Donald Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election has been an exercise in slapstick through and through: His ailing attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has taken weekly pratfalls in his efforts to overturn states’ results. His legal challenges are being laughed out of court. And his own campaign to appear, if not authoritarian, at least authoritative, has only invited more mockery—asserting his dominance from behind a wee little desk; retweeting hallucinatory messages of support from the likes of Randy Quaid; claiming, with a straight face, that “big massive dumps” were to blame for his loss last month to Joe Biden.
But the folly and futility can sometimes obscure how hazardous it all is. Nothing he, Giuliani, Sidney Powell, nor the rest of the blustery loons in their orbit is likely to prevent Biden from taking the oath of office January 20—something Trump, in reportedly toying with the idea of counter-programming his successor’s inauguration, seems to be aware of. But his increasingly untethered antics over the past month—and a majority of Republicans’ disgraceful complicity in them—nonetheless have a dangerous effect, both in the short term and in the long term.
With Trumpworld’s desperate, amateurish lawsuits getting tossed out one after another, the president’s efforts to keep his grip on power have amounted to urging states to throw out their results. But despite claiming, as he did in Georgia over the weekend, to have actually won states he lost (and publicly demanding local officials back him up), no one has really budged. Georgia on Monday recertified its results after another recount, with its Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, saying officials “have now counted legally cast ballots three times, and the results remain unchanged.”
But local officials’ allegiance to the truth and to the democratic process has come at a personal cost. Over the weekend, an armed mob marched outside the home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, to express outrage over an election they believe was “stolen” from Trump, who actually “won it by a landslide,” one of the apparent participants said in a video posted to social media. “I have always been an energetic advocate for the right and importance of peaceful protest as enshrined in the United States Constitution,” Benson said in a statement, noting that she was putting up Christmas decorations with her young son when the rally outside her home began. “However there is a line crossed when gatherings are done with the primary purpose of intimidation of public officials who are carrying out the oath of office they solemnly took as elected officials.”
Such threats, which have echoed Trump and been amplified by him, have been leveled at other officials since the election, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the target of far-right kidnapping plot this fall, and Raffensperger—a conservative who voted for Trump and was, in his 2018 run for Georgia secretary of state, endorsed by him. The president’s ever-escalating rhetoric, and his supporters’ willingness to accept it as gospel, give real reason to worry that, as Republican Georgia election chief Gabriel Sterling warned in a righteous rebuke last week, “someone is going to get hurt” if things continue to ratchet up like this.
But even if this interregnum doesn’t boil over into the kind of violence Sterling suggested, there would still be a great deal of damage done by Trump, his most fervid supporters, and the Washington Republicans who have largely stood by and watched him as he pushes transparently bogus election claims, sows discord and distrust, and acts in a way that is increasingly frightening for someone who has access to the nuclear codes to behave. Most immediately, his face-saving crusade will reinforce the view among his supporters that Biden was illegitimately elected, and perhaps hamstring his successor as he seeks to confront the mounting crises facing the nation, like the raging pandemic. More broadly, it could inflict lasting damage on democratic norms and institutions, and as the Atlantic’s Zeynep Tufekci argued Monday, serve as a blueprint for a less cartoonish aspiring autocrat in the future to mount a more effective assault on the election system. As an exasperated Sterling put it last week: “This is elections. This is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It’s too much.”
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