The good news is that President Donald Trump’s attempts to defy the results of the election and remain in office keep falling flat. In court after court, judges have ruled against the Trump campaign and tossed out its lawsuits. Today, Georgia certified Democrat Joe Biden as the winner of the state’s presidential electors, after a federal judge yesterday rejected a prominent conservative lawyer’s suit seeking to block certification.
The bad news is that as Trump’s chances grow dimmer and deadlines near, his attempts to steal the election and subvert democracy have become more dangerous. This is the paradox that defines this moment: As Trump’s odds of success decrease, the risks that his ever more extreme efforts pose are increasing.
In the first hours and days after the polls closed, the president argued that if all the legal votes were counted, he would win. Now he has moved to trying to have votes thrown out—asking state legislators or courts to just ignore the balloting altogether, flout the will of voters, and simply make him president. Incredibly, he and his aides have not even bothered to offer some other pretense. They are now openly explaining, in media accounts (albeit anonymously) and in court filings, that the point is to disregard voters’ wishes.
“President Donald Trump’s strategy for retaining power despite losing the U.S. election is focused increasingly on persuading Republican legislators to intervene on his behalf in battleground states Democrat Joe Biden won, three people familiar with the effort said,” Reuters reported Thursday. “A senior Trump campaign official told Reuters its plan is to cast enough doubt on vote-counting in big, Democratic cities that Republican lawmakers will have little choice but to intercede.”
As usual, Trump is doing all this in plain sight. He summoned the Republican leaders of the Michigan state House and Senate to the White House today for a meeting. Both men, though allies of Trump, have publicly rejected the idea of legislators throwing out the vote and selecting a slate of electors, and legal experts agree that state law precludes the move—though it will be interesting to see what the leaders say after their meeting.
Earlier this week, Republican members of a board of canvassing in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, threatened not to certify the election over minor discrepancies, then reversed themselves. Trump then reportedly called one of the two Republicans, who tried (unsuccessfully) to reverse their reversal. They insist the president did not pressure them. Meanwhile, Trump’s legal team is trying to achieve the same result by slightly different means in Pennsylvania, asking a court to throw out the vote and declare the president the winner.
A bizarre press conference yesterday at the Republican National Committee headquarters showed how chimerical the president’s legal case is. Rudy Giuliani harangued the press for not reporting that he has evidence of fraud, then refused to share the evidence with reporters. (Sidney Powell, another attorney, wouldn’t even share the supposed proof with friendly TV host Tucker Carlson, presumably because it doesn’t exist.) The lawyers offered a farrago of conspiracy theories—mysterious truckloads of votes arriving at counting centers, poll workers being instructed to ignore rules, shadowy foreign voting-machine companies futzing with the count to hand the election to Biden.
These ideas have all been comprehensively debunked, but they also make no logical sense, whether taken together or individually. Why would Democrats bother stuffing the ballot boxes with paper ballots if they could just change the totals later? Why would they bother fixing the presidential election while allowing Republicans to have a great night in House, Senate, and other down-ballot races? (The Pennsylvania suit asks that the presidential result be thrown out but has no problem with the commonwealth certifying all the other results that depend on the same ballots.) Why did Trump improve his performance relative to 2016 in the cities where fraud allegedly took place, even while losing ground in suburban counties where his campaign isn’t disputing the tallies?
In another case, Trump lawyers argued that the Michigan results are invalid because the number of votes cast exceeds the number of voters in the precinct. But as the Trump-friendly Powerline notes, the lawyers appear to have confused Michigan and Minnesota precincts.
The Trump campaign’s initial strategy this month was to contend that some votes that were cast by mail should not have legally been allowed. This argument lacked grounding in law and sought to disenfranchise citizens who had followed the rules in casting their votes, but at least it offered some consistency and logic about which votes shouldn’t be counted. Since that failed, the president is now simply insisting without evidence that there is fraud and hoping that judges or legislators will toss the results wholesale in certain counties or states.
The Trump team’s tenuous claims would be laughable were they not so dangerous. First, there is always the outside chance that some enterprising legislators might actually try to discard votes, which would be a miscarriage of democracy. Second, the flimsiness of the claims is probably irrelevant. Polling suggests that huge portions of Republicans believe the election was rigged, and no number of debunkings is likely to convince them otherwise—this is motivated partisan reasoning, not thoughtful analysis. Besides, once the president has decided to place all his chips on simply circumventing the will of the voters, the strength of his argument no longer matters. What is important is brute strength. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to have it.
Nonetheless, most Republicans remain distressingly slow to challenge Trump’s claims. Early on, GOP lawmakers contended (anonymously, of course) that there was little harm in letting Trump throw his tantrum, since it would come to naught. This was a bad argument then, and it has not improved with age. As the president’s claims get more and more far-fetched, and his attempt to steal the election grows more overt, most Republicans are still remaining on the sidelines.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to have concluded that Trump’s strategy probably won’t work, but that if it does, that’s fine. The few exceptions include the usual suspects, including Senators Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse. Other Republicans have tried to have it both ways, declining to condemn Trump or call Biden the president-elect, but also saying the administration should allow the transition to proceed, just in case. None of this rises to the challenge of the moment. Former President Barack Obama seems to have it right when he says these officials are going along with the subversion “not because they actually believe it, but because they feel intimidated by it.”
Although Trump is deeply unlikely to succeed in his attempted theft, he’s revealing weaknesses and softening up the system for a future authoritarian, who, as Zeynep Tufekci has written, is unlikely to be as bumbling as he is. Defeating Trump in an election was a straightforward enough task, and defeating him in court has proved even easier. But if he succeeds in undermining the system badly enough, it will mean that defeat at the polls just won’t matter next time.