Depending on one’s outlook, this week has felt either unsettlingly ominous or unbearably silly. It began with Attorney General Bill Barr stopping by Capitol Hill to chat with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Shortly afterward, McConnell announced that he didn’t consider Joe Biden the president-elect and urged Donald Trump to continue his legal challenges to the ongoing counting of the presidential election vote. Barr then delivered a memo authorizing federal prosecutors to “pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities prior to the certification of elections in [their] jurisdictions.” And then the director of the elections crimes branch in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section resigned.
“There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the next day, in what might have been an attempt at a joke. It didn’t land. Even otherwise sober people began to wonder whether they were watching an attempted coup unfold.
As The New Republic’s Matt Ford recently wrote, it’s not likely to be a successful coup. It’s very difficult to see how Trump’s legal strategy ends up overturning the results of the election, even with help from a conservative judiciary and Republican state legislators.
Furthermore, as the week progressed, everyone was repeatedly assured that no one carrying out the coup really meant it. Senator Chris Coons said unnamed Republican colleagues have expressed their congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden—in private.
“They all know he lost,” the former Republican strategist Tim Miller said of other Republicans, “and they are lying about it to protect his little feelings.”
The knowledge that Trump lost apparently extends to the White House, and even the president himself, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Trump understands that the fight isn’t winnable,” the paper wrote, but its source described the president’s “feelings” as “let me have this fight.”
Before the election, Trump seems to have expected the same level of unflinching support from the institutions of the conservative movement that George W. Bush received in 2000, with the entire conservative media and legal apparatuses working to ensure that the ballot box would be no obstacle to his reelection. Instead, he ended up with a legal team led by a man most recently in the news for a creepy appearance in the sequel to Borat. And Rupert Murdoch—if we can guess his intentions through the actions of Fox News—has seemingly cut bait, trying to ease his audience into accepting that Trump has lost the election.
But, apparently believing it would be too cruel to cut Trump off from his institutional support base completely, conservatives decided to arrange for him a sort of Make-a-Wish Foundation version of Bush v. Gore. Before he is out of his misery, everyone will expend a lot of energy creating the appearance of challenging the results of the election in order to appease the president.
One issue arising from that scheme is that creating the appearance of challenging the results of the election in order to appease the president requires actually challenging the results of the election, in real life. The Trump campaign has filed numerous actual lawsuits in actual courts, and it is still weighing, reportedly, an insane strategy of suing to delay vote certification in certain states in the hopes that Republican state lawmakers decide to try appointing pro-Trump electors. As Ford wrote, such schemes are unlikely to work. But even if the conservative operatives behind these efforts are only going through the motions of seizing power, without any real expectation of success, they are still trying, however feebly, to seize power.
The attempt at an autogolpe is real, even if the sincerity with which many Republicans are pursuing it is unknown. The purge at the Pentagon is very real, even if its connection to the election challenge is unclear. The White House just ousted the head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, apparently for refusing to delete accurate information about the election results from the agency’s “Rumor Control” website.
Lying for the president’s sake also requires lying to everyone else in the nation. It is easy, especially for political journalists, to become inured to the way in which certain government officials treat their jobs as analogous to those of the cast and crew of The Truman Show, and to forget that the United States is more than just a collection of people in government. It is an actual country with people in it. Many of those people cannot discern that all of this talk of illegal votes and Trump’s paths to victory is merely being done to help Trump come to terms with his loss.
Which makes Donald Trump a bit like Batkid, the young cancer patient on whose behalf the city San Francisco and the Make-a-Wish Foundation once staged a full day of make-believe superheroism—if roughly 40 percent of the residents of San Francisco genuinely believed the charade was real, believed Batkid was their only chance to stop the forces of evil descending on their city, and couldn’t understand why the media kept claiming The Riddler had fairly defeated him and would soon be in charge.
To sum up the current situation, the U.S. is experiencing a fake self-coup that requires the administration to do exactly the things a regime would do if it were attempting to stage an actual self-coup, with millions of people sincerely believing the stated justifications for the strongman’s consolidation of power and with the regime’s legislative allies playing along, under the apparent belief that eventually the courts, which are stocked with unqualified loyalists, will soon say the game is done.
No one who might be able to break the spell of Trump seems willing to rip off the Band-Aid. Many conservatives are probably worried that a wounded Trump might use a dolchstoss story to popularize some alternative to the institutional conservative movement and its house organ, Fox News. (There are anecdotal reports already of angry MAGA heads jumping ship from Fox News, where reality now sometimes interrupts fantasy, for One America News, where the world is still presented as Trump would like it to be.) Perhaps, in their nightmares, it culminates in some Bull Moose–style 2024 presidential run that decimates the entire Republican Party.
So, out of self-preservation, they will maintain the strange kayfabe that has characterized this era until the very end. But playing along with an authoritarian power grab because you don’t expect it to work is still playing along with an authoritarian power grab. Trump’s Republican smarts believe they shouldn’t be held responsible for it because, like wrestling, none of it is real. For once, the marks are closer to the truth.