The electoral college will confirm Joe Biden’s victory on Monday but Donald Trump’s fact-phobic hold on the Republican party holds firm
Nearly four decades after the publication of A Very British Coup, a popular novel by member of parliament Chris Mullin, America is in the throes of a very Trumpian coup – desperate, mendacious, frenzied and sometimes farcical and, most importantly, doomed to failure.
But even as Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the presidential election result face a knockout blow when the electoral college meets on Monday, the president is winning in other ways that could cause profound collateral damage.
Trump has raised more than $170m since losing to Joe Biden by requesting donations for an “election defense fund”. He has reasserted his dominance of the Republican party, many of whose members have either advanced his lies about a rigged election or maintained a complicit silence.
And his war on democracy, amplified by rightwing media to millions of Americans, threatens to burn long after Joe Biden takes the oath of office on 20 January. There are already signs of a new grievance movement rising from the ashes of Trump’s defeat to shape the future of Republican politics. It is driven by disinformation, rage and the core premise that Biden is an illegitimate president.
“What was a fracture in our democratic process is now a break,” said Kurt Bardella, a senior adviser to the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project. “The Republican party has shown itself to be completely immune to facts, truth and common sense. There is not going to be a moment where it collectively decides, ‘Oh, my gosh, what have we been doing all this time?’
“There is not going to be a great epiphany. They are going to continue down this path of dismantling the country as we knew it because their ideology isn’t about an issue or a specific public policy. Their identity is only the pursuit of powerand the means to try to hold on to it and get more of it.”
Trump was brazenly transparent about his plot against America. He spent months falsely claiming that mail-in voting is riddled with fraud and that he could only lose the election if it was stolen from him. Many Democrats argued that the best way to avoid a constitutional crisis was to turn out in such massive numbers that they put the result beyond dispute.
They were right. In the end, it was not even close. Biden is set to finish with 306 electoral college votes, a total that Trump called a landslide when he won the same in 2016. The Democrat has a lead of more than 7m in the popular vote, a margin of almost 4.5% – bigger than all but one presidential election since 2000.
No significant fraud or counting error has been established. Trump’s attempts to bully Republican officials in Georgia and Michigan into blocking results came to nought. His failing legal team’s efforts have been eviscerated by judges across the country, including by some he appointed. “This ship has sailed,” summed up US district judge Linda Parker in throwing out a lawsuit challenging Biden’s win in Michigan this week.
Even William Barr, the attorney general and Trump loyalist many liberals feared would take a sledgehammer to the constitution at the decisive moment, told the Associated Press last week that the justice department had uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome.
It appears our democracy dodged a bulletSusan Rice
Biden’s victory was essentially guaranteed this week by the so-called safe harbour deadline for states to finish their certifications and resolve legal disputes. Votes will be cast by the electoral college on Monday, then sent to Congress for counting on 6 January. Despite historic pressures, from the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s attempts to undermine the voters’ will, the system worked.
In the words of Susan Rice, a former national security adviser who was this week announced as the woman who will lead Biden’s domestic policy council, it was a “near death experience” for democracy. “It appears that our democracy dodged a bullet – or, more precisely, multiple concerted efforts by the president of the United States to torpedo its very foundations,” she wrote in the New York Times.
Bardella, a former spokesman for Republicans on the House of Representatives’ oversight committee, added: “It was an attempted coup: there is no other word for it. Donald Trump believed that, because some of these people are Republicans or some of these judges were appointed by him, they would do what he wanted because of the transactional way in which he views the world.
“Fortunately for democracy, that was not the case. Unlike virtually everybody else in the Republican party in Washington particularly, they would not circumvent democracy for political gain.”
Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden when he was vice-president, agreed: “There are some lines people are not going to cross in this democracy and I think that’s what we just saw. It failed because, fundamentally, the principles and the values of this country and our democracy are still in place.”
But even as the nation moves inexorably towards a transfer of power, America is not out of the woods. Trump, who has an existential fear and loathing of being branded a “loser”, still refuses to swallow his defeat; if anything, his denials are becoming more fervent and extreme. On Wednesday he insisted that he won the election and tweeted a single word about the results: “#OVERTURN.”
It is a futile exercise politically but not financially. Money is pouring into his “stop the steal” campaign but most of it will go to a Trump-founded political action committee called Save America. Bardella said: “What we have seen in the weeks since the election is Donald Trump using an attempted coup to fill his coffers with cash that will sustain his livelihood once he leaves the presidency.”
Many of the Republicans who enabled Trump in the White House are now enabling his anti-democratic impulses. Last week a Washington Post survey of all 249 Republicans in the House and Senate found just 27 willing to acknowledge Biden’s victory. Some, including the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, still refuse to publicly describe Biden as “president-elect”.
Meanwhile 17 states and more than a hundred House Republicans backed a longshot lawsuit by Texas which sought to throw out the voting results in four states that Trump lost. That lawsuit was rejected by the supreme court on Friday.
There are also fears that the torrent of falsehoods calculated to rile up his most fervent followers could become dangerous.
Some election officials have received death threats. Armed Trump supporters gathered outside the home of Michigan’s secretary of state. The Arizona Republican party even appeared to ask supporters to consider dying to keep Trump in office: its official Twitter account retweeted conservative activist Ali Alexander’s pledge that he was “willing to give my life for this fight”, adding: “He is. Are you?”
Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, warned on Twitter: “The closer we get to Jan 20, the more likely it is that the heavily armed core of Trump’s base will see itself as imminently threatened with extinction and will lash out with violence. That’s the biggest imminent threat we all face as Americans.”
Although a small number of prominent Republicans have said it is time to move on, Trump continues to exercise an iron grip over the party. He has already floated the idea of running for president in 2024 – he would be only the second person to win back the White House after leaving it – with a possible campaign launch on Biden’s inauguration day in an attempt to steal his successor’s thunder.
Jamie Raskin, a Democratic congressman from Maryland, said: “He wants to come back again in four years, which means that at this point it’s the most serious problem for the Republican party. They thought it was fine to humour Trump and enable him over the last four years because they thought it would benefit them politically and now they have hell to pay because he is doing to the Republican party what he did to the country. It may be too late for them to rescue their party. I assume it is.”
One of keys to understanding Trump’s enduring influence is conservative media, which every day for the past month have been dominated by narratives of election rigging and fraud. Fox News prime time opinion hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have doggedly sown distrust in the system.
The Republican party today is like a massive religious cult surrounding an organised crime family headed by a deranged narcissistJamie Raskin
But Fox News is facing new competition on its right flank from even more ardently pro-Trump upstarts such as Newsmax and the One America News Network. Talk radio and social media also contribute to these alternative reality bubbles where Biden’s victory is still in doubt. Now only one in four Republicans say they trust the results of the election, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.
Raskin, a former constitutional law professor, added: “That is the essential problem. A completely separate media system with its own propaganda reality has grown up around Donald Trump. The Republican party today is like a massive religious cult surrounding an organised crime family headed by a deranged narcissist. It’s very hard for the Republicans to disenthrall themselves from that warped epistemological system. It’s just a separate reality.”
Conservative media outlets deny such a characterisation and insist they are merely breaking from the liberal orthodoxy of leading networks. Chris Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax, said: “We’re not saying that the election was stolen. We’re not saying that there was massive fraud.
“We are saying there’s a legal contest in at least six states by the president in states where the results were 1% or closer and that we should wait before we declare Biden the president-elect. Formally that doesn’t happen until the electoral college. We’ve openly said that we’re waiting for that and we will abide by the electoral college and respect the new president.”
Ruddy, a friend of Trump, rejects accusations that Newsmax would further entrench and enflame polarisation during a Biden presidency. “I didn’t create the divide and when you look at what MSNBC and CNN did to this president, it’s horrific. They spent years poaching on a phony conspiracy theory involving Russian collusion and then now they’re claiming that we should heal and unite? I mean, hello, give me a break!
“We’re going to be loyal opposition, much like you have in Britain. We have a point of view. We’re going to be asking tough questions. We’re not calling for Joe Biden’s impeachment. We’re not going to call him illegitimate. All the things that the left did with Trump – we have no plans of doing that.”
Biden will need all of the skills of civility and conciliation that he learned in nearly five decades in politicsBill Galston
Biden, a political moderate, has pledged to heal the divisions, cooperate with Republicans and be a president of all Americans. With Trump still injecting poison into the system, it will be no easy task.
Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington and former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said: “Much rides on Joe Biden’s shoulders. He will need all of the skills of civility and conciliation that he learned in nearly five decades in national politics to try to take the edge off the divisions.
“Healing, I think, will be a stretch, especially in the short term. But it is reasonable to believe that if he defines the tone and substance of his administration in a manner that’s most conducive to narrowing the gaps and also persuading people who feel excluded from the Democratic party coalition for one reason or another, that it’s not a hostile plot to undermine their way of life, then could be in a better place in two years than we are now. But I can tell the story either way.”