What Is Trump’s Endgame?

To put it in Brooklyn lingo: Donnie, you ain’t got bupkis. So, fuggedaboutit!

President Donald Trump Wednesday at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery

Only President Donald Trump will not go quietly. His campaign has filed a wave of frivolous and quixotic lawsuits claiming election fraud. Most of the lawsuits lack any evidence of wrongdoing, and judges routinely dismiss the Trump camp’s claims. Besides, even if courts ruled for Trump in all cases, there simply are not enough possible examples of fraud to overturn the election results. Joe Biden is president-elect because his lead in battleground states is insurmountable, giving him a clear victory in the Electoral College. 

So what is Trump trying to do? The most benign explanation, though not a very complimentary one, is that the toddler-in-chief needs time “to process” his loss. As is well-known by now, Trump hates to be a “loser.” Some have claimed the president especially is galled at losing to “Sleepy Joe,” though that explanation runs counter to evidence suggesting Trump always believed Biden was his most formidable potential opponent, hence the whole concocted Ukraine scheme. 

The narrative of a stolen election is resonating with Trump supporters

Already, millions of Trump supporters are convinced that the election was rigged. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows that 70 percent of Republicans do not believe the 2020 election was free and fair. That number is likely to increase over time. Whether or not Trump has to be forcibly removed from the White House does not matter, as either way he certainly will not go quietly. He will tweet and call into his favorite (at least for now) cable channel — he may even start his own TV network — claiming the election was “stolen,” a vicious and false assertion that will be believed by millions.

It is not only Trump who is beating this drum. The bulk of elected Republican officials — with few exceptions — also are yelling “fraud” and “rigged,” in part, no doubt, to rally the Trump base to vote in the January special elections in Georgia. Accusations that the election would be rigged emerged before any ballots were cast, with Trump leading the charge against mail-in balloting. These seemingly endless allegations of electoral wrongdoing only serve to undermine Biden’s presidency. Republicans have a sorry history of delegitimizing Democratic presidents. The perfidious “birther” assertions pushed by Trump and other conspiracy-minded racists convinced millions on the right that Barack Obama was not entitled to the presidency, frustrating his ability to enact his agenda and stiffening Republican obstructionism.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole

Obama was not the first Democratic president undermined by Republicans. In 1992, Bill Clinton won a 370-169 majority in the Electoral College, beating incumbent George H.W. Bush by 5.8 million in the popular vote. But, because Ross Perot obtained 19 percent of the vote, Clinton’s share was only 43 percent. Republicans spun that total to claim Clinton lacked a “mandate” to govern since 57 percent of the voting population voted against him. (Never mind, that a subsequent poll showed Perot voters breaking evenly for their second choice.) Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole quickly opined, “I intend to represent that majority [the anti-Clinton vote] on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Republicans worked to frustrate every Clinton initiative, just as they did when Obama became president. 

President-elect Bill Clinton meeting with President George H.W. Bush, November 18, 1992

Trump’s temper tantrum already is preventing a normal transfer of power. Biden is unable to gain access to the office space and equipment and funding required by law to facilitate the transition. The president-elect has not received the President’s Daily Brief — a compendium of intelligence data that goes to senior government officials. Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford says he is ready to intervene to insure Biden is briefed, but how effective his intervention might be is anybody’s guess. Bill Clinton, a few weeks after the 1992 election, met with his defeated rival and said Bush“gave me the benefit of his thinking on a lot of things.” Do not expect a similar scene this year.

Retired General Anthony Tata has been appointed to a sensitive post at the Pentagon

It gets worse. Trump is still president, but he does not appear to be doing any work. His public schedule has been empty, yet he does have time for rounds of golf. This inactivity parallels a huge spike in the number of cases of COVID-19, though Trump long ago gave up on working to contain the pandemic. The only thing Trump seems interested in these days is getting revenge on those he perceives wronged him. Hence, he fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and others in sensitive posts at the Pentagon and National Security Council, installing loyalists in their place, including retired General Anthony Tata who has a history of bigoted utterances, including calling Islam “the most oppressive violent religion” and referring to Obama as a “terrorist leader.”

Is this evidence of a coup in plain sight? Certainly, the many prophecies before the election that Trump would not concede have been borne out. I have no doubt that Trump would not shrink from doing whatever he could, but coups often involve at least part of the military siding with the insurrectionists, and it is hard to see America’s armed forces obeying orders to overthrow the Constitution. There are, of course, other military-style units in other departments of the government — such as were deployed in early June in some American cities — that Trump could theoretically mobilize. But, it is not clear Trump possesses the discipline and focus such an action would require. 

Beyond a coup, the prospect of a civil war exists. More than 70-million people voted for Trump, and the vast majority of those already believe the election was fraudulent. Might they rally to Trump’s side if he refuses to leave the White House on January 20? How would they act out their anger and disapproval?

Whatever happens between now and Inauguration Day, one thing is clear: The denouement of this presidency matches the odiousness of its four years in power. The nation will not easily shrug off its dance with right-wing nationalism. Democracy has been stained by Trump’s four years in office. Could that be his endgame?

Posted November 13, 2020

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