The damage Trump would do
On Thursday afternoon, when lawyers for the president of the United States were alleging (wholly without evidence) that Democrats stole the presidential election for Joe Biden with a combination of fraudulent mail-in ballots and voting machines rigged by Venezuela's deceased left-wing populist autocrat Hugo Chavez, a new YouGov poll of 1,500 registered voters revealed that 88 percent of Republicans think Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election.
There is no sign whatsoever that Trump will ever concede the election or cease trying to discredit it. How likely is it that this will “work,” in the sense that he will succeed in preventing Biden from taking the oath of office just past noon on Jan. 20, 2021? Almost none, as several informative articles have explained in detail.
Yet for me the past couple of days have begun to feel a little bit like those weeks in the winter of 2016 when a range of pundits insisted, in the face of an avalanche of polls showing Trump solidly leading the pack of candidates in the GOP primary field, that he couldn't possibly win the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Back then, my stock response to these denialists was to ask naively, “Why not?” The answers, pointing to mysterious inner workings of party institutions, never succeeded in persuading me that it couldn't happen. As long as Trump had the voters behind him, he would win — because in reality there was no institutional or legal mechanism to prevent it from happening.
Thankfully, there is such an institutional and legal mechanism standing in Trump's way this time. So he won't be able to ride a wave of outrage among his supporters to a second term.
But that doesn't mean that Trump isn't doing enormous, potentially long-lasting damage to American democracy. He is, and precisely through the same means by which he seized his party's nomination nearly five years ago. Then as now he won over the voters through a potent mix of demagoguery, flagrant lies, and anti-establishment fury. Then as now he used his popular support to force the capitulation of most of his party's elected officials and bureaucratic functionaries, leaving only a handful of dissenting politicians and conservative opinion journalists to stand (impotently) against him. (Most would eventually come around to accepting him as the party's nominee and then president.)
The main difference today is that to stay in power, Trump needs to win the capitulation not just of his own party but of the American electoral system as a whole. That's why, although he will almost certainly fail at reversing the results of the 2020 election, he could well succeed at sending American democracy into a tailspin from which it could not easily recover.
There are two possible paths forward from the present perilous moment, both of which have potentially terrible consequences for the future of the country.
The first is the one that experts continue to assure us will almost certainly not happen. That's a scenario in which Trump succeeds in persuading Republican-controlled state legislatures in several states that have been called for Biden to defy (or change) election laws limiting their power to overrule the popular vote totals and appoint pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College. The reason why this is so unlikely is that a number of these states have Democratic governors who would veto any such moves, while the efforts would also invariably end up in the courts, where the Trump campaign's efforts thus far to cast doubt on the election results have failed miserably. Multiply all the highly unlikely eventualities together and we're left with an infinitesimal likelihood of success.
But let's assume for the sake of argument that it does work. State legislatures appoint pro-Trump electors, the effort survives vetoes and court challenges, the Electoral College votes for Trump instead of Biden, and Congress accepts this outcome, putting Trump on a path to a second term despite losing a democratic election by a decisive margin. How is the portion of the country that voted for Biden likely to react? The answer is so obvious that I won't belabor it: We would be on the verge of a revolution and/or civil war from the left.
Now, let's back away from the precipice and imagine the vastly more likely scenario that Trump keeps losing in his hapless coup attempt, with state legislatures, courts, the Electoral College, and Congress all doing their duty and affirming that Biden's victory on Election Day makes him the president-elect. Eventually the General Services Administration will free up funds and begin working with Biden's people to make the transition happen, with the federal government moving toward the inauguration of the 46th president on Jan. 20.
But recall: Nearly nine out of ten Republicans apparently think that Trump won the election. How likely is it that he will concede the loss and then use the next two months to talk these Republicans out of their conviction that Biden's victory was stolen from them? Not likely at all. In fact, it would be far more in keeping with his personality and longstanding patterns of behavior to go in the opposite direction — doing even more of what's kept him occupied for the past two weeks: amping up the lies, stoking the indignation, and spreading ever-more outlandish conspiracy theories designed to discredit the entire system of American government.
Trump succeeded in the winter and spring of 2016 by unleashing a barrage of rhetorical attacks on the institutional Republican Party, the media, and the culture of Washington more generally. What's to stop him from turning his ire now against every single person and institution that fails to take his side and the side of his supporters in their battle to demonstrate that they are the rightful winners of the 2020 election? The list would be long: the media; the entire Democratic Party; Republican officeholders and officials at all levels of government who capitulate to the inevitability of the Biden presidency; the courts; the military; Fox News and dissenting conservative opinion journals.
By the time of the inauguration, the Republican Party could well be so hollowed out that it consists of nothing more than an armed mob and its insurrectionary leader. Which means that just going through with the Biden inauguration could leave us on the verge of a revolution and/or civil war from the right.
Now, maybe it won't happen this way. Maybe Trump will become demoralized and slink away before the third week of January, leaving Republican voters to de-escalate and reconcile themselves to the outcome of the election. Maybe the 88 percent who tell pollsters they think Trump was the rightful winner mean it in a way that's less incendiary than it sounds. Maybe if Trump and his minions stop actively encouraging such doubts and distrust these voters will calm down and stop thinking in terms of stolen elections and all that that implies about the unreliability of our political institutions.
But note that it could all come down to the demonic Donald Trump, who may well hold the fate of American democracy itself in his hands.
Does he really have the power to blow up American democracy with his words and his deeds? And would he do it if he could? I wouldn't exactly call it likely. But then, neither was the prospect of a reality-show star taking over a political party and winning the presidency in the first place.