“STOP THE COUNT!” the president shouted at Twitter this morning.
People are listening. Crowds are threatening places where votes are still being counted in swing states, and an eager group of supporters is backing him. But among the people who matter, no one is heeding the call. Not for the first time in his presidency, although perhaps never more decisively, Donald Trump has run up against something he cannot control.
As a matter of tactics, Trump is lucky to be ignored. If the vote counts were frozen where they are right now, former Vice President Joe Biden would win Arizona and Nevada, giving him enough electoral votes to win the presidency even without Pennsylvania and Georgia, where he is gaining on Trump.
As a matter of strategy, Trump is reaching a possible end of his presidency that echoes the preceding four years. He is a paper tiger who is at his most fearsome when he is ordering subordinates around, but has never managed to figure out how to work within the system of government.
The U.S. election system is a highly disjointed, federalized kludge, with rules varying from state to state and county to county. The federal government sets some parameters, but has very little direct involvement. This system has serious disadvantages, such as rules that disenfranchise voters in many places, and the uneven application of practices and rules means that a vote that’s valid in one state would be trashed in another. But it also means that the system as a whole is very hard to bully—especially for the president.
The inequities in the system have been made very clear in the pandemic, as some states took heroic measures to make sure their citizens could cast ballots, and others showed their contempt for democracy. Now, in the aftermath of the election, the federalized system means that Trump’s demands are generally being ignored. Elections officials in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania are continuing to count, simply doing their job.
The Trump campaign and its allies are filing lawsuits around the country, trying to interrupt and challenge the process. Without reviewing the details of every suit and state law, it’s impossible to draw conclusions about any individual case, and the court system is unpredictable. But generally, these suits don’t seem to have a rosy outlook. Republicans have not yet produced any clear examples of major problems in the voting and counting system. Although tight elections, such as the 2000 presidential election in Florida and the 2008 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota, can be decided by legal wrangling, it’s all but unheard-of for litigation to change the five-digit margins that exist in many swing states now.
If Trump is in a reflective mood (not a style that usually suits him), he might feel a sense of déjà vu at his impotence. The president has achieved a great deal in his term in office—remaking the court system, shredding regulations, and shaking international alliances—but he is at his most effective when he is able to make decisions by fiat within the executive branch. Trump is accustomed to that manner of power, having wielded it in his business career, in which he sat atop a privately held family business, his power nearly absolute. (He even realized he could often break the law with impunity, suffering only the occasional slap on the wrist.)
As many a businessman turned politician has learned, the government doesn’t work that way. Trump has perhaps exceeded their accomplishments with the realization of how little stands in the way of a president who has no shame or respect for norms, but the fundamental problem that the executive branch cannot act alone continues to trip him up in other pursuits.
In Congress, his track record has been paltry. The president managed to push through a major tax cut in 2017, though the political benefits were minimal, but otherwise his legislative plans went to die. Even with unified Republican control of the House and Senate in 2017 and 2018, he couldn’t get appropriations for his signature border wall.
Trump has also repeatedly been stymied by the courts, though he’s had a few more favorable decisions at the highest levels, especially as more and more of his appointed judges reach the bench.
Even foreign policy, an area where presidents typically enjoy wide latitude, has been a frustration for Trump. He has been able to withdraw—to pull troops from Syria, for example, or to distance the U.S. from treaties and historic alliances—but affirmative accomplishments have been harder. The problem is the same: Trump needs other people to agree, and his powers of persuasion are weak. China has strung the U.S. along on trade negotiations. North Korea has managed to stalemate nuclear negotiations. In the closing weeks of the campaign, as Trump sought one more win, Russia declined to help him out on an arms-control treaty.
Trump’s most formidable opponent, though, has been the coronavirus, which is even less susceptible to persuasion, pleading, or bullying than human interlocutors. Despite his best efforts to bluff the pandemic away, it has continued to spread. Roughly a quarter-million Americans have died, and case counts are on the rise: Yesterday, the country set a new record of more than 100,000 in a day. The shakiness of the polls makes it tough to tell exactly how deeply the pandemic affected Trump’s results in the election, but it can’t have been a positive.
The pandemic remains the greatest challenge facing the country, but it is temporarily in eclipse as the president battles the election system and the nation waits for results. All Trump can do for now is fulminate without tangible results. Unless there’s a big late swing in the vote counts, that’s a preview of what the nation can expect from him for the next few years, too.