The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The dangers of Trump’s last stand

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The legitimacy crisis many feared is starting to become real. President-elect Joe Biden claimed victory after it became mathematically clear over the weekend. Myriad world leaders tweeted their congratulations, and Biden spoke with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others, in phone calls Tuesday. My colleagues are busy reporting on what the Biden presidency may look like, both at home and abroad. The frenetic scramble for jobs in the next administration is already underway.

But President Trump still rejects the outcome, invoking baseless allegations of fraud while pressing ahead with legal challenges that most experts say will go nowhere. His administration has refused to initiate the formal process of transition, leaving open the possibility of procedural havoc in the weeks ahead. Attorney General William P. Barr took the unusual step of authorizing federal prosecutors to investigate election irregularities before vote counting had been completed. It was an overtly political move that led to the head of the Justice Department’s elections crime branch resigning in protest.

On social media sites, right-wing misinformation about illegal ballots and a stolen election abounds. But in the halls of power, too, Republican grandees appear to be in lockstep with Trump. “President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “And notably, the Constitution gives no role in this process to wealthy media corporations.”

Despite being short staffed, overworked and receiving criticism from the president, poll officials were transparent throughout the process. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Spencer Platt/The Washington Post)

Republican members of Congress who claimed victory after the media projected their wins now claim to disregard the verdict these same outlets made on the fate of the presidential contest.

“There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” said a smirking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a briefing Tuesday.

In private, some Republicans say they’re just going through the motions to appease Trump. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” said one senior Republican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to my colleagues. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

None of Trump’s current actions, of course, betray any intention to leave. And developments in the past two days gave some Trump opponents the impression that a kind of slow-motion power grab is in the works.

Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who balked at the president’s demands to deploy active-duty troops against protesters earlier this year. Trump may place Anthony Tata, a retired Army general with a track record of extremist rhetoric, including anti-Muslim bigotry, in a senior Pentagon policy role as part of a broader purge of top civilian staff in the agency. Undeterred by the election result, the White House has also instructed relevant agencies to continue the work of preparing this administration’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year and is reportedly vetting political appointees for a second term.

For months, analysts predicted a scenario where Trump would refuse to accept an electoral defeat. Now that they have been proved right, questions remain about how far Trump can go. Some commentators say the American system has largely contained his worst impulses.

“Trump, like [President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, does not like democracy,” Federico Finchelstein, a historian of fascism and populism at the New School in New York City, told Today’s WorldView. “He admires dictators and autocrats but, so far, though he has downgraded American democracy in so many ways, institutions, media and citizens have presented barriers to his desire to open a fascist danger in the United States.”

Through executive acts, Trump got his way on a number of key issues, including staffing the Supreme Court with conservative justices and pursuing a hard-line restrictionist immigration policy. But on other fronts, he looked impotent. “What was most remarkable was how flimsy Trump’s presidency was, how easily he was obstructed and stalled,” wrote Yale law professor Samuel Moyn, in an essay that pointed, instead, to Trump’s capacity to “imaginatively” dominate the country, if not institutionally.

“Many of Trump’s authoritarian feints were the desperate measures of a man expecting to be the most powerful in the world but reduced to one who could rarely rely for help in achieving his erratic designs — including from his own servants,” Moyn added.

Experts still point to the corrosive effects of Trump’s political style. “While Trump was not in power long enough to dismantle American democracy, he did succeed in installing a form of the ‘personalist rule’ that characterizes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and other autocrats he so admires,” wrote Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University. “Personalist governance concentrates power in one individual, whose own political and financial interests (and relationships with other despots) often prevail over national ones in shaping domestic and foreign policy.”

Trump’s cult of personality still holds tremendous sway among the Republican base and will shadow Biden’s forthcoming term. Even out of power, Trump and his supporters may choose to stoke a rumbling legitimacy crisis that could disrupt constructive governance in Washington.

“Though the partisan jibes that eroded a sense of loyal opposition preceded Trump by decades, his presidency has forced a radical question for all: will I accept the outcome if my opponent wins?” wrote Nadia Hilliard, a lecturer at University College London.

Sheila Coronel, a celebrated Filipina journalist, invoked her own country’s experience with democratic backsliding, from the defeat of dictator Ferdinand Marcos to the autocratic stylings of current President Rodrigo Duterte.

“Trumpism has far different roots from its counterparts in the Philippines,” she wrote. “But President Trump, Marcos and Duterte have much in common: the promise of greatness, the assault on facts, the stoking of fear, the erasure of memory. They even have the same aesthetic: loud, bombastic, hypermasculine. They like to wave from balconies, finding affirmation in the adulation of crowds. They thrive in times of insecurity and uncertainty. And they feed off the shortcomings of democracy.”

Read more:

Trump’s defeat is a blow for the world’s demagogues and dictators

Biden beat Trump. But can he bring about a restoration?

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