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On the streets of the capital, Trump supporters are planning to protest the imminent ascension of President-elect Joe Biden. In a joint session of Congress, a coterie of Republican lawmakers loyal to Trump will challenge the certification of electoral college votes. What should be a procedural formality has — thanks to Trump’s baseless insistence of fraud and his supporters’ embrace of conspiracy theories surrounding his defeat — turned into divisive political theater. And although Trump is unlikely to succeed, his gambit provides yet another stress test for American democracy.
Trump, who lost the popular vote twice and was impeached by the House in late 2019, has seen dozens of legal challenges from his campaign thrown out by the courts. Every U.S. state, including those governed by Republicans, has certified the votes of its electors. Yet Trump has clung to fantasy, repeating lies about illegal vote dumps in swing states, scores of dead people casting ballots and other evidence-free claims of malfeasance.
A major scoop from my colleague Amy Gardner over the weekend revealed the depths of his desperation: In a recording of a phone call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state and the Republican official presiding over its elections, Trump urged the official to “find” the necessary number of votes in the state to overturn his loss to Biden.
The next day, Raffensperger’s colleague Gabriel Sterling gave a news conference debunking Trump’s claims of fraud, one by one. “The reason I’m having to stand here today is because there are people in positions of authority and respect who have said their votes didn’t count, and it’s not true,” Sterling said. Unrepentant, Trump went on to reiterate these false claims at a rally in Georgia on Monday evening.
Visibly and audibly exasperated, Georgia top elections official Gabriel Sterling is not holding back, going through and refuting Trump’s false claims point by point.— Vera Bergengruen (@VeraMBergen) January 4, 2021
“This is all easily, probably false, yet the President persists” pic.twitter.com/q5oXvCK9qJ
To scholars of strongman politics, there’s nothing surprising about Trump’s behavior. “Trump has followed an authoritarian, rather than a democratic, playbook as president,” wrote Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University. “It is fitting that he would end up like some of history’s best-known autocrats: hunkered down in his safe space, surrounded by his latest crop of unhinged loyalists, trying pathetically to escape the reality of his defeat.”
Analysts are more concerned about the Republican officials marching in lockstep behind him and the vast number of Americans who are convinced Trump was cheated of victory. Washington Post columnist George Will, a conservative luminary, excoriated the cynicism of prominent Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who by objecting to the certification of the results will further fuel the belief among Trump die-hards that the democratic process was rigged against them.
“For scores of millions of mesmerized Trump Republicans, who think the absence of evidence is the most sinister evidence, this proves that the courts, too, are tentacles of the ‘deep state,’” wrote Will. “Hawley and Cruz, both of whom clerked for chief justices of the Supreme Court, hope to be wafted into the White House by gusts of such paranoia.”
Abroad, experts look on with apprehension. “A lot of people will just roll their eyes and wait for the clock to run down,” Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and Americas program at London-based Chatham House, told the New York Times. “But by far the most troubling thing is the number of Republicans who are willing to go along with [Trump], and what it’s doing to the Republican Party, playing out in real time.”
Just a few months ago, the idea that Trump would try to pull off a “coup” to maintain power was seen as far-fetched. This week, in an op-ed published by The Washington Post, all 10 living former U.S. defense secretaries — including two who served under Trump — urged that a normal transition be allowed to take place. “The time for questioning the results has passed,” they wrote. “The time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived.”
“Should we be reassured on U.S. democracy when ten former defense secretaries warn against use of the military to dispute elections results,” tweeted Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former French and U.N. diplomat, “or terrified that they believe taking a public stance has become necessary?”
"Strongmen will do *anything* to stay in office," I write in my "Endings" chapter. Some start wars - Trump's attempting a coup. There's even a term for such desperate last-ditch measures: "gambling for resurrection." https://t.co/2xqk6jiqOi pic.twitter.com/PdI6H8dYFV— Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat) December 22, 2020
Even after the events of this week, and Biden’s inauguration later this month, it’s certain that a significant chunk of the American public will view the new president as illegitimate and the votes cast by millions of their compatriots as invalid.
This reflects the deep polarization in American society — plenty of Democrats found Trump’s victory difficult to stomach in 2016 — but also the growing pains of a political system that is both venerable yet young. The electoral college is a centuries-old relic designed at a time when the vast majority of people in the country were denied the franchise. But the thinly coded racial messaging from Trump and his allies about “illegal” votes in inner cities is language that has stalked American politics since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which broke down legal barriers for Black voters in various states.
“We’re accustomed to thinking of America as an old democracy,” wrote liberal commentator Peter Beinart. “But, as a multi-racial democracy, it’s young — even younger than some post-colonial nations in the developing world.” He added that “the only way to secure democracy’s victory is by acknowledging how fragile American democracy has always been.”