Nevertheless, in the parallel epistemological bubble inhabited by Trump and his supporters — a bubble fueled by social media echo chambers and certain right-wing outlets — the election was stolen, Biden’s victory is illegitimate and Trump could still stay in the White House. The overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress have refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory, including some who have claimed fresh mandates from voting in November. State-level Republican officials who have tried to defend the integrity of their local elections have been pilloried as villains and traitors and have received death threats.
For months before the election, commentators in the United States anticipated this polarized state of play. Trump, after all, telegraphed his stance, making clear his disbelief in an electoral outcome that didn’t deliver him victory and insisting throughout his time in office that he was the victim of “deep state” conspiracies and coup plots.
The abiding question then still lingers now: How far could Trump go in denying the election’s result and damaging trust in American democracy? Could he attempt, some wondered, a genuine “coup”? Or, weeks after a historic number of Americans cast ballots, are Trump’s bungling efforts to change the verdict of their vote simply the last gasps of an impeached, defeated one-term president?
“What is happening is not a coup, or even an attempt at a coup,” wrote Daniel Drezner, a professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, for PostEverything this week. “It is a ham-handed effort to besmirch the election outcome by any easily available means necessary.” He highlighted the cascade of Trumpist failures to halt the vote, the handful of prominent defections from within his administration over his intransigence, and reports that suggest Trump himself may know the game is up and is already planning for a showstopping White House departure on the day of Biden’s inauguration.
Scholars of real coups in other countries contend that Trump has few of the ingredients necessary to pull off a coup — the international community is not on his side, nor the nation’s main media organs, nor the armed forces. “Trump cannot succeed in launching a coup because he lacks any of the necessary components to give it even a remote chance of success,” wrote Jeff Hawn, a historian whose work focuses on the political upheavals in Russia that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Jeet Heer suggested last month in the Nation that Trump is instead pursuing a slow-motion “con game,” securing more private donations by stirring outrage among his supporters. He’s also stoking passions ahead of what could be a lengthy campaign to take back the White House in 2024.
Masha Gessen, writing in the New Yorker, pointed to the “false dichotomy” between a coup and a con. “A coup is a power claim made illegitimately, often but not always with the use of force, sometimes illegally but sometimes within the bounds of a constitution,” she wrote. “A con is a mushy term: it can be a criminal act or simply an unethical one, perhaps just wily and manipulative. A con, in other words, is an illegitimate act of persuasion. A coup always begins as a con. If the con is successful — if the power claim is persuasive — then a coup has occurred.”
Some analysts on the left always saw the fears over Trump’s authoritarian tendencies as overblown. They saw the alarmism of establishment liberals and “Never Trump” Republicans as a distraction from reckoning with the actual conditions that led to a demagogic nativist entering the White House. “A dysfunctional economy, not lurking tyranny, is what needs attention if recent electoral choices are to be explained — and voting patterns are to be changed in the future,” wrote Yale law professor Samuel Moyn and Oxford historian David Priestland in 2017.
Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, predicted before the election that Trump would turn out looking more a weakling than an autocrat. “He has successfully violated post-Watergate norms in the service of self-protection and his pocketbook,” wrote Douthat. “But pre-Watergate presidents were not autocrats, and in terms of seizing power over policy he has been less imperial than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.”
That’s a view shared by political historian Corey Robin, who in a recent interview said his concerns were less about Trump than the increasingly anachronistic American institutions that are enabling the entrenchment of minority rule in the country. “Far from being concerned about U.S. institutions being insufficiently stable or resilient enough to contain Trump or a similar figure, I’m far more concerned about the stifling stability and resilience of institutions like the Electoral College, the courts, and the Senate, and their ability to prop up Trump and the GOP,” Robin told Jewish Currents.
But that Trump may fail in upending the democratic process this time is little consolation. “The U.S. president is trying to steal the election, and, crucially, his party either tacitly approves or is pretending not to see it,” wrote Zeynep Tufekci in the Atlantic, in an essay that warned against complacency. “This is a particularly dangerous combination, and makes it much more than just typical Trumpian bluster or norm shattering.”
As polarization festers, analysts wonder how much closer Trump could have come to successfully overturning the election had voter margins been thinner in one state or state officials less upright in another. Whatever his moves after January, there’s a deep political chasm among the country’s electorate. Millions of Americans discount Biden’s victory and have immersed themselves in a deepening pool of conspiracy theories about American politics. “The question is whether that kind of paranoiac, which, polls suggest, describes the overwhelming majority of Republican voters, will drift into atomized resentment or be a political wrecking force,” wrote Financial Times columnist Edward Luce.
It would be naive to discount the prospect of the latter.