There was never any question that President Trump would reject an election defeat. He rejected the outcome of the 2016 Iowa primary and called for a revote because Ted Cruz won. He rejected the outcome of the 2012 election because Barack Obama won after it appeared (prematurely and erroneously) that Mitt Romney would win the popular vote. He rejected the outcome of the 2016 election because Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote, and he even established a commission to investigate his spurious claims.
The main uncertainty lay in how the political system would respond to Trump’s extremely predictable refusal to abide by the outcome. Here, the evidence is mixed. In the most important way, key figures have proven immune to the pressure applied by Trump and his allies to override the election result. Many Republicans have cooperated with Trump’s autogolpe, but secretaries of State in Georgia and Arizona as well as judges almost everywhere have resisted his overtures.
Trump’s legal case against the election results has deteriorated into pure comedy. He has lost more than 50 cases, with most of them being laughed out of court. Trump’s lawyers have registered fewer victories (one, in an almost immaterial case regarding a deadline for proof of identification on mail ballots) than positive results for COVID-19 (two). His most recent lawsuit, filed in Texas, rests on the assertion that Joe Biden’s come-from-behind win, an outcome predicted uniformly by voting experts based on mail-in ballots being counted later in several states, had a probability of “less than one in a quadrillion to the fourth power (i.e., 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,0004).” Trump’s “expert” source computed this statistic by assuming Trump and Biden’s ballots “were similar and randomly drawn from the same population.”
As anybody who even watches cable news on election night understands, that assumption is wrong. Many heavily Democratic cities report their votes later than Republican-leaning small towns. And several states counted their mail ballots (which Trump repeatedly urged his supporters to boycott) after the same-day ballots.
Yet 17 states have signed on to Trump’s preposterous Texas lawsuit, which also enjoys the support of both Georgia Senate candidates. And in the face of defeat, Trump’s rhetoric has simply grown more defiant. He has begun to openly call for the election to be “overturned.”
Meanwhile, the sentiment that Trump has been robbed of a second term is rapidly congealing into a tenet of party faith. Fox News has lost market share to its even more slavish competitors because it called the election for Biden, and now its opinion-news lineup has begun aggressively wooing back Trump’s fan base by endorsing his fantastical claims. Last night, Sean Hannity waved a copy of the farcical Texas lawsuit as the decisive blow in the battle to expose the stolen election.
Pennsylvania state legislative majority leader Kim Ward explained that she signed a letter rejecting the election results because, she said, “If I would say to you, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ I’d get my house bombed tonight.” While Ward was almost certainly exaggerating for effect, it is true that armed pro-Trump protesters have menaced officials in states like Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia. More broadly, Republicans recognize that denying Trump’s lies puts their careers at risk.
Trump’s pattern of anti-democratic behavior tends to be an exaggerated version of tendencies that already existed within his party. (Trump picked up most of his ideas by watching party-aligned media like Fox News, with its regular claims of rampant Democratic fraud.) Republicans have usually resolved their discomfort with Trump’s most egregious claims by trying to co-opt them.
Republicans have predictably converted Trump’s demands for overturning the election into normal Republican politics. The base’s anger at the “fraud” translates to a ginned-up base that refuses to recognize Biden’s legitimacy and that will pressure Republicans to oppose anything the new president tries to do. In Georgia, Republicans are slashing the number of early-voting locations and proposing to eliminate mail-ballot drop boxes and to ratchet up new restrictions on mail voting. Trump’s wild rhetoric has turned out to be a useful pretext to impose the kinds of vote suppression Republicans have long favored anyway. To the extent that Trump has a different view from “normal” Republicans, it’s that he takes their claims of endemic Democratic voter fraud (especially by Black voters) at face value.
The proper way to understand Trump’s threat to the system is not as an idiosyncratic onetime emergency but as an especially gross iteration of his party’s long-standing evolution into authoritarianism. Christian Vanderbrouk, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, laments that the GOP’s “retreat from even attempting to secure a popular majority in favor of using the geographic leverage created by the Electoral College has resulted in a growing suspicion of majoritarianism itself.”
Trump has turned the rhetoric of banana republicanism — calling for arresting his enemies and overturning lost elections — into common party talking points. And while he has lacked the means and the opportunity to put into practice the ideas he expressed, those ideas will continue to spread, and one day the opportunity will come.
This post has been updated.