Trump's final fight is with democracy itself

What we're witnessing is a full-bore onslaught against the institutions of American democracy. It probably won't work.

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Donald Trump is nothing if not consistent.

Not necessarily in what he says and does. In that he can be flamboyantly capricious and contradictory. But the animating impulse is always the same: Win. Prevail. Come out ahead and on top. That's one of the things a plurality of rank-and-file Republicans loved about him during the 2016 GOP primaries. He fights!

So he did, and so he does — in what looks likely to be the final fight of his brief but incredibly potent political career. (Assuming he doesn't try to mount a comeback in 2024 at the age of 78.) For the past six months or more Trump's main opponent has been Joe Biden. To take him down, the president and his campaign have said a range of dishonest things: The Democratic nominee is senile. He's a tool of the left. He loves riots. He'll endorse socialism. He's a champion of mass incarceration and enemy of Black Americans.

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But Trump and some in his party have also taken on another opponent: democracy itself.

For months, the president has been railing against mail-in voting, even though many states (both red and blue) have used it for years. GOP legislatures in several states (including still-undecided Pennsylvania) set rules that forbid the processing of mail-in or absentee ballots before Election Day. Since Republican voters, in part due to Trump's browbeating, were more reluctant than Democrats to vote early by mail this year, the delay assured that these states would appear on the evening of Election Day to be leaning in a Republican direction. But of course that was a deliberately concocted illusion — a function entirely of the decision to delay counting the disproportionately Democratic mailed-in ballots (which also take longer to process than votes cast in person on Election Day).

Trump told us for months that he would try to take advantage of this illusion — that he would insist that ballots uncounted on Election Day should be considered invalid. Yet it was nonetheless shocking and appalling to hear him say precisely this during his petulant remarks at 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning. With millions of legally cast ballots still uncounted, the president of the United States insisted that he had won the election and that any change in any state's results that disadvantaged him should be considered illegitimate.

Things haven't improved since. While most elected Republicans have distanced themselves from Trump's late-night tantrum, the president himself, his family, and some of his closest allies have ramped up the attacks. Trump himself wants to "STOP THE COUNT!", even though doing so would leave Biden in the lead in Arizona and Nevada. Some say this is only Trump demanding that the vote be halted until representatives of his campaign and its lawyers are admitted to observe the processing and counting of ballots. But this is already permitted in most places and doesn't require that the process be halted. Meanwhile, Republican protesters in other places are demanding the opposite — that the count be continued and accelerated.

Others have gone even further — or at least matched the president's incendiary Wednesday morning tirade. Newt Gingrich has come right out and said, without a shred of evidence to back him up, that "Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania are all being stolen by Democrats and the research is almost certainly going to yield far more votes stolen than Biden's current margins." Then there are the debunked rumors of fraud circulating on social media and going viral, including talk of districts in close states coming in 100-0 in favor of Biden. All of it is having the effect of persuading a portion of the electorate that the country's system for counting votes cannot be trusted.

Add it up and we have a full-bore onslaught against the institutions of American democracy.

Self-government is hard. It's especially complicated in a huge country that chooses to conduct 50 separate elections, with each following a somewhat different set of rules. Add in whole new procedures that were implemented this year, including mail-in voting in states (like Pennsylvania) that aren't accustomed to it, and a huge surge in rates of voting on both sides of the partisan divide — and you're left with a bit of a mess that is taking a few days to work through. The politically responsible way to respond to this situation is to give it time and maintain focus on the most important thing for the country, which is to determine the true outcome, the actual will of the voters, as channeled by the institutions of American democracy. That is the only source of political legitimacy in the United States. Seeking to "win" without it is thoroughly unacceptable.

That's something our morally damaged and deranged president doesn't appear to understand. But no matter. The rest of us need to keep our eyes fixed on what counts — which is the vote count.

If Trump loses, as seems likely, he will rant and rave for a few days, but the fury will burn itself out before long, provided the country, its institutions, and its elected officials abide by the rightful outcome, treating the winner as the president-elect. That's the best, and maybe the only, way to ensure that Trump fails in what will hopefully be his final act of civic sabotage.

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