With news that Mitch McConnell has decided to embrace Donald Trump’s use of patently frivolous litigation to deny the results of the 2020 election, and that Attorney General William Barr has authorized the Justice Department to lend a hand by issuing a bizarre memo giving federal prosecutors approval to pursue “vote tabulation irregularities”—violating the Justice Department’s own long-standing practice of waiting until states certify their election results—we find ourselves trapped inside the same Möbius strip that has confounded us since 2016. On the one hand, this is all just a tantrum, a giant roll-around-on-the-floor-in-the-Pop-Tarts-aisle baby-fit by the world’s oldest living captive of Piaget’s first stage of cognitive development. And at the same time, when that tantrum involves the firing of the secretary of defense (via Twitter), threats of future firings that expose the national security apparatus to genuine instability and risk, and concerted and purposeful GOP attacks on the legitimacy of voting and the very concept of respecting election results, it is hard to dismiss it as mere empty theater. After a weekend of thinking we might be free of this, it turns out that the feeling that we’re teetering on an existential brink is not yet gone.
So here we go again. It’s either a creeping authoritarian coup, or just a really annoying sequel to a horror movie that seems never to end. We’re either experiencing something really profoundly worrisome, or this is just the coddling of a narcissist who just needs a cozy offramp. My own impulse, as it has been for the past four years, is to contend that both can be true at once. Like Will Bunch, I find myself in the camp of yes/and fretters, who can rationally acknowledge that Mitch McConnell is riling up the base for a runoff in Georgia, and that Trump himself is engaged in little more than grifting the night away, and also that watching the putative machinery of democracy turned again toward the horrific spectacle of delegitimizing democracy itself is pretty freaking chilling.
It’s true and has always been true that Trump and his whims and moods and ego are a distraction. But one thing it’s always distracted us from is the irreparable damage he has done to norms. Some of those norms—your adult kids and business do not profit off the office of the presidency; you don’t use the White House to stage campaign events—are Trump-specific, and they will either end with him or could be legislatively corrected in time. But some of those norms have nothing to do with this president’s cravenness, his tantrums, and his disregard for the rule of law. Norms around what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can lawfully do, what the Justice Department can now attempt, and how truth can be distorted and upended—those are not just Trump norms. They are power norms, and the reason the past few days have felt so menacing is that the power norm now being fanatically embraced by Mitch McConnell, two sitting senators from Georgia, and several prestigious law firms, is that Republicans can maintain minority rule by getting a court to agree to throwing out legally cast ballots. Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham have said as much out loud: Republicans cannot win if every vote is to be tabulated. They know that, and they are trying to win anyway. And all this is despite the cumulative advantages conferred upon the GOP by partisan gerrymandering, redistricting, the Electoral College, and the structure of the Senate. So the notion that the GOP, alongside Donald Trump, has now either tacitly or expressly adopted the position that they get to decide who wins despite what the votes say is ghastly, whether they are doing so for their own transactional reasons or not.
We tend to get bogged down in abstract norms. This is the first time we have witnessed a refusal to peacefully accede to a transition. This is the first time the losing party has quite deliberately fomented mistrust of elections officials and elections themselves. These are certainly norms that are being shattered, though they are obscured and made comedic by the wild-haired Lear figure begging only to be loved. But more importantly, this is a piece of signaling from the party, which has come to believe that Democrats can never legitimately hold power, that they really mean it, and oh, they will gladly use the collected apparatus of the courts, Big Law, social media, state legislatures, the Justice Department (with the notable exception of those who will not tolerate it), the media (with the notable exception of most reliable news organizations and some parts of Fox News), assorted Trump hacks, the Republican National Committee, and Senate Republicans (with the notable exceptions of Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney) to make farcical claims about the need to throw out “tens of thousands of illegal ballots,” which, as best as I can tell, are only “illegal” because they have been cast by Democrats.
Consider, too, the nature of many of the election challenges that have been filed thus far. A good many rest in claims that pervasive cheating and fraud are everywhere—the whole system is rigged—and Republicans needed more access to ferret it out, by way of closer election monitors or more records. Those aren’t actual harms; they are paranoid delusions. Yet in the span of a week, this kind of allegation has poisoned significant quadrants of the population against the election results. No evidence is needed, under this theory. The mere conviction that it probably happened is sufficient.
Those of us who live most comfortably on the cheerful side of the Möbius strip are assured that this is just some pathetic Hail Mary–ing, a little humoring of the sad strongman that will be shut down once the courts come face to face with the reality that these cases are laughable and their evidence is nonexistent, as the courts that have seen these cases have consistently done. But for those of us who contend that the abiding harm here isn’t to Donald Trump, his campaign, or his fortunes, but rather to the country, its integrity, and the continued functioning of its institutions, the concern here isn’t merely that Trump is cleaning house at vital agencies or installing loyalists or sullenly blockading an orderly transition. This flirtation with nihilism and anti-democratic themes, as Aaron Blake argues, “would seem to be pretty high on the things you should approach with extreme caution.” These claims—that some votes are “legal” and some are “illegal” (just as some people are legal and some are illegal)—are quickly metastasized not just into the public discourse or the internet memes, but into actual modes of governance. The Republican Party is counting on that metastasis not just as a means of goosing a Georgia Senate runoff, but as another prong in a long-standing project to entrench GOP rule, regardless of electoral outcomes. That the DOJ, the General Services Administration, and other institutions are already on board with that endeavor isn’t quite nothing.
I myself am solidly on board with the optimistic take here: Americans showed up and voted last week, and elections officials conducted themselves heroically, often in the face of threats and intimidation. Votes were counted—are being counted—in scrupulous accordance with state law. The center held. This is an extraordinary turn of events in the face of deliberate efforts to persuade voters that the election would be a farce. But the reason the days since the election have been so unsettling is that this one fixed and robust pillar of democratic rule—that the people cast votes and the votes count—is the very thing now under attack, not just with the careless words of a wounded president, but with the concerted alignment of a party that cannot now seem to accept anything short of a total vanquishing of its opponents.