the national interest

The Danger (and Ineptitude) of Trump’s Failed Coup

Art: Peter Saul; “Cute Little Shark,” 2019. Courtesy the artist and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

In his address to the Democratic National Convention in August, Barack Obama warned that the Trump administration “has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.” Kamala Harris began her first speech as vice-president-elect by saying “America’s democracy is not guaranteed.”

Some may have dismissed this as mere hyperventilated campaign rhetoric. But in the days that followed the election, Trump fulfilled the stark prophecies. He has seized whatever powers he still has in his grasp to rattle the system and to take vengeance against his successor by leaving him with a ruin.

Trump has attempted to retain power much as he wielded it throughout his term: with a comic ineptitude of his means that made it difficult to absorb the seriousness of his ends. If you had predicted four years ago that Trump would finish his term by proposing to cancel the election and reinstall himself in a second term, you’d have been brushed off as a hysteric. And yet here he is attempting to do just that and recruiting Republican allies to his mad scheme. The certainty of his failure does not make the damage caused by the coup effort disappear. It simply makes it harder to see clearly. The surreality of Mussolini continually slipping on banana peels is the defining paradox of this sordid era.

To lead his attempted coup, Trump has turned once again to Rudy Giuliani. Just weeks before, Giuliani — who is the subject of a criminal investigation for his efforts to shake down Ukraine while working for Trump and who was colluding publicly with a man identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as a Russian spy — had produced what he called “evidence” of a global criminal plot by Joe Biden and his family. (Many people on the right spent the last ten days of the campaign scolding the media for failing to take his accusations seriously.) In the aftermath of the election, Giuliani emerged to claim he had uncovered yet another worldwide plot — this one even wider and more sinister in scope.

Giuliani has decried the sequence of ballot tabulation in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, where Trump initially registered a lead only to have mail ballots, counted over the following hours and days, reveal that Biden had won. Giuliani called this outcome “almost statistically impossible,” claiming that an unknown expert had proved its implausibility. In fact, this very outcome had been widely and publicly forecast for weeks. Trump had urged his voters to cast their ballots on Election Day and prevailed upon Republican legislators in those states to ban early counting of mail ballots — precisely so that the first announced vote totals would give him an illusory lead.

In the weeks following the election, Trump’s legal team filed a blizzard of lawsuits in battleground states, losing virtually all of them, often in humiliating fashion. After Trump supporters in Pennsylvania sued for being barred from observing the vote count, then admitted in court they had been present to observe it, a judge asked, “I’m sorry, then what’s your problem?” One of the Trump lawsuits alleging irregularities in Michigan vote totals turned out to be based on having confused that state with Minnesota and comparing vote totals in the former with the population of the latter.

A judge in Michigan dismissed accusations of ballot fraud that had “no date, location, frequency, or names of employees” and noted that Trump’s witnesses were simply inventing corrupt motives to explain legitimate vote-counting methods because they didn’t understand how the process worked. “Perhaps if Plaintiffs’ election challenger affiants had attended the October 29, 2020, walk-through of the TCF Center ballot counting location,” the judge wrote, “questions and concerns could have been answered in advance of Election Day.”

At one court proceeding, a judge asked Giuliani, “Are you arguing, then, that strict scrutiny should apply here?” If you have ever attended a few weeks of law school — or, like me, just taken an undergraduate class on constitutional law — you’d recognize the question. Equal-protection cases, like the one Giuliani was attempting to argue, require either “strict scrutiny” or “intermediate scrutiny,” depending on the type of discrimination alleged. Giuliani sounded confused and unfamiliar with the terms. “No, the normal scrutiny should apply,” he said. The judge gently informed him that “normal scrutiny” is not an option.

As they lost case after case, Trump and his lawyers retreated to an even more fantastical charge. Their theory is that Biden’s lead materialized overnight in several states because the voting machines, manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems, all used a software program that had been created by Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman who died in 2013 without having acquired a reputation as a technological mastermind. Chávez and his successors, in conjunction with George Soros and the Chinese Communist Party, used this program to create hundreds of thousands of votes for Biden, thus stealing an election Trump had rightfully won in a “landslide.”

This conspiracy theory strings together a series of nonsensical and easily falsified elements. Individual voting machines can theoretically be hacked one at a time, but they are not vulnerable to mass-scale hacking and have multiple redundant safety features that make such an attack all but impossible. The Trump administration’s top cybersecurity expert, Chris Krebs, wrote that there “is not a single point of failure and such systems are subject to multiple audits to ensure accuracy and reliability,” including with paper backup. (Trump fired him for admitting this.)

In order to make sense, Trump’s conspiracy theory would need to implicate Republican officials in several states, who obviously have no incentive to turn their election apparatus over to a consortium of dead Venezuelan populists, progressive financiers, and Chinese communists. The theory also fails to explain why the secret communist software program, as long as it had infiltrated the system to covertly move hundreds of thousands of votes into the Democratic presidential candidate’s column, neglected to steal a couple of Senate elections at the same time. Perhaps Soros and the Venezuelans wanted Mitch McConnell to restrain Biden from going too far to the left.

Trump has grown “obsessed” with the Dominion conspiracy theory, despite — or perhaps because of — its implausibility, according to the Washington Post and New York Times. On November 19, Giuliani, surrounded by fellow Trump attorneys Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis, gave a press conference to elucidate their case.

The attorneys argued that Biden’s apparent victory could only be the product of secret machinations directed by the candidate himself. “This was a common plan, a common scheme. It comes directly from the Democrat Party, and it comes from the candidate,” explained Giuliani. “That’s the reason why [Biden] probably didn’t go out and campaign.” It wasn’t health precautions, as Biden had claimed. Why bother exerting yourself to give speeches when your secret Venezuelan software program has it in the bag?

Giuliani illustrated one of his legal theories by recounting a scene from a popular courtroom comedy starring Joe Pesci. “Did you all watch My Cousin Vinny? It’s one of my favorite law movies,” he announced, before displaying much closer familiarity with the legal high jinks in the big-screen court than he had with the concept of strict scrutiny in an actual court two days before. He blamed his string of legal defeats on “friendly judges who will issue ridiculously irrational opinions” to help Biden, and he castigated the “fake” media for reporting his supposed lack of evidence. He and his team expressed bewilderment that the FBI (run by a Republican Trump appointee) had failed to investigate any of the crimes they had uncovered.

The gravity of the proceedings — here was the official legal team of the president of the United States appearing at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington — presented a bizarre contrast with the content of their statements, which sounded like the ravings of a Bircher wearing a sandwich-board placard. They seemed to take pains to assert their seriousness. “This is an elite strike-force team,” claimed Ellis. “There is nobody here that engages in fantasies,” insisted Giuliani. And yet, as he ranted, his perspiration formed brown streaks, matching his conspicuously unnatural hair coloration, running first down the left side of his face and then the right, as if the international communist conspiracy were sapping his precious bodily fluids before our eyes.

The purpose of this spectacle was not so much to lay out a legal claim as to create a political pretext for Trump’s allies to cancel the election results. A senior Trump-campaign official explained to Reuters that its strategy was “to cast enough doubt on vote counting in big Democratic cities that Republican lawmakers will have little choice but to intercede,” lest they face “backlash” from voters in Republican districts.

Under this plan, Republicans would use their control of legislatures in key states, heavily gerrymandered to a level that renders them almost impervious to voter backlash, to refuse to certify election results and then appoint Trump delegates to the Electoral College. The scheme would amount to nothing short of a coup. Indeed, Trump’s supporters barely disguised their aims. “The entire election, frankly, in all the swing states, should be overturned, and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for Trump,” urged Powell on Fox Business. Here was the president’s lawyer openly calling to “overturn” a federal election.

This idea has drawn public encouragement from an influential array of conservative media personalities (Tom Fitton, Kenneth Starr, Mark Levin) and mainstream Republican politicians (Lindsey Graham and Ron DeSantis). A handful of prominent Republicans has denounced Trump’s attempted coup. The majority has followed a calculus explained crassly by one senior Republican official to the Washington Post: “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.”

One easily predictable harm is that Republicans and their affiliated media outlets would feel pressure to amplify Trump’s claims — that his supporters would believe them and demand their elected representatives act on them. Graham himself secretly leaned on Georgia secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to disqualify thousands of Democratic ballots, presumably trusting that his fellow Republican would keep quiet about it. When Raffensperger exposed the untoward request in public, Graham insisted he had been misunderstood but failed to supply an innocent reason why a Trump supporter would be talking privately with the person charged with overseeing his ally’s reelection.

Trump began personally pressuring Republican officials to do his bidding. He called one of two GOP members on the Wayne County canvassing board, urging her and her fellow Republican to rescind certification of the results to disqualify ballots in heavily Black Detroit, then summoned the Republican leaders of Michigan’s legislature to the White House.

As a straightforward putsch, it’s too little, too late. Trump failed to come up with a theory for disqualifying crucial states in time, settled on one so silly many Republicans can’t convince themselves of its validity, and failed to lay the groundwork to overrule the election. And while his maneuvers won’t prevent Biden from taking office on January 20, they will serve several other purposes.

First, the coup attempt provides Trump with a narrative to sustain his next venture. In the decades-old Trumpian mythos, he never loses; every event must be categorized either as Trump winning or Trump being treated very unfairly. Having now established the latter to the satisfaction of a large segment of the party base, Trump can fulfill plans he has been reportedly discussing to monetize his loyalty as a media brand, run again in 2024, or perhaps both. The Trump cult will stay in place, and any Republican with national ambitions will feel compelled to draw upon its energy and defer to his twisted alt-history. A Reuters interview of 50 Trump supporters found every one of them calling the election rigged or illegitimate and only 20 even open to the possibility of accepting a Biden win.

Second, the stolen-election narrative helpfully motivates the right to despise Biden. Biden’s personality has been the weakest point in the Trump campaign all along. Republicans could not get their voters to hate and fear the Democratic nominee as they did Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Whipping them up against his “stolen election,” and priming them to view the Biden presidency itself as illegitimate, does the base-mobilization work for them.

Third, and most dangerously, it gives Trump a pretext for withholding cooperation from the incoming Biden administration. Trump’s order forbidding all federal officials from cooperating with the normal transition planning has been felt most keenly in the pandemic response. Staffers at the Department of Health and Human Services “have been informed that if anyone from Biden’s team contacts them, they are not to communicate with them and should instead alert the deputy surgeon general of the communication,” CNN reported. Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed public alarm at the failure to loop in the next president.

Of course, Trump could still allow transition planning without abandoning his posture that he expects to win. If he wanted, he has the choice to “magnanimously” allow planning on the “remote” contingency that somehow Biden will come out on top. But crippling Biden’s pandemic response seems to be not a side effect of his strategy but the intended one. Trump not only doesn’t care about managing the pandemic; he is very publicly enraged at the idea that Biden will receive any credit for vaccine distribution. The idea that Trump wants Biden to succeed is not one even the president’s most devout supporters could maintain with a straight face. For the sake of both his pride and a possible election rematch, Trump wants Biden to fail and will take whatever steps are at his disposal — including the loss of many more American lives — to bring about that outcome.

And so, as the pandemic accelerates into a deadly winter wave, Trump is preventing both his own administration and the next one from lifting a finger to arrest its progress. Trump has drawn on a long-standing belief among conservatives that Republicans have a natural right to rule. He is already beginning to transition to its complementary proposition that any government run by Democrats is inherently illegitimate.

Had Biden’s margin (which exceeded that of any Republican presidential victory in this century) been just a few tenths of a percentage point smaller, Trump’s coup may well have prevailed. Biden has a solid enough lead in just enough states to withstand Trump’s belated effort to nullify the vote. The Republic will escape but not without further damage. And these weeks of chaos will remove all doubt of something Trump’s critics have long maintained: The American experiment would never have survived a second Trump term.

*This article appears in the November 23, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Danger (and Ineptitude) of Trump’s Failed Coup