For four years, President Trump has sought to undermine the institutions of a democratic society, but never so blatantly as in the early morning hours of Wednesday. His attempt to falsely claim victory and to subvert the election itself by calling for a halt to vote-counting represents the gravest of threats to the stability of the country.

Millions of votes remain to be counted, votes cast legally under the laws of the states. Until they are all counted, the outcome of the election remains in doubt. Either he or former vice president Joe Biden could win an electoral college majority, but neither has yet done so, no matter what he says. Those are the facts, for which the president shows no respect.

A president who respected the Constitution would let things play out. But Trump has shown once again he cares not about the Constitution or the stability and well-being of the country or anything like that. He cares only about himself and retaining the powers he now holds. And so he cries “fraud” when there is no evidence whatsoever of any such thing.

President Trump spoke from the White House in the early morning on Nov. 4, promising a legal challenge to the election results. (The Washington Post)

Notably, Vice President Pence would not fully embrace what the president said. Notably, Pence would not directly contradict or challenge the president. His loyalty will not allow him to do what he knows is right, which is to call out the wrong in the man he serves.

In the moment, a few Republicans did challenge the president. This is one more time when the elected leaders of the party will be called to account. Time and again they have failed to stand up to this president. Will this be any different? No one should have high expectations of a revolt, though the stakes are greater than ever.

Trump’s words seek to make a possible Biden victory illegitimate. Biden, in his brief statement, said he believed he would win but stopped short of claiming he had or making threats. Would that Trump had done something similar. Whatever happens in the vote count, whatever the courts do or don’t do, Trump has given his followers license to see anything other than a Trump victory as a stolen election.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden urged patience early on Nov. 4 at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., as votes continued to be counted. (The Washington Post)

What the president did — and did from inside the White House itself rather than from a neutral site — was not the act of a confident leader. Instead it was a sign of the desperation he must feel as he watches his presidency on the brink. In reality, he stands in a better position than many of the polls had suggested ahead of the election. There was talk of a Democratic blowout, a big Biden victory and a brand new electoral map.

So far, that hasn’t really materialized. Trump held states that were thought to be in play — Florida, Texas and Ohio the biggest and most important. He is leading in North Carolina and in Georgia, although in Georgia there appear to be many uncounted ballots that could narrow his margin. His party has maintained control of the Senate. The election has been far better for Republicans than many thought it might be.

But Trump is trailing in Arizona, and one network, Fox News, has already called it for Biden. Other networks have not. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has called for all the votes there to be counted. The president pretends not to hear the logic of that argument. He has focused on the three states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — that will determine who takes the oath on Jan. 20.

In each of those states, the president led overnight, but the mail ballots are believed to be the last to be counted and Biden presumably will win far more of them than Trump. Whether he can win enough to carry two or three of them, which he would need to do if he in fact loses Arizona, must await a legitimate count.

The president somehow fears this and so wants to call a halt. His likeliest target will be Pennsylvania, where he will probably challenge the decision to allow ballots that arrive over the next three days to be counted.

He claimed he would head straight to the Supreme Court for relief. In the days before the election, he was practically begging the high court, with its now 6-to-3 conservative majority thanks to the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, to become his backstop. There is no legal avenue for him to go directly to the court, so some of this is mere bluster. But he is already beginning to work the referees.

Were this happening in another country, American officials would decry it as an act of an authoritarian leader. Trump would not be among them, however, as he’s proved by his tepid reaction to what appears to be a stolen election in Belarus. “I like democracy” was about as strong as he could go when asked to comment. He may say he likes democracy, but not enough to let the democratic process of voting and counting continue normally.

The process of counting votes takes time, especially with mail ballots. There is no evidence of any widespread fraud in places that have used the system for years. More ballots were mailed this year because of fears about voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic, a pandemic that the president says, again falsely, is all but gone.

States sought to make accommodations to make voting by mail easier. Republicans have resisted and resisted those efforts. Now the president has taken a far more dangerous step, which is to attempt to intervene to shut down the process.

What comes next, if Biden wins? The president has repeatedly declined to pledge a peaceful transfer of power. He’s been asked several times and each time has demurred. Perhaps he will leave office if, ultimately, this effort to disrupt the count fails and Biden wins. But the damage he is doing cannot be overstated.

Trump has weakened democratic institutions. He has warred with his own Justice Department. He has flagrantly refused to cooperate with Congress on any investigation. He has attacked the free press. Now he seems to undermine the very foundation of a democratic society — free elections. Where will it end?

The system of government established by the founders has proved to be resilient despite all that, even if the strains are showing. But in doing what he did early Wednesday morning, Trump has guaranteed that the divisions that have deepened during his time in office will grow even worse.