Consider the highlights from Thursday's press conference featuring Trump's legal team — a group of lawyers unable to muster courtroom wins for their client's effort to overturn election results, but (like their boss) masters at making a spectacle of themselves:
- Rudy Giuliani, black hair dye pouring down the sides of his face, literally re-enacted a scene from My Cousin Vinny, Andy Dwyer style:
- More dangerously, Giuliani and another Trump lawyer, Sidney Powell, spun out a wholly fictional conspiracy theory about how the president had the election stolen from him via a voting software conspiracy involving George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, and the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. The election was determined by "the massive influence of Communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China," Powell said.
- Pressed for evidence of these wild assertions, lawyer Jenna Ellis promised it was coming — just not now. "Your question is fundamentally flawed when you're asking ‘Where's the evidence?'" Ellis told reporters. "You clearly don't understand the legal process."
Taken as a whole, the trio's performance was reminiscent of John Yerkes Iselin, the buffoonish senator who made wild (and false) accusations of "communists in the Defense Department" in the classic movie, The Manchurian Candidate. But it was also kind of predictable — Giuliani, Powell, and Ellis don't exactly belong to the top tier of Republican lawyers. As Maggie Haberman of the New York Times pointed out, heavyweight conservative barristers like Jay Sekulow, Pat Cipollone, and Jane Raskin were nowhere to be seen.
It may not matter.
Trump was unable to win the presidency at the polls. He has been unable to win it through legal challenges to the vote. So he is trying now to win the cultural battle — by once again putting on an entertaining show for his supporters, a conspiracy thriller in which he plays the hero. It might not actually help him retain the keys to the Oval Office. But as The Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum pointed out, "Democracy depends on the consent of the losers." Thursday's dog-and-pony show was part of Trump's effort to deny that consent to Biden. And that effort might well be successful: A new poll shows that half of Republicans believe that Trump really did win the presidency — even though he didn't.
Trump is also taking more concrete steps to undermine the vote results. He reportedly reached out to canvassers in Wayne County, Michigan, before they tried to rescind their certification of pro-Biden votes in their jurisdiction. And now he has invited Michigan legislators to meet with him in the White House, as part of a strategy to persuade Republican-run legislators — in states Biden won — to overturn the popular vote and instead deliver their state's Electoral College votes for him, Reuters reports. That would be a stunning betrayal of the democratic process.
I have wondered for some months now if Americans would know the moment our democracy had died, or if it would bleed out slowly, the victim of a thousand small cuts to vital arteries. So let's be clear: The fight for Michigan's electoral votes might well be that moment, a clear and bright line that will tell us where this country stands. Voters have so far accepted that the popular vote winner of a presidential election will occasionally lose the Electoral College. But they can't and shouldn't accept that the Electoral College vote results should change just because a GOP-held legislature doesn't like the outcome.
Trump's efforts in Michigan might well fall short. Let us hope so. But let us hear no more paeans, ever again, to the majesty of the American form of constitutional government. As 2020 — the failed impeachment, and now this mess of an election — has shown us, all it takes to knock down the pillars of our democratic process is a two-bit conman with zero shame and a willingness never to take "no" for an answer, even when it is 80 million voters doing the refusal. More embarrassingly, it is vulnerable to the overtly stupid machinations of the type that Trump's lawyers attempted during their Thursday press conference. The things we thought were great about this country turned out to be so much more fragile than we ever knew.
Shame on us if we forget it.