This Isn’t Just Political Theater

Trump’s threats aren’t performative—he’s pointing a loaded gun at democracy.

An illustration of a gun and a megaphone
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

If people “define situations as real, they are real in their consequences,” William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas wrote in 1928. That sociological insight—often referred to as the Thomas theorem—offers the best way to think about this peculiar moment in American politics.

It’s what the “senior Republican official” quoted by The Washington Post in early November, on how to respond to President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of electoral fraud, failed to understand. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” the official asked.

No one seriously thinks the results will change. He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.

On January 3, The Washington Post reported on an hour-long phone call in which the president urged Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find 11,780 votes” to put him over the top. Trump alleged, without any evidence, that thousands of ballots had been destroyed in Fulton County, and demanded that these phantom votes somehow be found and recorded in his favor. “That’s a criminal offense,” Trump told Brad Raffensperger, complaining about the destruction of the ballots, “and you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan [Germany], your lawyer.”

Raffensperger recorded the call—which he answered after 18 attempts by the president to get him on the line—because this wasn’t the first time he’d been pressured. “Lindsey Graham asked us to throw out legally cast ballots. So yeah, after that call, we decided maybe we should do this,” a Raffensperger adviser told Politico. (Senator Graham has denied that account of his call.)

Nor is that the only ongoing effort to overturn the results of the election. Multiple Republican senators have said they will object to the Electoral College returns from particular states, and Trump has falsely declared that the vice president has the unilateral power to “reject fraudulently chosen electors.”

Throughout this ordeal have come repeated suggestions that this is all performative, that even Trump knows he lost the election, and that Republican senators are just playing to their party’s base, to better position themselves for 2024.

Even if that were all that is happening, having one party’s top presidential contenders competing to convince voters that they will be the best candidate to steal elections—because that is what they are offering to help Trump do—is a five-alarm fire for a democracy. It compounds our ongoing crisis, in which various aspects of our system that empower minorities either constitutionally or opportunistically have been used to create conditions in which an electoral minority can impose its will on the majority. States containing less than 20 percent of the nation’s population elect a majority of the Senate. The Republican Party has used its control of this chamber to capture the Supreme Court and the rest of the judiciary. Through gerrymandering and the uneven distribution of the population, the GOP does about 6 percent better in the median House district than it does in the national popular vote.

And the GOP also enjoys a significant advantage in the Electoral College, which elects the president, and thus controls the executive branch. Republicans who object to the current attempt to overturn electoral results in Congress have pointed to that edge: “From a purely partisan perspective, Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years,” Representative Chip Roy wrote. “If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes—based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election—we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.” The attempt to undermine whatever victories an electoral majority can eke out is the logical next step of persistent and entrenched minority rule as well as a significant escalation.

But that’s not all that’s happening. A theater show is performative because the actors and the audience know it’s a performance. If a gun is hanging on the wall in a Chekhov play, we know two things: that it will go off by the end of the play, and that it must actually be a fake or unloaded gun, because it’s only a play. When a loaded gun is brought out in real life, the fact that the person holding it is incompetent or clownish doesn’t make that gun performative; it’s still a gun. When the president of the United States calls up electoral officials to threaten them, he’s leveling a loaded gun at our democracy.

This time, there was a Raffensperger on the other end of the line. If next time a few less scrupulous individuals answer the phone, the attempt to steal an election might well succeed. And if the Republican Party’s base is convinced by its leaders that losing an election means it was stolen from them, those voters will go on to elect officials who are properly eager to help get the “correct” results—so that Republicans win regardless of the vote count.

In December, I wrote that coup might not be the best technical term for what’s going on in the United States, but that it captures the zeitgeist—the moment. Some readers responded by pointing out that Trump isn’t planning a military takeover. But that’s the point. Not every country needs to use the same mechanisms for stealing elections or illegitimately taking or maintaining power. In fact, winning elections by reducing democracy to superficial formal rules—and when even that fails, attempting to throw out the results—is a common authoritarian technique. The opposition isn’t allowed to govern with whichever offices it does win, which further erodes its ability to win anything else.

In the United States, the military remains unlikely to be involved, but all 10 living former secretaries of defense were sufficiently alarmed to write an op-ed in which they said that the “military should have no role in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.” And It could never happen here! is cold comfort for a country that once endured a massive and bloody civil war. There’s no reason to think another civil war is looming, but there are other dangers; history repeats itself, but with imagination.

So what did we get for “humoring” Trump for “this little bit of time,” as if he were a toddler we were appeasing, rather than the holder of one of the most powerful positions on the planet? Apply the Thomas theorem. What people believe they should do is how they will eventually act. This is especially important because institutions—the courts, the political parties, the elections offices, the legislatures—are merely people collectively deciding to act in a particular manner. When people change their mind about the rules, those will be the new rules. Once this transition passes, the Trump wing of the Republican Party—which the 2024 hopefuls clearly think constitutes a plurality—is going to work hard to make sure no Raffensperger gets elected again. And the next time the call comes to “find 11,780 votes,” that gun—which was never performative, because it was always loaded—may well find its target.