There is something of a mismatch between the cartoonish imbecility of Trump’s inner circle and the formidable influence they exert over the state’s highest levers of power.
More than anything, it’s a jarring aesthetic contrast, like the Three Stooges becoming Supreme Court Justices or something. One of them bonks the other with the gavel, and that’s funny — but the laughter fades as you realize they actually preside over the highest court in the land.
This weekend, a month and a half removed from the presidential election, a business week since the Electoral College certified Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman described a White House meeting in which the following ideas were workshopped:
- Hiring Sidney Powell, who just weeks ago claimed a cohort of communist nations hacked our elections via a sinister algorithm, as a special counsel for election fraud.
- Issuing an executive order to seize the voting machines. Earlier, Rudy Giuliani had unsuccessfully pressed the Department of Homeland Security to grant the Trump administration access to the machines. Now the suggestion was to try again by way of a federal directive.
- Declaring martial law to run an election do-over in key battleground states. Disgraced former general Michael Flynn, recipient of the Medal of Pardon, first offered that suggestion, and then Trump followed suit by asking if Flynn’s idea to deploy the military could work.
The buffoonery and the power — comically and terrifyingly inseparable.
The personalities themselves are a riot. From Trump at the helm, a man whose position atop the hierarchy of global power could not keep him from dabbling in bespoke cartography to prove he had special insight into the trajectory of a hurricane; to Powell, whose unhinged legal tactics make Michael Avenatti seem like Atticus Finch; to Giuliani, whose descent from “America’s mayor” to oracle at Four Seasons Total Landscaping came faster than the extraterrestrial dye that recently raced down his weary cheek; to Flynn, whose QAnon boosterism we might have waved away as innocuous had he not once been the president’s top national security aide.
This is Clownsville level stuff, right?
Right, but it’s Clownsville merging with DC; it’s Clownsville setting up shop in the White House. Which means these manifestly silly people end up wielding tremendous power.
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This is precisely the place where our impressions of Trump and his rotating cast of unwitting humorists let us down. We allow our suspicions that these are fundamentally unserious people bewitch us into thinking their plans won’t get anywhere.
I sometimes come across the following argument:
(1) Donald Trump is incompetent.
(2) Our institutions, our democratic safeguards, are durable.
So, (3) Fears of Trumpian election theft are unjustified.
I think there are significant problems with this argument.
While (1) is generally true as an appraisal of Trump’s overall capabilities, that claim is playing a misleading role in this argument. Sure, Trump himself is incapable of pulling off a sophisticated steal, but he sits at the helm of a political superstructure that is professionally and financially incentivized by his winning reelection.
Beyond material motivations, the right-wing machine built up around his presidency is also ideologically driven. For example, the once-fringe suggestion that the Democratic Party is America’s greatest enemy has now gone mainstream on the right. It is something of a fanatically held conservative truism now.
What about (2)? All in all, (2) is also quite secure. But also misleading here.
I understand — and agree with — having faith in our institutions. But I don’t get how anyone with a basic respect for the allurement of political power could watch what Trump has tried to do in the last month and a half and still conclude, “Well, obviously America’s guardrails were always going to hold.”
It’s abundantly clear Trump has tried to steal this election. If his path to reelection via lawsuit had worked, it would have been in spite of the election results, not in concert with them. You don’t inquire about seizing the voting machines if you’re trying to win this thing fair and square. I have demurred from construing this as a “coup,” and agree with Zeynep Tufekci that we lack accessible language to describe it, but my reticence has to do with a technicality about the historical concept rather than with some disagreement about how serious this all is.
I want to be clear about what my counterargument is.
(1) says Trump is incompetent. My counterargument is not that Trump is actually a savvy political operator whose machinations are calculating and shrewd, the way some people have been half-jokingly suggesting ever since Trump won the Republican nomination for president in 2016 that he is playing 4-dimensional chess. That’s not the response I’m offering to (1).
(2) says our institutions are durable. My counterargument is not that our nation’s democratic consolidation is tenuous, that our constitutional government is democratically porous. I am not claiming the Founders bequeathed to us a bad system. As a matter of fact, I think the opposite: I believe our institutions are legendarily resilient.
But what makes (3) misguided — that is, what has made our pre- and post-election fears of a stolen presidency justified — is that (a) Trump’s individual incompetence never meant he lacked a network capable of leveraging his considerable existing power toward the consolidation of still more power, and that (b) no set of institutions, however wisely configured, is invulnerable to capture.
I take (a) and (b) to defeat (1) and (2) not in the sense that they show them to be false — but in the sense that they show (1) and (2) to be inadequate support for the conclusion, (3).
In other words, I very much think there were good reasons to believe our recent circumstances could have led to Trump illicitly capturing another four years.
I began with examples of a few ideas Trump has been kicking around for how to stay in office past January 20. But part of my argument after laying those out was that Trump’s individual abilities are hardly the most significant weapon in his arsenal — which is great news for Trump, since, again, he’s the opposite of a political chessmaster. What always made a Trumpian takeover such a scary prospect is that he has a political superstructure in place committed to extending his power, and that institutions are not invincible safeguards.
I want to give an example of how other forces within the broader movement sought to deliver that to him.
The example I have in mind is the lawsuit Texas filed — and that 17 other states joined, and that over 125 members of Congress publicly endorsed — to get the results in four key battleground states invalidated.
I agree with the legal analysts who saw this primarily as a stunt, as more a performative signal than a legitimate ploy. Why, then, am I using it as an example of a technique intended to extend Trump’s stay in the White House? Because the only reason it turned out to be mere performance rather than an intentional instrument for generating a second Trump term is Biden’s lead was too big for this technique to plausibly work.
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If Trump was down one or two battleground states, rather than four or five, this red-state challenge would have been more sincerely deployed, and the amicus brief filed by a mass of congressional Republicans would have taken on a more deliberate salience.
I am fairly confident the outcome would have been the same, but that’s irrelevant — my point is that, in such a circumstance, the institutional Trumpian push could not be waved away as some insincere signaling operation.
But whatever its underlying function, the Texas lawsuit is an incredible product of the current iteration of the Republican Party. Despite it being a legal moonshot, the lawsuit — and the institutional support that coalesced around it — remains a remarkable political action. It is a partisan attempt through and through: all 18 states are red, all but three have Republican governors, and all congressional support for it is Republican. It is an overt attempt by the GOP to repudiate our electoral democracy.
It’s one thing for the party to offer a pretense of responsible civic action — but post-hoc complaints that the voting protocols of key Biden states compromise the integrity of our federated union falls quite a ways short of that. What we have here is 18 states, and a sizable chunk of Republican officials, basically saying, “Look, we simply don’t want votes for Biden to count.”
Some people draw the line of scandal at the point of success. As I see it, the fact that they’ve gotten this far, the fact that our elected officials have materially boosted this effort despite the damage it is doing to our social fabric transcends scandal. It is something closer to the seditious debasement of our electoral democracy.
The 18 states were not offering an elaborate argument about hacked voting systems or whatever. Their ask was simply that the Supreme Court invalidate the votes of four states — by pure coincidence, the four are crucial to Biden’s victory — because these states expanded mail-in voting.
That was the ask.
In the Year of Covid, Trump wanted to steal an election by problematizing the only form of socially distanced voting we had. This is distressingly ironic, as it suggests a self-reinforcing attack: first, Trump catastrophically mismanages the pandemic, and second, he leverages that failure into a legal technique by which he can steal the presidential election.
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I am happy the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case. If it had, the only acceptable outcome would have been 9–0. I am happy that other elements within those same red states resisted similar brazen attacks on our electoral integrity — for example, the Texas Supreme Court denied a petition by the Texas GOP to invalidate the votes of some 125,000 Houston residents, and they denied it without comment. What would they even say? “The Court finds that lawful votes should legally count”? The petition was a massive joke to begin with.
The clumsy, doltish class managing the machinery of state. The preposterous ones in power. So jarring to see, so hard to accept that the least qualified are the most empowered.
In a recent interview on the One America News Network, Rudy Giuliani said that the Supreme Court ignored the Texas lawsuit because “the New York Times told them to” and because the Supreme Court is “afraid of Antifa.”
Too absurd to take seriously, right? Then again, Giuliani has the ear of the most powerful man in the world.
Contrary to the Clash song, Rudy can fail, and is quite likely to. The thing is, if he doesn’t, the result isn’t a temporary blip on our sometimes-rocky journey toward ever-greater democratic consolidation; the result is seized voting machines and the end of our democracy.