Politics

Americans Have Taken Trump’s Power Away

Republicans may be sticking with Trump, but they have no substantive plan for retaining control of the presidency.

A young person dances, surrounded by other people on a street. All are wearing face masks, some are holding signs.
People celebrate near the White House after major news networks projected Joe Biden’s win on Saturday. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

For months before the election, political analysts and worried members of the public wondered what would happen if Donald Trump refused to concede after losing to Joe Biden. With Trump’s fetish for autocratic power, inability to accept negative consequences, and lack of apparent tether to democratic norms, the prospect of the president outright ignoring an election defeat seemed all but certain. In September, Barton Gellman described this pending crisis in the Atlantic, noting that if Trump were to refuse to concede, “it will deform the [transition] proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before.” A political historian told the Boston Globe in October that while refusing to concede “doesn’t guarantee that [Trump] has some lock on power,” it would be “a pretty dangerous path for a president.” Left-leaning activist groups prepared for mass mobilization—street protests, civil disobedience, pressure campaigns on Congress and the courts—should Trump decline to vacate his office if he lost.

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Then, the election results began to arrive, in the glacial trickle of a voting system that cares not for our heart rates or sleep cycles. In the days immediately following election night, as things looked increasingly dour for Trump, the president and his allies repeatedly claimed that the election had been stolen by a sophisticated conspiracy that mysteriously also allowed for several key GOP Senate wins. But did these claims “deform the proceedings from beginning to end”? Were we immediately set on a “dangerous path”? I don’t think so. Instead, we watched the Associated Press and other major news networks—including Fox—announce Biden’s win on Saturday. While the Trump team continued to bring lawsuits and refused to concede, all across the country, people danced in the streets with joy, after wondering for months whether they’d have to take the streets in gas masks to prevent a coup from taking hold. The middle fingers and epithets they directed at the White House were ecstatic, not angry or scared. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris delivered acceptance speeches on Saturday night, and while Trump still technically occupies the office of the president, Biden and Harris are already starting their transition work, in some kind of repurposed warehouse. The fear of a coup has been deflated.

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There are a few factors that have caused the president’s actions to veer from “treacherous subverter of constitutional democracy” to “sore loser whimpering into the void.” First, the fast-moving, Biden-favoring election results in the Upper Midwest and the lack of a “red mirage” in the Southwest kept Trump from ever taking the lead. This meant that he was never able to even remotely credibly claim a pseudo-victory on election night. And all responsible media outlets—even those owned by Rupert Murdoch—methodically proceeded as normal, recognizing Biden as the president-elect. So did foreign leaders and several powerful institutional actors, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. None of them felt the need to wait for Trump to concede to state the obvious: Biden won the election, perhaps not in a landslide, but with plenty of breathing room.

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Second, there’s never been any expectation that we would get a concession out of this president. Trump has been saying for months that he wouldn’t commit to a peaceful transition of power unless he was sure the election results were legitimate. He has also been saying for months that he was certain that any election results that didn’t find him the winner would not be legitimate. He told us what he was going to do, and then he did it. There was no shock and horror among his detractors, nor surge of elated loyalty among his fans. There was merely the tedious fulfillment of a narrative Trump had laid out in meticulous detail. By the time his big rhetorical power grab came, everyone had already had more than enough time to process what it might mean. The networks were prepared enough that many cut away from the president as he lied during his press conference on Thursday night.*

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In a way, the Republican Party has been preparing Americans for this moment for a long time. Sure, it’s not great that people like Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have been making baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in an attempt to delegitimize Biden’s win. But their belief that the only legitimate American leadership is white, conservative, Christian leadership is not new. Is there a meaningful difference between fighting to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning constituencies and saying that millions of “illegal” votes have been cast? Between passing a poll tax in Florida and implying that the votes of Black Georgians, which delivered the state to Biden, should not count? Between the GOP rhetoric that dismisses urbanites, people of color, and Democrats as unrepresentative of “real America” and claims that Biden’s win is illegitimate despite his victory by a margin of more than 4.5 million votes?

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No one who’s been watching the president in horror for the past four years should be surprised by the tactics here. No one who’s witnessed the Republican Party’s wholesale deference to Trump expected any GOP leaders to change their tune in the final hour. And while some GOP elected officials have admitted Trump’s defeat, many haven’t: Most notably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he supports the president’s ability to pursue his frivolous lawsuits challenging the election results in several states, echoing the language of many of his colleagues. It’s unclear how long this support can reasonably hold, given the emptiness of those lawsuits. Maybe the statements are serving as placeholders as they wait for the courts to reject Trump’s attempts, giving them an easy out to turn away from the president. Maybe it’s a deliberate strategy to continue to rile up support from the base leading into the Georgia runoff elections. Neither should surprise us.

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Intelligence officials and law scholars can—and, to be frank, absolutely should—continue to game out what might happen should members of the Trump administration chain themselves to their cubicles, deputize Trump-supporting police unions as White House muscle, or wipe all the government’s hard drives on the way out the door. But one thing that has been heartening to me over the weekend, and something we should keep in mind in the weeks to come, is that we didn’t realize that it would look at least as silly as it is scary for Trump and his friends to keep insisting on a win for days after his loss. When a person who holds power does things that threaten the fabric of a nation, it’s petrifying. If you cherish democratic norms and the rule of law, it opens a pit in your stomach. But when a person is robbed of that power, they immediately become less scary.

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And we already know that the American electorate has taken Trump’s power away. As soon as they did, the tenor of this situation changed. His blustering, for all its anti-democratic potential, deflated a bit. Threats are a lot less ominous coming from someone who’s just been told, resoundingly, that he’s bad at his job and his duties have been reassigned. Obviously it’s not ideal that Trump, McConnell, and their pals have convinced tens of millions of Americans that the election has been stolen from the GOP. But was there any realistic scenario in which they would calmly accept defeat? They’d long ago crossed the Rubicon of painting their political opponents as illegitimate leaders—in 2016, one survey found that only 27 percent of Republicans agreed that Barack Obama was definitely born in the U.S. It’s sad and maddening that Republican officials have decided to pursue victory through lies, voter suppression, and the racist, nativist appeals of Trumpism, but it’s no longer surprising. This election was never going to be the thing that made them change their minds.

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If you want to spend the next few months worrying about a coup, that’s understandable, given the past few years. But consider this—who is Trump counting on to help him stay in office? The Secret Service agents who are pissed that he recklessly exposed them to the coronavirus? Members of the military, many of whom supported Biden, and whose ballots Trump is trying to discount? Do we really think Trump would rather hold out for a perp walk than leave on his own terms—in a big truck, flying a thin blue line flag, surrounded by adoring fans? Trump is spending his days on the golf course; Mike Pence is slinking off for some R&R at the Florida seashore. These men could not stage a coup of so much as an unsuspecting Philadelphia landscaping business. Now that voters have served their eviction notices, that’s a lot easier to see.

Correction, Nov. 10, 2020: This article originally misstated when Trump delivered a press conference that broadcasters cut away from. It was Thursday night, not Wednesday night.

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