It’s been almost a fortnight since Joe Biden secured the necessary number of Electoral College votes to officially append the title “president-elect” to his name. But this reality has not yet been fully accepted by President Donald Trump and his most steadfast enablers, and so talk of coups d’état continues to flourish in the discourse. On these pages, we’ve faced this cloud of seeming uncertainty in straightforward fashion: The likelihood that the election will be overturned is vanishingly remote. But this strange psychodrama has yet to run its course. Trump’s attempt to cling to power has been riveting to watch and, at times, comedically hapless, but it’s still likely to do lasting harm to our democracy.
That’s a fitting epitaph for his presidency, but that gravestone is not yet carved. As we’ve noted, this is perhaps the most dangerous period of the Trump presidency. And while the president’s hopes of remaining in power have largely played out in a series of legal schemes that have, up to now, failed to deliver the needed fatal blow to Biden’s obvious claim to the presidency, we’re starting to learn more about what sort of person remains willing to stand in Trump’s corner as he wages his last, limp efforts to seed doubts about the election, and what sort of harm they could leave behind. While it may resemble a sideshow at times, as Trump’s ragged gang of loyalists contort their faces for the camera, these dead-enders are doing real damage to the country.
Few have submitted to this latter-day loyalty test with as much fervor for self-debasement as Trump consigliere and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm star Rudy Giuliani, who, having long set his reputation aflame, spent the week in a frenzied effort to further torch the ashes. This week, on the day before a major hearing in Pennsylvania in which Trump had hoped to halt the certification of the state’s election results, three of the president’s lawyers attached to the suit abruptly withdrew, initially leaving Marc Scaringi, a Harrisburg lawyer and conservative radio host, holding the bag.
It was Giuliani who arrived, as Politico’s Josh Gerstein put it, to add some “star power” to the shouldering of this burden. His involvement was cheered by Trump supporters outside the courtroom and evidently came as tremendous relief to Scaringi, who had nothing but enthusiastic things to say about the former New York mayor’s efforts on Twitter.
But if Scaringi’s sentiments were sincere, they were badly misplaced, as Giuliani’s efforts to rekindle his old courtroom mojo collapsed in spectacular fashion in his first trial litigation in three decades. At one point, Guiliani seemed not to understand that some of the claims he asserted had been wholly deleted from the amended version of the lawsuit that had been refiled by the departed attorneys. At other times, he appeared to struggle with routine legal concepts. “Maybe I don’t understand what you mean by ‘strict scrutiny,’” he said at one point to an exasperated Judge Matthew Brann, which is like an airline pilot saying he doesn’t understand what the control tower means by “landing.”
Even Giuliani found himself outdone on Thursday by Sidney Powell, who represented Michael Flynn before joining Trump’s team. Powell spun an elaborate tale of mass electoral manipulation that included governments and figures in China, Cuba, Germany, Venezuela, and beyond. At one point, she asserted that Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman who died in 2013, had played a role. So ridiculous were Powell’s claims that even Tucker Carlson, who is no stranger to trafficking in nonsense, told his Fox viewers that he refused to have her on his show unless she provided evidence for them. She did not.
It may be, however, that these larger-than-life manifestations are the least of our worries. Far more concerning to the future is the extent to which the past weeks have revealed Trumpian dead-enders deep in the gears of our democracy, their radicalism rotting its roots and sapping the vitality of our civic traditions. On Wednesday, Trump’s electors in Nevada filed a lawsuit brazenly demanding that the state either annul its election results or declare Trump winner of Nevada’s electoral votes outright.
Suffice it to say, this lawsuit has no chance of succeeding. But it’s simply unprecedented for candidates to indulge in this sort of lawfare, or for large portions of the political establishment to openly or quietly support it. Only a handful of moderate Republicans have publicly acknowledged Biden as the president-elect; the vast majority are keeping quiet or spreading Trump’s claims. Even South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who once denounced Trump in vivid terms, found himself earlier this week reportedly pressing Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger about whether he could throw out thousands of absentee ballots in certain counties, a query that Raffensperger took as pressure to tilt the results toward Trump.
Meanwhile, the actions of Trump loyalists in Michigan have been even more worrisome. A group of top GOP state lawmakers made a pilgrimage to the White House this week, where they will likely be asked to declare a separate set of electors for Trump, based on false hysteria about voter fraud. This strategy won’t work even if these state lawmakers agree to it, as we noted last week, and the relevant GOP legislative leaders in key states are still resisting the idea. But if they made the attempt, it would only help those seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the election—and the public’s confidence in its outcome.
Again, the constant churn of these efforts to back Trump’s ridiculous claims isn’t pushing the president any closer to a second term. As Axios’s Glen Johnson points out, they are, if anything, “documenting his demise” and “showing Joe Biden’s victory to be all the more obvious and unassailable.” At some point, Trump’s lawyers will run out of lawsuits. Trump will go away. Biden will be inaugurated.
What’s chilling is that such a plot is feasible at all. Consider the pitfalls of the current attempt: Biden secured a large enough lead in the Electoral College that no one state can decide the outcome. Even if certification somehow doesn’t happen in Republican-led states that Biden won, the Democrats control the governorships and secretary of state offices in enough states to give Biden 270 electoral votes. Democrats also control the House of Representatives and would almost certainly join with moderate Republican senators like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Utah’s Mitt Romney to reject a Trump-aligned slate of rogue electors if one arises.
What if Biden’s Electoral College lead were much slimmer and hinged on a more Trump-friendly state like Florida or Texas? What if Democrats hadn’t taken back the House in 2018, and Republicans instead had firm majorities in both chambers when the Electoral College votes were counted? What if the Republican candidate wasn’t Trump, whose authoritarian tendencies and reckless mendacity are already priced in, but a less polarizing figure who could make a more subtle and competent play for power? Thanks to Trump and his cronies, it’s no longer completely unthinkable for a president or candidate to demand that state legislatures try to overturn their own election results. He won’t succeed this time, but a future presidential candidate could make a similar attempt on far more favorable terrain.
America has many weeks of this stressful thrum to endure, and will have to confront the many forms that Trump’s dead-ender posse will take, whether it’s Trump-appointed bureaucrats at the General Services Administration declining to “ascertain” the election result, executive branch agencies refusing to participate in the presidential transition, or Trump loyalists whipping up discord and wreaking havoc with America’s pandemic response. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, some members of the GOP are actively enabling Trump’s vain attempt to stay in the White House, while others pretend it’s all just a goof that needs to be “humored” for a time.
Collectively, their actions are engendering a malodorous spirit of illiberalism in the public that will not be easily exorcised. The damage they’ve done over these past two weeks can already be measured. Nearly three-quarters of likely Republican voters question the results of the election, while nearly two-thirds of the same cohort support Trump’s decision to fight to overturn the voters’ decision. This may diminish over time, but it suggests that the baseline of public skepticism about elections, at least among Republicans, has shifted considerably away from that which is reasonable.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the country is already engulfed in an outbreak of “escalating confrontations in swing states across the country” and “threats of violence against officials in both parties.” And far from these mad scenes, we are told that, in certain parts of the country, Covid-stricken patients are using their last breaths to deny the existence of the virus that is killing them. It’s hard not to feel like something unsettling has been set in motion in these last few weeks—a dangerous flight from reason. On January 20, there will be a new president, but in many ways that matter, Trump’s coup has already taken place.