Overthrowing our diverse 50 state election is harder than winning a civil war.
You can’t fault Trump authoritarians for quietly pushing a post-election power grab, defying a thundering NO from eighty-one million citizen voters. There can only be three reasons Biden remains president: luck, a paucity of GOP coup brainpower or institutional resiliency. Drawing an Electoral College royal flush in 2016, surviving (wholly avoidable) debacles for four years, plus escaping two apt impeachment trials and a one-off, failed insurrection all prove Trump has more luck than savvy.
Still a rank amateur, as if incapable of learning politics (or election law, the Constitution, or strategic planning, doomed with dismal yes-men), he spent four years blundering between crises and misadventures. Every Trump debacle counted, but let’s not (like some) dismiss the self-protective momentum of democratic law, order and core institutions. Only winning a civil war compares with executing a successful election coup. Bravo for our being too sprawling a country, with 50 different sets of voting laws and tabulators. In truth, American elections look too big to fail—or fall to a coup by inept, creepy crooks.
Probability thus makes acing two royal flushes in one political career an extreme long shot. We should not dismiss mean-spirited, bad-loser right-wingers trying to corrupt state elections, nor that Trump is still waving his arms towards 2024, damn those growing Never Trumpers. No crystal ball for me, I go by the evidence at hand. Thus, 1) there are good reasons America has never endured a coup; and 2) Trump is incompetent at minimal leadership—so where’s the management/planning skills, the staff, realism, stable genius, or much thicker skin to truly make history by stealing a national election? Still no more than a slick reality T.V. star/celebrity/mass conjurer, Trump remains a laughable candidate to pull off what’s never been done: steal a re-election. Even the loudest mocking bird will never become an eagle, certainly no imperial lion.
Despite incumbency, demagogic leverage and months to plan, Trump’s band of 2020 buffoons could not twist a single state’s certified totals, let alone the many that would reverse his Electoral College disgrace. Trump aside, Bannon, Giuliani and Meadows are third-rate plotters, more full of bluster than brainpower or contacts. Four desperation Trump moves failed in Georgia: first, the push for GA to check on voter signatures (dead end), then pressure on the governor (denied), then arm-twisting of the secretary of state to “find” (manufacture) just enough votes to reverse the finale (rejected out of hand). Like a reality-defying spoiled brat, Trump then sicced the Justice Dept. into the fray, alleging fraud demanded GA state house intercession (kaput). Instead of changing one vote, the Criminal-in-chief rightly faces potential felony GA fraud charges, too dumb to avoid being taped committing the crudest, least successful fraud/intimidation/coercion transgression on record. And then came the Jan 6 flop, with added liability.
Dumb as the dumbest redneck
In fact, Georgia buffoonery simply replicated the Trump presidency, awash with authoritarian arrogance, contempt for law, scorn for the majority, and obliviousness to the merciless realities at play. Not only could Trump gangsters not fix anything (alone or together), they won the legacy distinction of rooting out novel ways to break what was never broken. Forget about promised health care, infrastructure or foreign policy triumphs, Trump fulfilled only one author’s prediction: everything he touches dies, including his own self-interest. By letting hundreds of thousands needlessly die from pandemic negligence, Trump killed his own presidency and chances for re-election, winning the dubious prize of worst president ever. All by himself—and dismal enablers.
Thus, though savvy Barton Gellman raises legitimate red lights on monumental threats to our democracy, he overstates that “Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election,” claiming January 6 was just “practice.” For what exactly, more failed violence? The model of how to turn a defensible protest into a shocking, indefensible insurrection? What expert foresees a violent insurgency against the Capitol gaining Trump extremists power and control? Even Gellman expects the next “overthrow attempt” to be more about “subversion” than direct violence. Certainly, with permanent bone spurs, Trump won’t lead any physical assault, even to get pizza.
Yes, violence will flair up, our being chockablock with guns, but the military that refused to stand with Trump will crush the next deranged “militia” going violent. Full-scale civil war remains a most unlikely consequence of Trumpism and as yet untested, new voter suppression has not proved its GOP electoral worth. If anything, Trump’s electoral charisma is fading, except with the know-nothing (or know only FOX news) lackeys mouthing the most implausible lies and conspiracies.
True, Democratic leadership is not responding adequately to the war against democracy. For how long will Dems focus more on passing decent legislation than confronting prospects for high disruption, even losing Congress? Surely, Democratic messaging, publicity and education skills are way behind a nefarious opposition rife with misinformation. No one should whitewash this massive PR shortfall in the Age of Media. Time for a full-out political war against monumental threats to law, order, and voting fairness. Time for solidifying the democratic fortress, by whatever (legal) means necessary.
A country without a coup?
And yet, for two centuries plus, there are good reasons America has deflected an active, illegal and immoral theft or reversal of an election. Though anti-democratic, out of date and byzantine, the Electoral College has determined winners (if at odds with popular vote pluralities). Yes, in the 19th C there were defaults to the House and 2000 manifestly violated the spirit of majority rule (the illegitimate loser anointed the winner). But a violation or anomaly is not the same as coup—and no 2020 Supreme Court intervention screwed things up. Despite a scary surge of post-election, right-wing brouhaha, authoritarian rule by coup won’t come to America because an inept, phony orange impresario waves his shiny baton. The 2020 election in fact awarded the Dems (and Never Trumpers) control of the national government, so more of a victorious endorsement of our wobbly institutions than reasons to think this was a “practice” for another insurrection or coup. The Big Lie is Trump’s biggest gaffe.
UNC professor Zeynep Tufekci was right to warn (in post-election November 2020) that “America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent,” adding that “Trump was ineffective and easily beaten. A future strongman won’t be.” She wisely cautioned strongly against Democratic Party complacency and, considering recent disruptions, the overall Trump menace is anything but diminished (even as the cult leader staggers). I agree with Tufekci that “the real message of this election is not that Trump lost and Democrats triumphed” but that “a weak and untalented politician lost, while the rest of his party” has entrenched its power. Though I don’t see Trump the untalented politician as the inevitable nominee, any sustained weakness by Biden Democrats will set up the “perfect setup for a talented right-wing populist to sweep into office in 2024. And make no mistake: They’re all thinking about it.”
That means we have different threats to worry about than civil war or another violent insurrection, even an overt electoral coup. In fact, authoritarians world-wide take power not by force so much as by manipulating elections, elevating the strongman, talking up empty nationalism, impugning outsiders, and turning politics into a phony moral crusade. We should be on full guard against an array of authoritarian moves by the entire right-wing GOP, working in critical states to preserve the rights of voters, of women and of minorities. That work is most important, potentially diluted by noisy fear-mongering about street violence, civil wars, or coups. The enduring question after his loss remains unchanged: what happens to the Republican Party when Trump is no longer the malicious, disqualified puppeteer?