Even a Clownish Coup Can Still Hurt Democracy

Even a Clownish Coup Can Still Hurt Democracy

Even a Clownish Coup Can Still Hurt Democracy

As the president’s campaign maintains its futile effort to steal the election, we all bear the cost.


Rudy Giuliani has had a hard year. He was recently pranked by the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, best known for his character Borat. Cohen tricked the former New York mayor into giving an interview to a young woman he was told was 15, an ill-fated hotel encounter that ended with Giuliani on a bed either tucking in his shirt (as he claims) or, as some viewers suspect, engaging in on-camera onanism.

Remarkably, becoming Borat’s patsy was not Giuliani’s most embarrassing moment in 2020. On Tuesday, he made an even bigger fool of himself by representing Donald Trump in his bid to overturn the results of the election. US District Court Judge Matthew Brann treated Giuliani’s arguments with scorn. “At bottom, you are asking this court to invalidate 6.8 million votes, thereby disenfranchising every single voter in the Commonwealth” [of Pennsylvania], Brann said. “Can you tell me how this result can possibly be justified?”

At one point, Giuliani said, “I’m not sure what ‘opacity’ means. It probably means you can see.” Brann helpfully explained, “It means you can’t.” This exchange was typical of Giuliani’s hapless performance. Time and again, Trump’s legal team have made arguments that are all but laughed out of court.

Four things remain true in the two weeks since the election. (1) Trump and his campaign persist in trying to engineer a coup. (2) This coup has excited support from grassroots Republican activists all over America. (3) This coup is very badly run and will almost certainly fail. (4) Even as it fails, the coup will do lasting damage to American democracy and could set a precedent for future aspiring autocrats.

The coup efforts are national in scope. In Washington, Trump fired Chris Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, for stating that the election had been the most secure in American history. Trump said the statement was wrong and that the election was marked by “massive improprieties and fraud.”

In Michigan on Tuesday, two Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers (Monica Palmer and William Hartmann) voted against certifying that county’s vote, alleging irregularities in the Detroit count. Palmer said she’d be amenable to certifying the vote in “communities other than Detroit.” After an outcry against this move, with its clear racist consequences of disenfranchising a predominately African American city, Palmer and Hartmann backed down. Meanwhile, as journalist Ben Jacobs reports, “Trump’s Nevada electors, including the chair of the Nevada Republican Party, are suing to either have Trump declared the winner of Nevada or to have the presidential election in the state annulled entirely.”

On Monday, Senator Lindsey Graham was reported to have been pressuring a government official to alter the outcome of the Georgia election. As The Washington Post detailed, “Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday that he has come under increasing pressure in recent days from fellow Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who he said questioned the validity of legally cast absentee ballots, in an effort to reverse President Trump’s narrow loss in the state.”

All of these efforts are poorly conceived and either have been thwarted or soon will be. Still, taken together, they amount to an extraordinary and concerted effort to overturn a democratic election. According to Washington Post reporter Robert Costas, “One thing I keep hearing from Rudy people tonight: they know they can’t catch up. What they want—in MI, PA, NV, other states—is for the vote to *not* be certified. Their end game: try to force it to the House. Giuliani talking about this privately.”

The Trump campaign is trying to hack the election results by using the partisan loyalty of local Republicans, who are an essential part of the machinery of elections. These local officials are being urged to muddy the water of clear vote counts. As Politico writer Tim Alberta notes, “This system of certifying has always been ripe for exploitation by partisan hacks. Now the stars have aligned—a demagogue president, a party bereft of integrity, and an activist base that believes 244 years of democratic norms are expendable if it means 4 more years of power.” Republican donor Dan Eberhart came to the same conclusion, telling CNN, “Trump has figured out how to weaponize the machinery of government post-election. This is something that happens in a banana republic, not George Washington’s republic.”

The very clownishness of the coup, led by buffoons like Giuliani, also explains why the political system isn’t treating it as a crisis. Most congressional Republicans are still humoring Trump’s fantasy that he can win. They’ve refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory out of fear of offending Trump and his highly energized fans. It’s likely they think that at some point Trump will abandon his oafish coup and acknowledge reality. For its part, the Biden team has tried to sidestep Trump’s behavior. It hasn’t raised an alarm nor pushed, as it could, for a legal challenge to the Trump’s administration’s refusal to cooperate with a transition. Instead, Biden seems to be relying on public shaming, by making arguments that the delayed transition will hurt the battle against Covid.

Biden’s strategy amounts to fighting Trump on the legal terrain, where the Democrats have been winning, while ignoring the larger import of the coup attempt. The goal seems to be to hasten Trump’s slide into irrelevance. On those terms, ignoring the ongoing attempt to destroy democracy makes sense.

The Democratic strategy presumes that Trump is an anomaly and once he is off the stage the Republicans will return to normal. The danger is that Trump, far from being an outlier, is the future of the Republican Party. By arguing that the election was stolen, Trump is binding Republican voters closer to him, insuring that he’ll be a kingmaker in the party and possibly the nominee in 2024. Refusing to acknowledge Biden’s victory also helps Trump keep Republican lawmakers in line. As long as the election is uncertain, elected Republicans can’t shift to a post-Trump world where he is no longer deferred to as the Republican leader.

So far, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have figured out how to neutralize Trump’s use of the coup to shore up his own power. As a simple coup attempt, Trump’s gambit is almost sure to fail. One reason the coup will fail is that the election results aren’t really close in the swing states, where Biden’s lead is robust. But if there are closer elections in the future, Trump’s moves will be the model for a successful coup.

However, the coup has already succeeded as a way of making sure Trump retains power by being respected and feared. Trump’s coup is likely to hurt American democracy for years to come.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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