Evidence is mounting that the stalled presidential transition is doing real damage. President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team can’t get good information on current planning for next year’s coronavirus vaccine rollout. National security officials feel constrained from treating Biden as the president-elect, limiting information-sharing. Republicans are beginning to urge President Trump to allow briefings to proceed.
Meanwhile, the Trump family is reportedly consumed in an internal debate over whether Trump should even concede the election at all — a debate whose contours appear almost entirely shaped around what’s good for them.
This bodes badly for what’s to come. It might seem like throwing bad mental energy after bad to dwell on the Trump family’s internal warring about the election’s clear outcome, but their argument hints at how the Trump movement’s mythology could live on, with untold destructive effects.
CNN reports that Trump’s two adult sons — Donald Jr. and Eric — adamantly want Trump to refuse to concede and “drag it out until the bitter end,” while clinging to the lie that the election was stolen from him.
They believe the “outcome should change,” CNN reports. In other words, if possible, they want to overturn the results of a legitimate election.
By contrast, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner think the president should bow to the inevitable and concede after the Georgia recount is completed later this month. Here’s the reasoning:
Ivanka Trump has offered a more calibrated message to her father, asking him whether it was worth damaging his legacy and potentially his businesses to continue his refusal to concede. She is privately realistic about the President’s loss, a source told CNN, but she also knows that her entire future — now more than ever — is tied to her father’s, and must be handled delicately.
The careful reader will note that there’s no discernible deliberation over the impact that Trump’s refusal to concede is having on the whole country.
Obviously, appealing to Trump’s sense of what’s good for him would be the only conceivable way to influence him. But Ivanka Trump, too, appears largely motivated by how this wind-down will impact her own future. And these leaks plainly come from someone trying to paint a sympathetic portrait of the Ivanka-Jared predicament.
The deeper truth revealed here is that there will come no point at which Trump and his family members will do the right thing on the country’s behalf — concede unambiguously so the country can move on.
The only motivating factor in how this will be handled is what is good for Trump and the family. There’s disagreement on what is actually best for Trump, but Trump and Donald Jr. have already decided that not conceding is what’s best for them.
The future of the Trumpist movement
Donald Trump Jr. is widely considered a plausible candidate for president in 2024. Whether he will end up running is unclear, but either way, he will play a kingmaking role as a leader of the Trump movement, however it constitutes itself in the post-Trump era.
Central to this movement will be the mythology that the election was stolen from Trump. Note this remarkable observation from the New York Times:
No prominent potential Republican candidate for president in 2024 … has criticized Mr. Trump for his refusal to acquiesce to the transition of power. Most have stayed silent or given Mr. Trump, who has spoken privately about running again in four years, latitude and support without parroting his most baseless conspiracies.
A lot of euphemisms have been employed to describe this sort of thing — Republicans are “giving Trump space” to “process his loss,” and so forth. But what it really means is that, in some form or other, Republicans who don’t want to alienate the Trump movement will have to tiptoe around the question of whether his loss was legitimate for years to come.
This is already being used to motivate Republican voters, right now. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is feeding the falsehood that the outcome remains unknown to keep Trump voters energized in the Georgia runoffs that will determine Senate control. This is widely being reported as just another campaign tactic.
What’s more, since the refusal to concede requires stalling the transition to give it believability, all this could have long-term practical consequences:
The president-elect’s team is concerned that it is being shut out of planning for the vaccine distribution, a huge undertaking that the incoming administration expects to inherit the moment Mr. Biden is sworn in. His advisers said they have not had access to the details of Warp Speed, the project that has vaccine distribution planning well underway, and understand little about its workings.
There you have it: The need to keep Republican voters energized in Georgia could negatively impact planning for vaccine distribution amid a surging pandemic.
Over the long haul, how far this will all go remains to be seen. We don’t yet know whether a movement will persist that’s organized around the belief that Trump’s removal from office was wholly illegitimate — around the mythology that the system is so corrupted from top to bottom that literally tens of millions of votes were cast and counted fraudulently.
Nor do we yet know how far Republican elites will push the idea that refusing to concede defeat in a legitimate election should be treated as just another tool for motivating partisans and for justifying efforts to cast a cloud of illegitimacy over the rightful victor.
But we do know from the family’s latest internal warring that on both these fronts, Trump and his eldest son appear determined to find out.
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