Please Help ZNet
Not for the first time, Donald Trump’s unhinged behaviour prompts an uncomfortable question: should we be laughing in derision or trembling with fear? Is he playing out his last days as nothing more than a sore loser pathetically kidding himself that he might yet score the winning run, even after the crowd’s gone home and the stadium is empty – or is his insistence that last week’s election was stolen an attempt to cling on to power, to stage a coup against his democratically elected successor?
The case for laughter is strong, as Trump’s allegations crumble to dust. On Thursday, a wing of the department of homeland security – part of the government that Trump still heads – declared that last week’s election “was the most secure in American history”, and that there was “no evidence” of any malpractice, still less of the mass-scale fraud that Trump has groundlessly alleged.
The result is that Trump’s lawyers have been all but laughed out of court, forced by impatient judges to admit that they don’t have any evidence, let alone proof. His courtiers continue to pretend that the emperor is fully clothed, of course, but even they are winking at the crowd. Surely Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was joking when he promised with a smile: “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
The inner circle are happy to let Trump, who has appeared only once in public since election day, remain hunkered down in his White House bunker, “feverishly tweeting, watching television and telephoning allies”, as the Los Angeles Times reports. They carry on telling him what he wants to hear, but they know his cause is doomed. Tellingly, even Trump’s own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, made his excuses for Saturday’s supposed council of war, sending “aides” in his place.
All that should prompt derision rather than fear. We can take the lead set by the president-elect himself, relax and let the process play out until Joe Biden is sworn in on 20 January. That’s certainly appealing, and most of the time I manage it. But every now and then, fear intrudes.
Why, for example, has Trump fired the civilian leadership of the defence department, including the defence secretary, Mark Esper, filling their posts and others in intelligence with ultra-loyalists? Esper stood up to Trump over the summer, when the president wanted to deploy the military to crush peaceful protests. Does Trump have something similar in mind, a move that would require a yes man to nod it through? Is it possible that Pompeo was not, after all, joking?
For now, I can accept that a full, tanks-in-the-streets coup is not on the cards. One Capitol Hill Republican tells me he suspects Trump sacked Esper mainly to “make him feel better”, and “to get even with the people who thwarted him”, rather than because he wants a Pentagon boss who will agree to send in the troops. Equally possible, says my source, is that Trump plans to go out with a bang, and wants pliant people in post. What kind of bang? Some talk of a total withdrawal from Afghanistan. Conversely, there’s chatter about a possible attack on Iran.
That would be huge – and Trump likes huge – but it’s not a coup. On this reading, Trump is rejecting the election result less in order to keep power than to instil in his base the sense of grievance that will bind them to him for his next act – whether that be a new media company, Trump TV, to challenge Fox News or another run for the White House in 2024.
But if that’s true, it’s hardly grounds for relief. That Trump’s attempt to defy a democratic election is comically inept or cynically motivated doesn’t alter the fact that he’s making it. No less alarming, all but a handful of Republicans have backed him. Fearing both his wrath and the hold he continues to exercise over the Republican electorate – highly relevant, given that two Senate seats are up for grabs in Georgia in January – the party’s most senior figures have acquiesced in Trump’s evidence-free claim that the Democrats rigged the election.
That matters. Most directly, it will impair the incoming president as he tries to get to grips with a pandemic that on Thursday saw a record number of new cases in the US – 159,000 in a single day – about which Trump is doing and saying precisely nothing. How can Biden lead if half the country has been primed to believe he is not the rightful president? The Republican rebuttal – that Democrats hardly welcomed Trump in 2016 – trips on one simple fact: Hillary Clinton conceded defeat right away. That is the only way a democratic system can work, with the consent of the loser.
The fear is that Trump and his followers will never give way, that he will remain the head of a “Trumpian government in exile”, as the historian Sean Wilentz puts it, antagonistic to the legitimate, elected government, armed with allies in Congress, sustained via social media and nourished by grievance and the romance of a lost cause: a new, virtual Confederacy.
The word is not wholly hyperbolic because, inevitably in America, so much of this turns on race. When Trump’s cheerleaders locate the supposed voter fraud in Philadelphia or Detroit, their listeners get the message: it’s that black cities are corrupt and, at root, that black people shouldn’t be allowed to decide who gets to be president of the United States. As Barack Obama writes in his upcoming memoir, these are “dark spirits” that have “long been lurking on the edge of the Republican party – xenophobia … paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward black and brown folks”.
So no, this won’t be a coup like we’ve seen in the movies. But nor can we just laugh it off. Trump is often ridiculous, but he’s no joke.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist