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Trump’s Post-Election Power Grab Isn’t Just Selfish, It’s Dangerous to Democracy

To satiate his need for attention, Trump is willing to peddle a lie to his 70 million-plus voters.

The sun sets at the White House on November 11, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

It’s been a full week since all credible media outlets concluded that Joe Biden had the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. And, in the last two days, those same outlets have called Arizona and Georgia for Biden as well, meaning he will end up with 306 Electoral College votes.

That is virtually identical to the number that Donald Trump received in 2016, which he insisted gave him a huge electoral mandate. But still Donald Trump is nowhere nearer to accepting the results, and close advisers such as trade envoy Peter Navarro are still insisting they are preparing for a second Trump term.

Biden has been congratulated by a range of world leaders. International monitors have concluded there was no wholesale fraud in the election process. And elections officials from across the country contacted by The New York Times have consistently reiterated that there was absolutely no evidence of fraud in the 2020 elections.

Through it all, Trump has refused to concede, and, worse, has developed a fantasy narrative about massive levels of fraud, and a vast conspiracy to throw the election to Biden. It is, of course, an absurdity. Yet, shamefully, senior cabinet officials such as Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and most of the Senate Republicans — members of a party that has made voter suppression a key part of its electoral strategy in recent years, and that repeatedly refused to fund election protection efforts in recent months — have thrown their lot in with this historically unprecedented attack on U.S. democracy.

As a result, the U.S. is in uncharted waters, with a president-elect whom the current administration is refusing to acknowledge and refusing to cooperate with regarding preparations for a transfer of power.

The General Services Administration, which signs the paperwork necessary for a transition to begin, is balking at signing this paperwork. Trump appointees have been told that if they start looking for new jobs, thus signifying their sense that the game is up, they will be fired. And government agencies have been told to start working on a Trump-priorities budget for 2021-2022.

Astoundingly — yet all too predictably, given everything Trump has said over the past months and years about only accepting an election result that goes his way — experts are now wrestling with a very real question: Can Trump somehow orchestrate a coup through some combination of GOP intransigence, pressure on state legislators and governors not to certify election results and not to send Biden-voting electors to the Electoral College, a purging of the military’s civilian leadership so as to stack the Pentagon with “yes”-men, and armed paramilitarism to sustain him in power? And, if so, what would this look like?

Trump’s team is filing one frivolous lawsuit after another, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona in particular. This strategy seems less about actually winning court victories — as soon as judges throw out one case, they add another one into the mix — than about muddying the waters, gumming up the vote certification process, and putting out a tsunami of lies to a political base that is ready to believe that a nefarious, national conspiracy is working to deprive their leader of his God-given right to rule.

In Pennsylvania, in particular, GOP state legislators are falling in line, looking to establish all kinds of commissions of inquiry into the election, not in response to proven cases of fraud, but as a sort of catch-all fishing expedition. One assumes the ultimate intent of all of this is to reach a conclusion that the “true” will of the people cannot be known, and thus state officials should step up to the plate with their own electors

Meanwhile, Trump has “terminated” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who stood up to the president when the wannabe-strongman sought to send U.S. military forces against racial justice protesters in June. And he has also purged much of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership structure as well, and has forced the Energy Department official who has oversight responsibilities for the country’s nuclear arsenal to resign.

In Washington, D.C., rumors are rife that these purges will soon also extend to the CIA and the FBI. Now, this might all be nothing more than Trump using his last few weeks in office to settle personal scores, but a lesson I have learned in writing about Trump for four years is it’s always a safe bet to assume the worst. And the worst in this instance is… well, pretty bad.

And now die-hard Trump supporters, including assorted white nationalist groups and conspiracy-peddlers such as Alex Jones, are mobilizing for what they call the November 14 “Million MAGA March” on Washington, D.C.

While many of Trump’s recent efforts to draw out large nationalist street-fighting crowds have fizzled, as Trump grows more desperate, there’s certainly a real risk that he could embrace the sort of paramilitarism that he has been flirting with throughout his presidency. After all, Trump has, at various times, talked of having “the bikers” on his side; has given shout-outs to militias in Michigan, Virginia and elsewhere; and has played coy with the Proud Boys and other fascist outfits.

Now, cornered electorally, Trump is adding fuel to authoritarian fires by peddling a stab-in-the-back narrative to his most fervent supporters — many of whom have begun bringing weapons to political protests and who have, on occasion, used them). Trump’s narrative asserts that real Americans voted for him, but that an assorted set of phony Americans (people he sees as racially or politically or sexually suspect) got together, plotted with the media and with state officials, and ended up subverting the true popular will.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. But it’s nonsense that is rapidly acquiring a life of its own.

And there may lie the greatest danger to U.S. democracy. Trump’s lawsuits won’t overturn the election result. When push comes to shove, it’s hard to see how state political leaders in multiple states will select electors who don’t reflect the will of each state’s majority. Unlike Florida in 2000, when the result came down to a few hundred votes and a few hundred damaged ballots, it’s hard to see how the Supreme Court would get involved. Trump may try to declare some sort of national emergency and deploy U.S. troops against his opponents; but it’s not at all clear that the military brass would go along with such a clear attempt at a coup.

What’s more likely is that, in breaking so dramatically with the tradition of the losing candidate in U.S. elections graciously conceding to one’s opponent, Trump is poisoning the well of democracy, taking a gratuitous dump on his way out of the door. And the danger in doing so is that he doesn’t just stink up the place temporarily — he permanently damages the social and political fabric of the country.

That’s not just graceless, it is far more sinister. To satiate his need for adulation and attention, Trump is willing to peddle a lie to his 70 million-plus voters, telling them they have been cheated and that democracy has failed them

Germans went down a similar road of conspiracy peddling and stab-in-the-back musings in the 1920s and early 1930s, in the wake of the country’s defeat in the First World War. It’s a road that points toward fascism. It’s a road that creates a permanent divide, fissuring a country’s politics and making cooperation across party lines increasingly inconceivable.

I can’t think of another U.S. politician since Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis who has done such damage to the fabric of U.S. democracy. Trump might wrap himself in the flag, huffing and puffing about what a patriot he is. But it’s all guff. When push comes to shove, he’s always been in this only for himself. And now, in the twilight of his presidency, he’s showing the world that he’s willing to vandalize the entire democratic infrastructure of this country, simply as a coda to his four-year story of vanity and greed.

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