Once he lost, he put his plan into motion.
Start with the Big Lie: that President-elect Joe Biden stole the election. Proclaim it from the moment polls close, repeat it often and loudly.
Pressure right-wing media to amplify the lie, and crack the whip so your party echoes it.
Send out the lawyers to collect tales of fraud. There is none, but no matter; generate nonsense, and then pressure county and state Republicans to overturn honest counts and replace duly chosen electors.
Make sure that when the impostor slates reach Congress, your party will endorse the charade. On that front, he can still hope: After all, Republicans such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) so far are cheering or acquiescing in his fiction.
Make sure, too, as Robert Kagan outlined in this section before the election, that the “power ministries” are with you. A pliant Attorney General William P. Barr instructed prosecutors to be on the lookout for fraud; the Defense Department seemed less reliable, so Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.
Other firings will follow as needed, and then every base will be covered: State officials buy into the Big Lie, the Senate plays along, the Supreme Court slaps down any challenge, and military, intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are ready to deal with any popular objections.
Scenario 2: Trump knows he has lost and must leave office Jan. 20, but he is salting the soil to make governing impossible for Biden while preparing his own political and financial comeback.
In this scenario, the Big Lie is not a means to overturn the election but a stratagem to convince as many of Trump’s nearly 73 million voters as possible that Biden is not a legitimately elected president. They, in turn, will press Republicans in Congress to obstruct Biden’s efforts to heal division and get things done.
After he leaves office, Trump will stoke the resentments to raise funds to support new businesses and pay old debts. The stolen election will be the lost cause that he redeems by running for president again in 2024.
Scenario 3: Trump has no plan but is lashing out in anger and disbelief that he could have lost an election.
In this scenario, the Pentagon purge is a settling of scores against people he resents and a frantic effort to declassify intelligence he thinks will burnish his image. McConnell and others are just playing along until his rage burns out. Barr’s memo is intended to appease the president, worded carefully to preclude any action. The court filings in battleground states are pathetic efforts to assuage a wounded ego, pursued by second-rate lawyers, with no hope of success.
Of course, the three scenarios might be less in conflict than they seem. If the election had been closer — if it had come down to just the late-arriving ballots in Pennsylvania, say — then overturning the results might have been plausible, and a friendly Supreme Court might have come into play.
Now that Trump has lost so definitively, he might be going through the motions of a coup — because, why not try? — but with an eye toward life in exile. And he might be doing so with more angry improvisation than careful forethought.
One thing is sure: Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his defeat is harming American democracy.
Until now, most of us had no clue about the inner workings of the electoral process — no idea that Michigan even had a Board of State Canvassers, let alone that it needed to certify the results — because we didn’t need to know. We assumed we voted, and whoever won the vote would become president. We assumed that, unlike in so many countries in the world, losing incumbents would gracefully give way, knowing that they — or their party — would have a chance another day.
Trump has changed that. In the world he is shaping, election results are something you press partisan officials to overturn. Reality is what you say it is. Peaceful transfers of power are for chumps.
McConnell and McCarthy and the rest of their craven bunch are enabling this degradation. The lessons won’t disappear when Trump does.