If you've been watching Donald Trump and his quislings pretend that they won the 2020 election and are wondering what exactly is going on, you're not alone. It's an unprecedented, if ham-fisted, siege of America's democratic institutions, one last way for this dreadful person to psychologically abuse a majority of the American people before he exits stage far-right. Over the course of the past week, I've cycled chaotically between thinking that the attempted putsch being staged in front of an exhausted world is a laughable farce and worrying that it might actually work if they can get the right people in positions of power to go along with it.
The guess here is still that Trump's Keystone Coup will fail. He trails Joe Biden by nearly 5.6 million votes and counting in the national popular vote, and has lost the Electoral College 306 to 232 — the precise inverse of Trump's 2016 victory. While his lawyers are keeping everyone super busy filing one piece of frivolous litigation after another, they are getting laughed out of courtrooms across the land by increasingly irritated judges. The sordid escapades of the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and his friends will likely result in more disbarments than changed votes. It is only a matter of time before the results are certified in the pivotal states, leaving the Trump campaign just one last way to stay in power — a constitutionally preposterous scheme to have Republican state legislatures in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin set aside the clear results of the election and choose Trump's electors to be counted in the Senate on Jan. 6.
It is hard to imagine things getting that far, unless Republicans would like Trump to be inaugurated for a second term amidst a massive nationwide street revolt and an exodus of blue states from the union. Cooler heads, particularly among Senate Republicans, surely recognize that they got basically everything they wanted out of Trump and that all they have to do is destroy Joe Biden with the patented Mitch McConnell playbook of maliciously sabotaging the U.S. economy with austerity and budget brinkmanship in order to roll triumphantly back into power in 2022 and 2024. They hold a generation-long vise grip on the Supreme Court and, barring a Democratic sweep in the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs, the GOP's fortress of power in the Senate held unexpectedly against what was supposed to be a much bigger Democratic wave. What use do they have any longer for this doddering confidence man and his menagerie of huckster sidekicks?
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Yet Republicans haven't quite pulled the plug on Trump, preferring to indulge the dangerous charade that he could pull this out after all. It should all look pretty familiar to scholars of authoritarianism. One of the hallmarks of tyranny is pretense. Rulers create hallucinatory cults of personality and test the limits of their power by seeing how much of it they can get people to go along with. In Lisa Wedeen's 1999 study of the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, Ambiguities of Domination, she wrote that the Assad regime "can compel people to say the ridiculous and to avow the absurd." In Syria, that meant going along with transparently laughable claims like the idea that Assad was the nation's "premier pharmacist" (he was a lifelong military officer). It meant the performance of what she called "mass spectacles," designed to enlist ordinary people in the maintenance of grand lies, and intimidate opponents into silence.
Trump has already mastered the art of the grotesque mass spectacle — the endless campaign rallies that didn't stop for a single moment after his election, Air Force One gleaming in the background of a red state airport, American flags hung on cranes like some kind of impromptu Taliban assembly, the mad king performing a combination of stand-up act and Two Minutes Hate. Attendees are driven into paroxysms of mass delusion for him, attacking journalists, chanting the vile slogans of fascists, whipping one another into a frenzy of grievance, feeding off of one another's loathing. For Trumpism to succeed, his subjects must be kept galvanized in a state of perpetual readiness, poised to turn back the army of radical leftists, suburban abolitionists, and kneeling football players and to keep "real America" from turning into a dreaded Democrat-run city or worse, California.
He'll surely keep at it, because the man's ego is a hollow leg. But what's happening right now is different. President Trump is exercising his power to compel elected Republicans and officials to "say the ridiculous and avow the absurd" much more so than he is executing any coherent plan to stay in office beyond Jan. 20.
Consider the things that are coming out of the mouths of his underlings. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "joked" early last week that "There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump term." On Thursday, a reporter queried Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) about whether he had called Biden to congratulate him. Scurrying cowardly away from the press in quintessential Trump era fashion, Johnson replied, "Nothing to congratulate him about yet." When asked on Friday whether Trump would attend Biden's inauguration, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany replied, "I think the president will attend his own inauguration. He would have to be there in fact." White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, on Friday: "We are moving forward here at the White House under the assumption there will be a second Trump term."
Not to be outdone, Sidney Powell, a member of Trump's legal scheme team, told Fox's Maria Bartiromo on Sunday that "we're fixing to overturn the results of the election in multiple states" while endorsing the president's crackpot theory that software machines systematically switched millions of votes to Biden.
This all seems slightly less crazy than it is because the president has spent five years conditioning us to accept his habit of spewing forth easily disprovable lies. The willingness to march in front of the cameras and not just reiterate but triple down on whatever the president is free associating about when literally everyone in the room knows you are completely full of it is an act of complicity to authoritarianism, a signal to the strongman that you are loyal.
Call it vice signaling. In Syria, failure to comply would result in death or imprisonment. In the United States, at least as of today, it would merely mean being cast out of the orbit of Trumpism into a no-man's land of podcasters and writers and former Republican elected officials who have no party to call home and who are loathed nearly as much by the new GOP base as Democrats. For some reason, nearly every Republican officeholder in the country prefers sacrificing their dignity and obliterating the legitimacy of democracy to the horror of joining Jeff Flake and David French and Cindy McCain in this MAGA purgatory.
To avoid that terrible fate, McEnany and company are acting out one of the world's most beloved fables, Hans Christian Anderson's The Emperor's New Clothes. In it, a vain monarch is swindled by would-be weavers into buying "clothes" that only smart and competent people can see, when in fact they have sold him nothing at all and he is walking around in his birthday suit. Neither his court advisers nor his subjects are willing to point out the obvious for fear of triggering his bottomless rage and insecurity.
The weavers in Trumpworld are the lawyers and advisers telling him he can still pull this out if he just gets the right inane lawsuit in front of the right judge, or if he can convince multiple state legislatures to perform for him what amounts to a forced regime change, and then to get Republican senators and ultimately the Supreme Court to go along with it. The courtiers and citizens are the members of his cabinet as well as his de facto Team of Rivals on the Fox morning and evening shows who can see perfectly well that Trump has lost the election but prefer to let his delusions persist unmolested. It is not yet clear exactly who will play the role of the child who doesn't understand the complicated norms of tyranny and points out that the emperor is in fact not wearing any articles of clothing whatsoever.
No one in Trump's orbit wants to be that child. No one in a position of authority in the party or the GOP's vast media empire wants to tell him point blank that the idea of staying in office beyond Jan. 20 is a fantasy, that he lost to Joe Biden and that there's really not any question about it at all.
But someone really needs to tell the emperor that he has no votes. The longer he has what amounts to a free pass from his party to cast doubt on the legitimacy of U.S. elections, the more damage he will do to what remains of the system's public trust, setting the country up for potentially catastrophic constitutional crises in future elections. And while he and his administration remain focused on this shell game, the country's coronavirus nightmare is spiralling out of control, as hospital workers and systems groan under the weight of the endless COVID-19 crush. If elected Republicans had an ounce of integrity, they would tell the president to grow up, accept the verdict of the people, and get to work saving as many lives as possible with his remaining time in office.
The fact that we all know this will never happen, that doing the right thing for the good of the people is a conversation-ender in Mitch McConnell's office, should tell you all you need to know about the future trajectory of the Republican Party. At least until Biden is inaugurated, Trump will remain the nation's premier epidemiologist, an unparalleled political genius whose victory is just one Project Veritas exposé away, and the cowards in the party he conquered will remain committed to this theater of the absurd. The rest of us will just have to wait, quarantined, miserable, and scared, until the curtain finally comes down.
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