What Trump's Doing Is Crazy and Dangerous—and It Ain't Over Yet
Trump still threatens us, and discussing the election in the past tense is stupid.
Ever since November 7, when the election was more or less authoritatively “called” by all major media, a wide range of pundits have spoken as if the election was decided. Some of these pundits have explained away Trump’s consistent and angry refusal of the results as a sign of his narcissism and immaturity; some have focused on the ineptitude of the Rudy Giuliani/Jenna Ellis legal team; and some have focused on the important fact that so many judges and state election officials, even Republican ones, have refused to comply with Trump’s efforts to subvert the election. Most recently, attention has focused on the December 8 “Safe Harbor” date prescribed by federal law. The point: the results have now been certified, and Biden obviously must be selected next week by the Electoral College, and Trump’s latest efforts are beside the point.
Donald Trump—the commander-in chief, chief executive, and current occupant of the White House—is doing his very best to organize a concerted effort to overthrow the results of the November election.
Just like with the Mueller Report in 2019 and the impeachment in 2020, Trump’s crossing of certain lines seems both absurd and legally impossible; Trump then crosses the lines, with no real consequence; then a new line is identified; and then that line is crossed. And so attention has shifted from November 3 to November 7, to December 8—an entire monthlater—to December 14. And as time passes, it becomes clearer and clearer that Trump remains as determined as ever to resist what both law and custom demand, and that he has extraordinary support in this.
It is simply beyond me why any intelligent person would fail to see that the election contest is not yet over, and for one simple reason: as Barton Gellman argued in his seminal Atlanticessay many weeks ago, we are still in the middle of a legally arcane and complex interregnum, Trump and his criminal associates have prepared for this and in some ways even gamed it, and they are now continuing to pursue every obstructive option at their disposal exactly as planned.
And yet only today Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, published in the New York Timesa piece asking “What Really Saved the Republic From Trump?” and answering that it was not formal institutions but civic virtue. Saved the republic from Trump? Saved? Really? Did I miss something? Has Trump decamped to Mar-a-Lago? I thought he was still at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, meeting with various Republican Congressmen and state Attorneys General and plotting the next phase of obstruction.
Meanwhile, over at the Atlantic—the same Atlantic that published the terrific piece by Gellman, and just published Zeynep Tufekci’s equally terrific “’This Must Be Your First’: Acting as if Trump is trying to stage a coup is the best way to ensure he won’t”— the usually excellent George Packer bizarrely offered “A Political Obituary for Donald Trump” that is neatly summed up in its lead caption: “The effects of his reign will linger. But democracy survived.” Packer is surely correct that the effects of Trump’s presidency will linger. He may also be correct that “democracy” will survive (if it does, it will be in the manner of a frail old man who is badly beaten and bruised but manages to stumble away). But survived—in the past tense, as if it is a foregone conclusion? And “obituary,” as if the beast is dead?
This is crazy.
In all fairness to Packer, the Atlantic informs us at the bottom that “this article appears in the January/February 2021 print edition with the headline ‘The Legacy of Donald Trump.’” But both the author and the editors should be embarrassed for their abominable decision to produce a retrospective in early December that is intended for next year—months away—and then to publish it online in early December, even as Trump remains in office and continues to threaten democracy.
Packer, Wu, Ari Melber on MSNBC—all too many otherwise very smart people insist on talking, and behaving, as if Biden is not simply the President-elect but the President—some TV personalities actually sometimes slip and call him “President Biden”–or at least as if the transition from the first role to the second is a mere formality.
For decades, perhaps centuries, it has been more or less a formality.
But it is not a formality now. This is obvious and it is known.
Right now the Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit, filed by Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas, that claims that the electoral practices and results in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania “harm” Texas voters and should be invalidated, and that Republican legislatures in those states ought to be empowered to investigate the election “fraud” and then make the ultimate decision about certification and the naming of Electoral College teams.
This lawsuit is widely considered by legal scholars–who alas do not rule the world–to be absurd.
But it is being supported by the Republican Attorneys General of seventeen other red states, who have jointly filed an amicus brief.
It is also being supported by 106 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who have also filed an amicus brief.
Amicus briefs of support have also been filed by Republican state legislators in many states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan.
And, of course, the suit is supported by Trump.
Will this suit succeed? It seems unlikely. At the same time, we do not know. More important, the widespread support for the maneuver by Republican national and state elected officials is deeply troubling, and signals a real determination to overturn the election.
This effort is part of a much broader mobilization of the Republican base and the Republican party leadership behind Trump.
Republican Congressman Mike Johnson (R-La.) is whipping House members, making lists of supporters for the President.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has announced that he will hold public hearings next week on allegations of election fraud.
A number of Republican Congressmen and Senators have threatened to challenge the Electoral College results on the floor of Congress on January 6, and at least two, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.)) and Barry Moore (R-Ala.), have promised to do so (the toxic Jim Jordan has also indicated a willingness to do this).
In the meantime, state public officials—from the Democratic Secretary of State of Michigan to the Republican Secretary of State of Georgia—are receiving death threats; in Arizona the state Republican committee is urging supporters to “fight to the death” on behalf of Trump; and “Stop the Steal” protests and harassments are spreading. Yesterday’s New York Timesheadline said it well: “As Trump Rails Against His Loss, His Supporters Become More Threatening.”
Donald Trump—the commander-in chief, chief executive, and current occupant of the White House—is doing his very best to organize a concerted effort to overthrow the results of the November election. And he is doing it with the tacit support of the entire Republican Senate and House leadership, with the explicit support of many U.S. Senators, over a hundred U.S. Representatives, hundreds of Republican state legislators across the country, and a large proportion of the 73 million people who voted for him.
This is happening. Now.
And it is dangerous.
Might the outrageous lawsuit fail? Yes. Maybe. Probably even.
Might the effort of Brooks and others to obstruct the validation of the Electoral College vote by Congress on January 6 fail? Yes. Maybe. Probably.
But we do not know.
More importantly: we have no reason to believe that Trump will stop there. Because if he has been consistent in anything these past four years, it is this: he has no respect for laws or norms, and he will always push boundaries, and he will do almost anything to stay on top.
How far will he go?
Back in August, John Nagl and Paul Yingling—two very distinguished military intellectuals and retired U.S. Army officers—published an important piece entitled “’. . . All Enemies Foreign and Domestic’: An Open Letter to Gen Milley.” Their basic point was simple: “If Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order.” This piece generated incredible controversy. Many, Trump supporters but also people on the center and left, disparaged the piece as a call for direct military intervention in domestic politics, and almost as a call for a kind of coup. I believe this was a serious misreading of the piece, and I said so back then. But their specific argument notwithstanding, their piece was a brave and important identification of some very real scenarios: what if Trump refuses to leave on January 20, and what if he uses Homeland Security forces—the forces that were deployed on the streets of Portland—to overwhelm Secret Service officers seeking to escort him out? Or, what if he refuses to leave, and there are mass demonstrations in Washington, D.C, and he calls out federal forces, or even the U.S. military, to suppress the protests, perhaps invoking the Insurrection Act? What then? What happens then? Nagl and Yingling’s basic point is that all U.S. military forces and all federal agents have a duty to defend the Constitution, and this means that they should not follow illegal orders, and must be prepared—if it comes to this—to uphold the law. If it comes to this.
The very fact that these two highly respected figures thought it necessary to raise these issues in public was telling, and remains telling. And indeed, the fact that so many smart people challenged their specific argument and sought to make more nuanced arguments about the role of the military in the event that Trump refuses to step down underscores the fact that this is not a crazy scenario. It might not be probable. But it is not impossible. Not at all.
Do you really think that Trump would never adamantly refuse to leave, and even call upon federal troops to support him? How confident of this are you? Really?
As Zeynep Tufekci has argued, what Trump is doing now surely seems like what political scientists call an “autcoup.” How far will he go? We do not know. But everything we do know tells us that we should be afraid. Very afraid.
Joe Biden is the President-elect whose very status is the outcome of a contentious process that is not yet over. Donald Trump is the President. For many years he told us that he could not legitimately lose an election. Now he is telling us that he did not legitimately lose, and he in fact won, and he has no intention of giving up power. And he is methodically doing everything in his power to remain in power. He is a clear in present danger to democracy. And he is not gone yet.
It is not over until it’s over.
And it is definitely not over.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).