By Umair Haque
The last few weeks of the Trump Presidency may prove to be the most dangerous of all. Instead of conceding, or throwing in the towel, or giving up, he’s doubling down. On a coup. All that’s exactly as we predicted, by the way. So what comes next?
Trump is going to go as far as he can possibly go, take things right to the edge. He is going to push American democracy as far as it can be pushed. He is not interested in conceding or giving up — because his movement was never about democracy in the first place.
What’s happening now is that Trump’s judicial strategy is failing. He’s 25 for 1 in the courts, at last count. His legal challenges have failed in state after state. They’ve been thrown out as absurd, unsupported, and flatly false. So far, so good, you might think. But by no means is the attempted coup over — and the goal isn’t what you might think it is, either.
The legal strategy always had a backup plan — trying to thwart and subvert the electoral college. We saw a dramatic display of that just last night, when Republican officials in Michigan refused to certify the vote. And then said they’d certify the vote everywhere but Detroit. An outcry ensued. And Michigan’s Secretary of State, Jocelyn Brown, stepped in to reassure people that votes would be certified by the state if these officials wouldn’t do their jobs properly.
That’s where Trump’s coup strategy is headed now. Burning down American democracy. As much of it as he can. On his way out. To weaken it for… next time.
This part of the coup is about trying to stop the election directly, by intervening in the electoral college. That’s a big problem for America. Because the electoral democracy is an archaic, frail, vulnerable institution. You can see how just two officials threw a state’s vote count into chaos — until the Secretary of State stepped in.
You might think that’s great news — and in a way, it is. But this is where the elements of the coup begin to work together. All that has to happen from here is a lawsuit going before the Supreme Court — maybe by one of those officials. “My freedom was violated!” The Supreme Court, which leans heavily, aggressively Republican, is likely to decide it for them.
And then America’s in a nightmare situation — a proper constitutional crisis.
The problem is that there are many, many routes there. Last night, in a little-seen lawsuit, Trump personally named electors. He is going to try to punish them for doing their jobs, threatening them with legal action, and so forth. Could you afford to fight a court case against…the President of the United States?
The name of the (first) game here is electoral intimidation. It’s a thing America hasn’t seen before. Not voter intimidation — as in intimidation of voters. But of electors, of the 538 who make up the electoral college, who are the people that really elect the President. Trump knows something too many American liberals don’t — in the majority of states, there are no laws enforcing the idea that electors vote the popular will. There is nothing much, in other words, protecting them. Trump and his fanatics know that they can try to intimidate them — and maybe even get away with it.
The name of the next game here is electoral abuse. See how those two officials in Michigan created a mini-crisis all their own? How they can escalate it even now? This game is about abusing the powers that make the electoral college go — certifying votes, tallying them, choosing and appointing slates of electors, and so forth.
What could happen here? Anything could happen, more or less. The electoral college, at this level, as a bureaucracy, as an institution, is wide open to abuse, precisely because it mostly rests on norms, via state laws, not federal laws.
Let’s go to the Michigan example. What happens if Michigan’s Secretary of State says the votes must be certified this way, but the Supreme Court says they don’t have to be? A constitutional crisis ensues. How is it to be resolved? One idea I heard floated was for the House not to seat representatives from Michigan in response. But that’s just retaliation — it doesn’t fix the problem.
There are no good ways to fix the problem if it reaches the level of a full-blown constitutional crisis, because “the problem” in that instance is a President who won’t leave office, a side that won’t accept democracy, and enough institutions of the state backing it all up.
This might all seem far-fetched to you, but let me assure you, it’s not. The chances are slender, sure. But they are far from impossible. And they are growing by the day. Last week, there was a sense of jubilation that Biden had won. This week, we are beginning to see just how far Trump will go to prevail.
That brings me to the next thing you have to understand. “Winning,” for Trump, by now, isn’t just retaining the Presidency. He’d probably be happy enough to walk away with a consolation prize: wrecking American democracy. Delegitimizing it. Slashing and burning as much of it as he can to the ground — so that nothing can grow there ever again.
What does that mean? Half of Republicans already think “the election was stolen” from them. Trump knows that a consolation prize worth walking away from the Presidency would be raising that number high enough to keep his movement again. Then he’s back in four years — or maybe Ivanka is, or Jared is, or Donald Junior is. Does that sound ridiculous to you now? So did the idea of Donald Trump as President in 2012. Don’t discount these possibilities just because they seem remote right now. In periods of social collapse, the improbable all too often becomes probable.
Trump would be quite happy settling for burning American democracy to the ground — as much as he can — because it sets up the roots of Trumpism all over again, maybe even stronger. Last time, the grievances were about failed elites, hated minorities, dirty, filthy subhumans — who were all standing in the way of Making America Great Again.
Think about next time. Now all those people stole an election from us. How much hotter will the fires of grievance and resentment burn? How much better a tactic to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes is there than to blind them with rage? Trumpism emerges stronger — if Trump can pull it off. Pulling it off doesn’t mean staying in office necessarily — that isn’t the point of the coup anymore. It’s to create the impression, the illusion, that “the election was stolen from us!!” To fan the flames of rage, so that Trumpists focus on that, instead of maturing, growing, learning. It’s to misdirect and exploit, as usual.
Along the way, so much the better if portions of American democracy are left charred ruins. If the GOP becomes a party that is outright hostile to democracy, period. If key Senators won’t take a position. If state officials are shown to be easy enough to corrupt and intimidate. If Secretaries of State have to step in to make people do their jobs, if courts are inundated with endless lawsuits from the President. Who is all that good for? Trump, his movement, the fanatics, the fascists, and authoritarians. All of these things leave a democracy scarred, weaker, eroded, corroded, corrupted — often for life. All these things mean Trump still has absolute power over the GOP, that he can mislead and incite his base, that outright authoritarianism is the explicit goal this side openly pursues, that America’s institutions of democracy are left weakened to the point that it’s more vulnerable next time around.
If that doesn’t make sense, think about the new norms and precedents all this sets. The President is a figure who won’t leave office. Who floods courts with authoritarian lawsuits. Who corrupts officials. Whose party winks and says, “shucks, I don’t know who won the election yet” — as electoral intimidation happens. His movement of fanatics believes the election was stolen from them.
The objective of all this is to create a constitutional crisis. And so those are seriously, seriously unhealthy norms and precedents, ones aimed at creating constitutional crisis, that are new in America, which are more in line with failed states — and yet that aim, strategy, approach, of creating constitutional crisis, is now what an entire side of American politics considers acceptable, what they’re probably now going to do for the foreseeable future, every election. Trump may be on his way out — but he is very successfully burning down American democracy, leaving a trail of charred ashes in his wake.
To really get all this, you have to see the point of burning down American democracy: it’s a good enough consolation prize for Trump because it leaves the nation even more divided, democracy weaker, politics corroded, its ideals corrupted, norms shattered, and in tatters — all of which makes finishing it off the next time easier. Lose a battle — but inflict enough damage — win a war.
American pundits say: “the system’s working!” They’re badly naive, and they’re wrong. None of this is the system working. It’s the coup working. The system working would be: Trump conceded, he’s planning to leave office, there aren’t electoral machinations going on, random officials can’t create a crisis, Secretaries of State don’t have to step in, the courts don’t have to deal with challenges of which just a handful have to be successful, the Supreme Court isn’t stacked heavily against democracy, an entire side of democracy doesn’t believe in it anymore, and half of that side doesn’t think the election was stolen from them. All that is the coup working, not the system.
Trump is inching closer to sparking a constitutional crisis by the day. The system is indeed fending off Trump’s challenges, but that is not a system working. It is a system barely functioning. In a democracy, nobody should be able to nakedly, aggressively mount a full-frontal attack aimed at constitutional crisis — especially not the President. All the approaches and tactics and strategies above should not have been able to happen in the first place. Trump should not be able to intimidate officials, punish electors, create mini-crises, mount endless legal challenges. That is all a soft coup, and it’s working — at least in the sense of Trump destroying as much of democracy as he can on the way out.
It’s crucial to understand this because too many Americans are operating with just that blithe assumption: “the system’s working! Hooray!! What is there to worry about?!” The system working would have prevented all this. It would have stopped it all dead in its tracks. For things to get to this level — the President refusing to concede, still in power, trying his best to create constitutional crisis, brainwashing his base, with no dissent from this party — that’s the coup working, not the system.
Over the coming weeks, American democracy is going to be severely tested. The electoral college doesn’t vote until the 14th of December, and it isn’t certified until New Years’. Its President knows that, while not enough of its people do. And so he’s mounting a soft coup. The point of the coup isn’t necessarily to stay in power — though it’d be nice for him. It’s to weaken what’s left of American democracy, corroding, corrupting, and eroding whatever norms, rules, principles, and codes he can, while strengthening Trumpism, fanning its resentment, keeping it focused on grievance, blinding it with rage.
The last few weeks of the Trump Presidency are going to be the most dangerous of all. There is every chance yet that all this ends with a full-blown constitutional crisis. A showdown between states and the Supreme Court, or the federal government and states, or the Presidency versus Congress. These are situations in which there are few rules, and fewer good outcomes. Let us hope it doesn’t get that far. Because burning down American democracy is now what Trump’s coup is aiming for.