Joe Biden will be sworn in as president on Jan 20, 2021. Donald Trump does not have the capacity to overturn an election he lost by a healthy margin, no matter how often and in what form he repeats the lie that he won. He can try to scuttle the presidential transition. But in the end, much of that process happens automatically. Which means that the end of the Trump administration is coming, regardless of how convincingly the president pretends otherwise.
That's what the reasonable part of my mind keeps saying.
But another, more anxious part of me is saying something else. Not that Trump is poised to mount a coup and extinguish democratic government in the United States, but that the path from getting to where we are to where we need to be just over two months from now is … unclear. How do we transition from the president insisting the election was stolen from him, his party's leadership backing him up on this claim, and a supermajority of Republican voters believing the perfidious story — to all of them accepting and affirming in public that Joe Biden is the actual president of the United States and that he did not, in fact, end up in the White House through a coup of his own?
I have no good answer to that question.
Trump is not raising questions about the vote count in selected states. He is not saying that Biden won but he (Trump) will stay in office by transforming himself into an authoritarian dictator. He is insisting that he won the election outright — and that the only reason state vote tallies and media outlets say otherwise is that there was voter fraud on a truly massive scale. The election was a sham. A Democratic Party conspiracy leading up to and following Election Day produced the crucial and false come-from-behind victories for Biden, and now a conspiracy of state officials (many of them Republicans) and journalists (including from Fox News) is working tirelessly to legitimize this illegitimate outcome. That is Trump's position as expressed in a series of public statements, from his Election Night rant at 2:30 a.m. on through numerous outbursts and actions in the days since then.
The assumption of many Republicans so far is that they just need to humor him. Let Trump rant and rave, let the court battles and recounts play out — and at the end of it all, Trump will back down, admit he lost, and slink away.
But when has Trump ever done anything remotely like this? The answer, of course, is: never.
Think of all the discredited outrages: claiming in defiance of contrary evidence that Barack Obama was born abroad and so was ineligible to serve as president. Alleging that Ted Cruz's father had a hand in killing JFK. Declaring that his win in 2016 with a modest 306 Electoral Votes and a popular vote loss was a landslide. Asserting (with no evidence) that he would have won California if not for millions of illegal votes cast by noncitizens. Contending (with no evidence) that he would have won New Hampshire if not for busloads of Massachusetts voters crossing state lines to vote illegally. Insisting the relatively small crowd at his inauguration was the largest ever. And on through four unprecedentedly mendacious years of the Trump presidency, including an impeachment trial. Through all of it, when has Trump ever admitted fault or error and reversed himself when backed into a corner? It hasn't happened.
Can anyone seriously envision Trump coming out and announcing (in a statement or on Twitter) that he was wrong about allegations of voter fraud, that judges who rule against him are justified in their decisions, and that the recounts showing he in fact lost the election and that Biden won it fair and square are valid? You can't be serious.
The next assumption people are making is that if Trump doesn't back down, his party's leadership in Washington will stand up to him en masse and get him to relent — if not this month, if not before members of the Electoral College vote in mid-December, then at least after the GOP has made use of rank-and-file indignation to power through and win the two run-off elections in Georgia on Jan. 5 that will determine control of the Senate.
But again I ask: When has something like this ever happened? When have Republicans told Trump that enough is enough with his conspiratorial, politically corrosive B.S. and stuck to it? The answer, again, is never. Oh sure, individual Republicans have occasionally talked back to him: John Kasich, a featured speaker at the Democratic convention this past summer; Jeff Flake, now retired; Justin Amash, no longer a Republican and just two months away from retirement; Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, now loathed by much of his party's base.
But the rest? The failure of GOP leadership to stand up to Trump has been one of the major dramas of the past five and a half years of American politics. One after another, leading members of the president's party have tentatively drawn lines and attempted to enforce them — and one after another, they have folded and cowered before him. Many have gone on to become outright stooges, eager to ingratiate themselves before the mad emperor.
Now, it's true that sometimes novel, unprecedented things happen. Maybe this situation is different — one where either Trump will behave differently than he has in the past, or elected members of his party will. Or maybe Trump's throngs of dittoheads will turn on him for the first time, concluding that although they wouldn't abandon him for shooting someone on Fifth Ave, they just can't countenance backing him up as he tries to defy the “official” election results.
But this, too, would be something wholly unprecedented.
As I said at the start, I think Joe Biden will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2021. But if Trump never backs down on his own, and if the Republican leadership never stands up to him and forces a concession, and if Republican voters never turn on him — then I can honestly say I'm at a loss about precisely how we're supposed to arrive at that hoped-for destination.