’s claims.

Perceptions of electoral and judicial legitimacy could directly increase the risk of instability if electoral procedures break down or court rulings are seen to decide the outcome. They could also indirectly increase risk as a by-product of how political leaders, the public, and the media interact with these institutions immediately after the election.

Current impact: UNDETERMINED

  • Electoral authorities are proceeding with their legally mandated duties to count votes and have made public statements pledging to faithfully follow the law and count votes. At present, fears of widespread challenges with voting and tabulation on account of the pandemic and the related surge of mail-in voting have not materialized. Despite the president’s attempts to erode public confidence in these institutions, there is not yet sufficient evidence to judge public perceptions. Similarly, election-related court decisions before the vote have not yet triggered public rejection. How the courts handle potential forthcoming legal actions, such as those Trump promised, are likely to be indicative.

Armed actor use of force would most likely be an accelerant and potential tipping point in a post-election environment teetering on the edge of widespread violence.

Current impact: UNDETERMINED

Public sentiment and media will provide the most direct and continuous measure of the likelihood of violent upheaval.

Current impact: UNDETERMINED

  • Media coverage is the primary factor at this stage as the public watches for the outcome of ongoing vote tallying in key states. Media and other influencers have tried to set expectations for a days-long counting process, and most major media outlets immediately attached decisive fact-checks and warnings to the president’s false claims regarding the state of the race. This included Fox News, which reaches many of Trump’s supporters. However, the network has since featured commentary from Trump surrogates reiterating the president’s message. On the left, there is frustration with the closeness of the race and the diminishing probability of Democrats taking control of the Senate. Much of this commentary has framed Trump’s continued popularity as a reflection of persistent, systemic racism in the United States. The extent to which these divisions are framed as irreconcilable differences, particularly if paired with a Trump victory, will shape the risk of conflict.

External influences probably will function as compounding factors, to the extent that they play a role. There are improbable but imaginable scenarios in which a broad coalition of foreign actors or a unifying wildcard event could temporarily halt a descent into conflict.

Current impact: UNDETERMINED

  • There have not been any new developments regarding foreign actor interference and no wildcard events have materialized. International response has focused primarily on the lack of a decisive outcome and the potential implications for U.S. stability and global standing. There have only been isolated cases of foreign leaders recognizing a winner.
Image: National Guard soldiers patrol the streets of Philadelphia the morning after Americans voted in the presidential election on November 04, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images