Hopefully, by the time you read this, Donald Trump’s presidency will be in its end stage. But there will have been no graceful concession, no admission of defeat from a man so pathologically insecure that he would rather take down the country than be a loser. Instead, his failed coup d’état will have led, undoubtedly, to a scorched-earth lame-duck session.
Never much interested in governing anyway, Trump will run down the clock between golf games giving pardons to his allies, stoking red-meat conspiracy theories for his base, and issuing unconstitutional executive orders from the desk of Stephen Miller. Come Inauguration Day, it will finally all be over but the tweets—and the speeches, rallies, and deranged exhortations to his supporters. And that’s the problem.
Trumpism will survive and probably thrive long after this president leaves—or is dragged out of—the White House, because Trump will ensure it does. As of this writing, two weeks after losing to former vice president Joe Biden by more than 5 million votes, Trump is still tweeting that mail-in voting is “a sick joke” and falsely insisting, “I WON THE ELECTION!” From the sidelines, he is cheering on street violence by MAGA thugs and branding political opponents as un-American. Despite being dropped by two law firms, a mounting pile of lost lawsuits, and the inadvisable appointment of a head attorney recently duped by the fictional character Borat, Trump is pushing forward in his effort to weaponize the courts against democracy.
He couldn’t pull off this con game without help from his Republican boosters. Bill Barr poked his partisan nose where no outgoing attorney general had during an election, with a memo urging federal lawyers to look into Trump’s groundless accusations of “vote tabulation irregularities.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo smugly asserted that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell backed Trump’s bad-faith legal strategy by dismissing the idea that the “president should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results.” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, publicly noted that Senator Lindsey Graham has pressured him to trash legal absentee ballots—a violation of both federal and state laws. As Senate Judiciary chairman, Graham announced just a week prior that he plans to investigate “all credible allegations of voting irregularities and misconduct.”
This is all insincere political theater to keep a cantankerous old man happy, an earnest antidemocratic heist to overturn the majority’s will against a Trump reelection, or a short-term effort to ensure Trump’s base turns out for Georgia runoffs that will decide control of the Senate, depending on which source you believe. In any case, the level of cynicism behind this ongoing performance art is off the charts. Trump aides have reportedly said the president knows it’s over, according to The New York Times, but is weighing “how far he can push his case against his defeat” in order to “keep his millions of supporters energized and engaged” for whatever vanity project he takes on next. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” one Republican official told The Washington Post. Democratic Senator Chris Coons informed CNN that Trump-fearing Republicans, all of whom are well aware the president has no path to electoral victory, have asked that he “please convey my well wishes to the president-elect, but I can’t say that publicly yet.”
Even if, by the time you read this, Trump has been forced to abort his coup and redirect his nihilistic pettiness into other norm-destroying tactics—the best we can hope for from this president—his electoral stonewalling and the Republicans’ enabling will have already had a dangerous impact on democracy. His repeated insistence that the election was rigged, a claim he also made in 2016 but suddenly abandoned upon winning, is meant to convince his base their votes mean nothing, which must mean the system is rigged against them, too. And Trump’s campaign is working. After this year’s presidential contest, 70 percent of Republican voters surveyed said it was not free and fair, up from 35 percent before the election, and 82 percent said Biden did not legitimately win.
Democracy maintains domestic peace by “the mere fact that the political forces expect to take turns,” political scientist Adam Przeworski has noted. When people believe their votes literally don’t count, they become more likely to resort to violence. Trump’s supporters, already steeped in white grievance, are predictably receptive to the idea that “illegal voters” have even succeeded in stealing their democracy. Apparently not satisfied with all their ill-gotten political gains from real voter suppression—in the form of voter ID laws, gerrymandered districts, closures of polling sites, and purges of voter rolls—Republicans are now signaling that a Democratic win is itself evidence of fraud. Trump and the GOP used birtherism to delegitimize the first Black president in US history. Now Republicans are casting Black and brown citizens as illegitimate voters to invalidate the Biden presidency.
The potential for violence here isn’t just theoretical. As ballots were being tabulated in Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, armed Trump supporters swarmed vote-counting centers, and gun-toting election denialists have gathered at Georgia’s Capitol as the recount proceeds. After thousands of Trumpists, including plenty of white supremacists, marched in Washington, D.C., to protest nonexistent vote theft, members of the Proud Boys allegedly rioted against counterprotesters, and “other Trump supporters ripped multiple Black Lives Matters signs off a building before trampling on them,” according to the Times. An Alabama police captain announced via social media that Biden voters deserve “a bullet in their skull for treason,” and an Arkansas police chief urged his followers to “throw water on [Biden voters] at restaurants. Push them off sidewalks. Never let them forget they are traitors and have no right to live in this Republic after what they have done.” (Both officers resigned after outcries.) Claiming the election had been “fraudulently stolen from us,” a Trump supporter in the New York City borough of Staten Island advocated online for the “extermination of anyone that claims to be a democrat.”
This is the fire Republicans have fanned for years, and it will continue to ravage the political and cultural landscape as it burns. Once out of office, Trump will use every bullhorn at his disposal to spread misinformation and foment violence. His tweets will push debunked election fraud lies, and he’ll portray himself as a martyr slain by a corrupt and unfair electoral system. His rallies will continue—he’s already begun dangling a 2024 run—to keep his fragile ego from shattering and to scare off other GOP contenders. If he launches a conservative digital outlet, as rumored, it will ensure that viewers believe he is the one and only source of political truth. You get the picture: Trump will keep denigrating democracy to elevate himself. Yet again, this president’s selfish gains will be America’s loss.