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Trump is attempting a coup in plain sight

How do we cover it when it’s happening here?

President Trump boards Air Force One in Miami on November 2, while on the campaign trail.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

A few years ago, there was a boom of articles called “If it happened there,” imagining how the American press would cover this or that story if it happened in another country. How would we cover the government shutdown if it happened in another country? The Ferguson protests? The Oregon militia siege? George Floyd’s killing? Mike Bloomberg?

Slate’s Joshua Keating popularized the form, but other outlets, including Vox, have deployed it. The intent was to use the tropes of foreign coverage to create a sense of what the literary critic Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement”: severing us from the familiarity and overconfidence that can dull our awareness of extraordinary events. And so you’d get leads like, “the pleasant autumn weather disguises a government teetering on the brink. Because, at midnight Monday night, the government of this intensely proud and nationalistic people will shut down, a drastic sign of political dysfunction in this moribund republic.”

But the slight air of parody lent the whole enterprise a sense of unreality. America isn’t a banana republic. It wasn’t happening there. It was happening here, and that made all the difference. In order to even see the danger, to recognize the depth of tensions or the possibilities of fracture, we had to control for American exceptionalism, for the implicit belief that we were the United States of America, and we were different.

If the past four years — and the past four days — have proven anything, it’s that we are not as different as we believed, not as kissed by providence as we hoped. Perhaps we are not different at all. We need to cover it as if it happening here, because it is.

Donald Trump is trying to discredit an election he is losing

Joe Biden has won the presidency. But the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, is attempting a coup in plain sight. “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” he tweeted on Saturday morning. This came after he demanded that states cease counting votes when the total began to turn against him, after his press secretary shocked Fox News anchors by arguing that legally cast votes should be thrown out.

The Trump administration’s current strategy is to go to court to try and get votes for Biden ruled illegitimate, and that strategy explicitly rests on Trump’s appointees honoring a debt the administration, at least, believes they owe. One of his legal advisers said, “We’re waiting for the United States Supreme Court — of which the President has nominated three justices — to step in and do something. And hopefully Amy Coney Barrett will come through.”

If that fails, and it will, Mark Levin, one of the nation’s most popular conservative radio hosts, is explicitly calling on Republican legislatures to reject the election results and seat Donald Trump as president anyway. After Twitter tagged the tweet as contested, Trump’s press secretary weighed in furiously on Levin’s behalf.

That this coup probably will not work — that it is being carried out farcically, erratically, ineffectively — does not mean it is not happening, or that it will not have consequences. Millions will believe Trump, will see the election as stolen. The Trump family’s Twitter feeds, and those of associated outlets and allies, are filled with allegations of fraud and lies about the process (reporter Isaac Saul has been doing yeoman’s work tracking these arguments, and his thread is worth reading). It’s the construction of a confusing, but immersive, alternative reality in which the election has been stolen from Trump and weak-kneed Republicans are letting the thieves escape.

This is, to borrow Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar’s framework, “an autocratic attempt.” That’s the stage in the transition toward autocracy in which the would-be autocrat is trying to sever his power from electoral check. If he’s successful, autocratic breakthrough follows, and then autocratic consolidation occurs. In this case, the would-be autocrat stands little chance of being successful. But he will not entirely fail, either. What Trump is trying to form is something akin to an autocracy-in-exile, an alternative America in which he is the rightful leader, and he — and the public he claims to represent — has been robbed of power by corrupt elites.

“Democracy works only when losers recognize that they have lost,” writes political scientist Henry Farrell. That will not happen here.

The corruption of the GOP will outlive Trump’s presidency

Members of the Trump family are explicitly, repeatedly, trying to make the acceptance of their conspiracies a litmus test for ambitious Republicans. And it is working. To read elected Republicans today — with a few notable exceptions, like Sen. Mitt Romney — is to read a careful, cowardly double-speak. Politician after politician is signaling, as Vice President Mike Pence did, solidarity with the president, while not quite endorsing his conspiracies. Of course every legal vote should be counted. Of course allegations of fraud should be addressed. But that is not what the president is demanding — he is demanding the votes against him be ruled illegal — and they know it.

What we are not seeing, in any way, is a wholesale rejection on the right of Trump’s effort to delegitimize the election. And thus there is no reason to believe Trump will not retain his hold over much of the party, and much of its base, going forward.

Even if Trump is rejected in this election, the Republican Party that protected and enabled him will not be. Their geographic advantage in the Senate insulates them from anything but massive, consecutive landslide defeats, and their dominance over the decennial redistricting process has given them a handicap in the House, too.

That divergence almost saved Trump: Though the presidential election will not be close in terms of the popular vote, the margins in the key Electoral College states were narrow, and the would-be autocrat was almost returned to office. How much more damage could he have done to American institutions and elections with another four years? It could have happened here, and it truly almost did.

Here’s the grim kicker: The conditions that made Trump and this Republican Party possible are set to worsen. Republicans retained control of enough statehouses to drive the next redistricting effort, too, and their 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court will unleash their map-drawers more fully. The elections analyst G. Elliott Morris estimates that the gap between the popular vote margin and the tipping point state in the Electoral College will be 4 to 5 percentage points, and that the GOP’s control of the redistricting process could push it to 6 to 7 points next time.

To say that America’s institutions did not wholly fail in the Trump era is not the same thing as saying they succeeded. They did not, and in particular, the Republican Party did not. It has failed dangerously, spectacularly. It has made clear that would-be autocrats have a path to power in the United States, and if they can walk far enough down that path, an entire political party will support them, and protect them. And it has been insulated from public fury by a political system that values land over people, and that lets partisan actors set election rules and draw district lines — and despite losing the presidency, the GOP still holds the power to tilt that system further in its direction in the coming years.

What happens when the next would-be autocrat tries this strategy — and what if they are smoother, more strategic, more capable than this one?

This is not a story happening elsewhere. It is a story happening here, now.

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