Politics

Our Trump-Traumatized Brains Need a Break. We Won’t Get One.

There’s a specific pain to realizing that the norms broken over the past four years won’t be restored.

Donald Trump looks up while standing in front of a U.S. flag.
President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The aftermath of Joe Biden’s resounding defeat of Donald Trump has been a vertiginous loop-de-loop alternating between relief and horror. The cathartic joy the majority of Americans felt when Biden’s victory was finally called the Saturday of election week evaporated in the following days, when it became clear not only that Trump intended to do anything he could to stay in power but that Republicans had no intention of stopping him. It was the latest and most frightening escalation in a Republican Party that has grown increasingly untethered from reality or rules. We should have already known that they would do this—their increasing commitment to an authoritarian model was made clear when Mitch McConnell violated the very rules he himself articulated in 2016 in order to seat Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court just days before the election. But somehow, that one didn’t hit the country in the same way—it came too close to the election, too close to the moment when people thought they would have the ability to “fix” what was happening in America. And so, many assumed that it wasn’t actually possible for Republicans to have become so arrogant and immune to any rules at all that they would challenge the very basis on which this country depends: an election where people like you and me vote to determine a winner.

But that’s what Republicans did. As hurricanes of misinformation inflated angry Trump supporters with false stories about massive voter fraud, once-respectable Republicans fanned the flames. Rather than congratulate Biden, they turned American democracy into a game of malicious Calvinball, insisting that Trump “had the right” to contest the election on the basis of no evidence at all—as over a dozen meritless lawsuits have now proved. Lindsey Graham made himself fully available to Trump, and loudly and angrily echoed his lies in dramatic spurts, even if doing so meant he was implicitly questioning the basis of his own victory. (If the election were a fraud, how could he have won reelection?) And Graham apparently went a step further: In a truly shocking development, Georgia’s (Republican!) secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, revealed Monday that Graham tried to illegally pressure him into throwing out legally cast votes. He has witnesses; at least one other staffer was on the call.

And so these weeks have left us in a peculiar position wherein we find ourselves saying dangerously obvious things like “The election decides the presidency” or “Donald Trump lost the election.” It is frightening when self-evident things are urgently stated; it implies that the whole edifice is tottering. For those of us who still clung to some faith in American norms and institutions, that faith has repeatedly proved we were chumps. Still, somehow, many of us believed (or tried to believe, because what else can you do?) that an election could provide an entirely legitimate and refreshingly procedural offramp from a bad and dangerous course. Plenty of Americans hope this can be the beginning of the restoration of “checks and balances” or that it could make us a country wherein laws and even norms mean something. Or anything.

That experts insist Trump poses no real danger despite his efforts at an autocoup is not reassuring to those who have moved from relief back to panic, thanks to a kind of reactivated trauma. We have been falsely reassured too often that norms would protect what Trump wouldn’t. The emoluments clause will stop him from profiting from the presidency, experts wrote at the beginning of Trump’s term. We are not a corrupt country. But no Republican tried to stop him, so Trump enriched himself immensely as president. We were repeatedly informed that the administration was violating the Hatch Act. Somehow, it didn’t matter—and the violations grew in number and scope. If this election was meant to reaffirm the normative powers of a country with two centuries of smooth transfers of power, if the hope was that a refreshingly dull and bureaucratic protocol like an election would revive “norms” by enforcing consequences for those who violated them, it is not succeeding. Not just norms but democracy itself is hanging on by the skin of its teeth. The world the United States has generated is one where many Americans are still baselessly denying that Biden won, and it can’t be chalked up to ignorance: The White House press secretary herself is insisting that Trump will still be president.

In the meantime, Trump fired the secretary of defense, decimated the Pentagon, installed loyalists, and threatened to fire everyone from Dr. Anthony Fauci to CIA Director Gina Haspel to FBI Director Christopher Wray. His piggish cudgel, William Barr, wrote an unprecedented memo empowering the Justice Department—which should have no hand in election matters determined by individual states before an election is certified—to investigate allegations of “vote tabulation irregularities.” This was so out of line that Richard Pilger, previously the head of the Justice Department’s Election Crimes Branch, resigned in protest. These alarming portents were accompanied by other lunatic and corrupt efforts to prevent Biden from assuming power: General Services Administration Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, has refused to authorize the release of funds for a Biden transition team. Because of Murphy’s refusal to sign a letter of ascertainment—a perfectly ordinary, uncontroversial matter that has never caused problems in 60 years—Biden is not receiving crucial intelligence briefings that other presidents-elect would have started receiving long ago. So far, Democrats have been powerless to enforce a change. Members of the House wrote Murphy to make her do her job; she has yet to reply.

Some Republicans have insisted, under the cowardly cover of anonymity, that while they privately accept the results of the election, Trump needs time to come to terms with his loss. I have not known what to say to this; it is beyond egregious to endanger the nation by denying the president-elect intelligence briefings because a con man needs time to stop conning. The argument itself frays at a threadbare democratic tradition that has never once paused to center the feelings of a single man. Trump has destroyed many stable and American features of governance with his party’s full support. It was clear enough—given that he claimed in 2016 that the election he won was “rigged”—that he would call this one unfair regardless of the evidence. The algebra for this moment was there if you were looking for it. But it took more pessimism than even I had to predict that the entire Republican Party would back his obvious, self-serving lie. That is a frightening, frightening development. The effect is political nausea just when Americans expected relief.

The critical thing to understand is that Trump’s refrain has never been “You’re fired.” It has always been “Make me.” Make him pay taxes. Make him follow the law. Make him pay his contractors. No one ever has; he has buried contractors who worked for him in needless, expensive litigation, and now that it’s time for someone to make him leave the presidency, his reaction is to try to do the same to this country. Congress may be forced to change its own rules to work around a rogue administrator—Murphy—who is holding up a smooth presidential transition out of loyalty to a rogue president. The courts are swamped with stupid lawsuits that irritated judges are laughing out of court. And save for extraordinary exceptions like Brad Raffensperger—whom I guess we must thank for reporting rather than acceding to Lindsey Graham’s corrupt request—Republicans are doing next to nothing to stop all this. We are in the odd position of having to be thankful to Fox News, of all entities, for refusing—at least in its news programs—to fully support Trump’s obvious, dangerous lies. The fragile collective fantasy about American decency does not work on the shameless, especially when one party has fully embraced authoritarian corruption. Voters’ wishes may hold this time, but what happens next time, when it’s closer?

Biden has handled these bizarre and alarming obstacles well. Ignoring Trump’s tantrums, the transition team is publishing readouts of phone calls with heads of state—that Trump’s State Department has refused to help arrange them has not stopped them from happening. Biden’s quieter assertions of power have included moderate but effective messaging: He’s tweeted about the Good Friday Agreement, thereby sending a strong message about Brexit that differs considerably from Trump’s, emphasized his concern about the explosion of COVID-19 cases currently afflicting the country (a tame position to be sure, but one that forcefully opposes Trump’s denialism), and sent congratulatory tweets to the developers of two promising vaccines.

His direct confrontations with Trump have been few, but even a tweet like his Nov. 10 notice that “beginning on January 20th, Vice President-elect Harris and I are going to do everything in our power to ease the burden of health care on you and your families” is doubling as reassurance to nervy Americans that the inauguration will happen on Jan. 20. The campaign’s postelection legal briefing confronted the threats directly and reassuringly: “What we’re seeing from the Trump campaign is just that: It is noise,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director. Of the legal threats, Bob Bauer assured the public (correctly) that they were “theatrics, not really lawsuits” that “are failing around the country and will continue to fail.” Of the recondite Republican scheme to make state legislatures substitute Trump-loyal electors for electoral results they don’t like, Bauer said: “That’s simply not true. That’s not in the Constitution, that’s not consistent with the Constitution, and that will never happen.” The legal briefing made it clear that the obstacles didn’t matter: “I do want to emphasize that however this develops, we can continue and are continuing with the transition,” Bauer said. “These transition meetings are ongoing, they’re progressing, and there’s no question that whichever route we travel here, we are going to be moving very quickly and very decisively toward a full transition that enables President-elect Biden and Vice President–elect Harris to take office fully ready.”

For this American at least, these staid, somewhat dry assurances have been welcome. The Biden team has worked around Trump’s roadblocks, and Trump’s claims are souring even among Republicans, some of whom have grudgingly admitted that Biden really should be receiving intelligence briefings because national security is (occasionally) a bipartisan concern. Sure, Trump has refused to acknowledge his loss in the electoral college which, at 306–232, is exactly the margin by which he won in 2016 (and he called that a landslide). But that’s not the point: The objective, for now, is to rebuild Americans’ shattered faith that anything in this country works. The remarkable integrity of this election despite the Trump’s team’s best efforts to produce (or manufacture) evidence of chicanery means it’s quite likely that Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, just as he should be. But if anyone still hoped that voting “this” out would mean that a respectably norm-driven and legal process could wash out the mess that misinformation and corruption made, that hope seems lost.