Opinion | What Is Trump Playing at?

As newspapers and media across the country and around the world reported Joe Biden’s victory and Donald Trump’s defeat in last week’s election, Trump himself — along with his Republican allies in Congress, including the entire Senate majority leadership and the Republican House minority leadership — remained defiant.

I queried a number of American historians and constitutional scholars to see how they explain what should be an inexplicable response to an election conducted in a modern democracy — an election in which Republican victories up and down the ballot are accepted unquestioningly, while votes for president-elect Biden on the same ballots are not.

Many of those I questioned see this discrepancy as stemming from Trump’s individual personality and characterological deficiencies — what they call his narcissism and his sociopathy. Others offer a more starkly political interpretation: that the refusal to accept Biden’s victory stems from the frustration of a Republican Party struggling to remain competitive in the face of an increasingly multicultural electorate. In the end, it appears to be a mixture of both.

Many observers believe that the current situation presents a particularly dangerous mix, one that poses a potentially grave danger to American democracy.

Jonathan Gienapp, a professor of history at Stanford and the author of “The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era,” noted by email that there have been close, contested elections in the past,

But none of these earlier examples featured what we see now: a completely manufactured controversy based on no evidence whatsoever, purely to maintain power, and to overturn a legitimate election.

In this context,

Trump’s refusal to concede and his congressional allies’ refusal to object to what he is doing is indeed most dangerous. If it continues to be given oxygen, it’s hard not to think that there could be lasting damage to the republic.

This, Gienapp concluded, “is what rot looks like.”

James T. Kloppenberg, a professor of American history at Harvard, responded to my inquiry with a broad overview, worth quoting at length:

Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat is unprecedented. Yet it is consistent with everything he’s done throughout his life, so it should not surprise us. While political scientists often focus on institutions and political practices, democracy, where it exists, rests on deeper cultural predispositions that are harder to see. Unless a culture has internalized the norms of deliberation, pluralism, and above all reciprocity, there is no reason to concede to your worst enemy when he wins an election, nor is there any reason to acknowledge the legitimacy of opponents.

It is just these underpinnings of democracy that Trump threatens, especially now:

Norm-busting has been Trump’s modus operandi from a very early age, so to expect him now to conform to democratic norms is unrealistic. Conceding defeat is a tradition consistent with the ethic of reciprocity: you admit defeat, move on, work with those you disagree with, and try to win the next election. Establishing those norms is the work of centuries, not decades. The colonies that became the United States had been at it since the 1630s. By 1787 those cultural pillars were already in place.

Trump’s behavior, Kloppenberg argues, is the culmination of long-term developments within Republican ranks:

Many conservatives considered the New Deal a repudiation of the laissez-faire dogmas they claimed were written into American life. They were wrong about that, as a generation of progressives had shown for decades before FDR’s election. But from Goldwater and Reagan through Gingrich to the present, many Republicans have viewed deviations from what they consider the gospel of free-market capitalism as heresy. Of course there has never been anything remotely resembling a free market in the United States. State, local, and federal governments were involved in daily life from the nation’s first days. But the fantasy of unrestrained capitalism has endured, as has the strategy of condemning as ‘un-American’ anyone who dares suggest otherwise. Given Trump’s four years of hate-mongering and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality, his behavior since the election is to be expected — and criticized as the direct challenge to democracy that it is.

Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, was outspoken:

It would be not simply a major departure but a deeply dangerous one were Trump to deny the legitimacy of Biden’s election. It would be a brutal renunciation of American democracy. It would create not simply a fissure but a chasm in the nation’s politics and government, telling his tens of millions of supporters as well as his congressional backers to reject Biden’s presidency. It would be an act of disloyalty unsurpassed in American history except by the southern secession in 1860-61, the ultimate example of Americans refusing to respect the outcome of a presidential election.

In fact, Wilentz warned:

Trump would be trying to establish a center of power distinct from and antagonistic to the legitimately elected national government — not formally a separate government like the Confederacy but a virtual one, operating not just out in the country but inside the government, above all in Congress.

Wilentz envisaged

a counter-government, administered by tweets, propped up by Fox News or whatever alternative outlet Trump might construct for himself — a kind of Trumpian government in exile, run from Mar a Lago or maybe from wherever else Trump selects to reside in, in order to avoid prosecution by the State of New York.

Wilentz and others argue that Trump is gearing up to violate a principle of peaceful transition established shortly after the founding of the nation.

“You have to go back to the very odd and dangerous election of 1800 for anything remotely similar,” Ned Foley, a constitutional scholar and professor of law at Ohio State, told me via email:

The Federalist Party considered various scenarios for depriving Thomas Jefferson of the presidency, including the possibility of a Federalist acting president if the House remained deadlocked over the tie.

John Adams “was not in on any of those Federalist machinations,” Foley continued, but “it’s worth focusing on just how dangerous it was that the Federalists were thinking of depriving Jefferson of his victory.”

Both Virginia and Pennsylvania, Foley wrote,

called out their militia to make sure that Jefferson would get installed, and the Federalists would not “steal” the election from Jefferson. There was a genuine risk of a civil war.

Nonetheless, Jefferson was inaugurated and in his March 4, 1801 address, declared not only that “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” but told Americans of all political stripes to

bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.

“From my perspective,” Foley wrote,

the lesson of 1800 is that we are never supposed to go through anything like that again. It’s what started the tradition of the peaceful transition of presidential power from one party to another. It might have been a bit of a rocky start to that tradition, but it was successful.

Wilentz noted that after his defeat in the 1800 election, Adams

wrote bitterly that “we have no Americans in America,” and that “a group of foreign liars, encouraged by a few ambitious native gentlemen, have discomfited the education, the talents, the virtues, and the property of the country.” Adams was so disgusted that he refused to attend the inauguration of his successor, Thomas Jefferson.

Despite this bitterness, Wilentz explained, Adams — in contrast to Trump — “owned the reality that, as he wrote, ‘we federalists’ had been ‘completely and totally routed and defeated.’”

Manisha Sinha, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and the author of “The Counterrevolution of Slavery,” pointed out in an email that there was onetime when there was a substantial rejection of the outcome of a presidential contest:

Indeed it happened in 1860 when most Deep South states refused to accept the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency on an antislavery platform and seceded from the Union.


You Can Do This, Donald Trump

It’s hard to concede. But voters have spoken.

In life, there are winners. “World champions!” And there are losers. “Humiliation!” You wanted to win so bad. “Poor kid.” And it just wasn’t meant to be. But when you do lose, it’s important to do it gracefully. There’s examples everywhere, like these kids. “Kids from Rhode Island going home, but they should be awfully proud.” “Spelling Bee champion.” [APPLAUSE] “Please shake your opponent’s hand.” Or these people. “One of the great traditions in all of sports, a handshake line.” “They were the better team and they played better today.” “Whenever a player plays that amazing, you just kind of have to take your hat off and give ‘em a nod on the head, so congrats on all the hard work.” Johnny from Karate Kid got kicked in the face, and he still said, good match. “Thanks a lot.” Look, it’s not easy to lose. “Last night I congratulated Donald Trump.” “While I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it.” “The people have spoken, and we respect the majesty of the Democratic system.” “And once the decision is made, we unite behind the man who was elected.” “Join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort.” And now, it’s your turn, Donald. You can do it. “I’m not a good loser. I don’t like to lose.” We know. But you lost. So it’s time to concede. It’s time to be a good loser.

While many of the scholars I questioned described Trump’s actions as predictable, they were gravely concerned by the support Republican office holders have displayed for Trump — or at the silence they have kept. So far, only five out of 53 Republican Senators have publicly suggested that Trump take steps to open the transition process to Biden; none are in the leadership.

As my Times colleagues Nicholas Fandos and Emily Cochrane put it earlier this week:

Leading Republicans rallied on Monday around President Trump’s refusal to concede the election, declining to challenge the false narrative that it was stolen from him or to recognize President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory.

Frank Wilkinson, a writer at Bloomberg and a friend of mine, provided the best explanation for Republican complicity in a July 15 column. His headline says it all: “Trump’s Party Cannot Survive in a Multiracial Democracy.”

In other words, Trump’s refusal to concede, and the support he is getting from his fellow Republicans, is part and parcel of the sustained drive by the right, especially since Barack Obama won a majority in 2008, to constrain and limit political participation by minorities by every available means: gerrymandering, voter suppression, restricting the time and place of balloting, setting new rules for voter identification and so forth.

On this theory, allowing the Nov. 3 vote to stand would, in the face of rising minority participation, endanger the ability of the Republican Party to compete in future national elections.

Richard Johnson, a lecturer in U.S. Politics & Policy at Queen Mary University of London, wrote me in an email that the current situation in the United States has key parallels to the end of the Reconstruction period in the late nineteenth century.

That period, Johnson wrote,

provides many unfortunate examples of election losers refusing to accept defeat, as well as examples of constitutional chicanery and political violence to overturn U.S. election results.

In his book “The End of the Second Reconstruction,” Johnson described

the refusal of Democrats in Louisiana and North Carolina to accept local elections which saw Black Republicans in municipal offices. In these disputes — in Colfax, Louisiana and Wilmington, North Carolina — the election winners and their supporters were murdered and the local party infrastructure (e.g., printing houses of supportive newspapers, local party headquarters) were burnt to the ground.

On Nov. 9, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who had just survived a challenge by a Black Democrat, declared on Fox:

If Republicans — if we don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there’ll never be another Republican president elected again. President Trump should not concede.

Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia, was cautious in his assessment of the threat posed by Trump, but he voiced concern:

How dangerous this situation may be will become clearer soon. Legally speaking Biden is not officially the victor until mid-December when the electors cast their votes and the states certify them. If Trump plans to fight until then, however, it will certainly poison the political atmosphere for quite a while.

Foner pointed out that

there have not been very many defeated incumbent presidents. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush. I don’t believe any of them challenged the legitimacy of the result.

Over the short term. Greg Grandin, a professor of history at Yale, sees the Trump challenge petering out, but he argues that the challenge represents a long-term threat to American governance:

I think it is dangerous, less for what is going to happen in this moment — I imagine Trump will give up, in some form, and we will have a series of “bent not broken op-eds.”

Over time, however,

we see a pattern. First, in terms of ever more extremist right wing presidencies, there is an evolution: Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and now Trump. Each would have been unthinkable were it not for the precedent and policies of their predecessor. Second, I think Trump and Trumpism signal a weakening, or a collapse, of the two-party system’s ability to absorb tensions and conflicts.

A few decades from now, Grandin wrote in his email, “Trump will be seen as significant, but really just a minor blip compared to the crisis that lay ahead.”

Samuel Moyn, a Yale historian, discounted fears of a Trump-led insurgency for a different reason: that Trump is not up to playing the role of strongman.

“I think we will come to understand him as the weakest recent president,” Moyn wrote by email, “and this ‘unprecedented’ situation in which he refuses to acknowledge election results is just more proof.”

Moyn rejected the notion that “we are in a dangerous situation,” because instead of a serious threat, “we have something more like a parody of a coup, one which moreover is something like a conclusive demonstration of the limits of Donald Trump’s power all along.”

James T. Campbell, a historian at Stanford, emailed:

No sitting president — no presidential candidate, with the partial exception of Jackson in 1824 — has refused to accept the results of an election. I’m not surprised that Trump is threatening to do so, but refusing to accept the results of an election may be a bridge too far.

Still, Campbell has been surprised before.

The thing that most astonished me in the 2016 campaign was Trump saying, repeatedly and quite casually, that he would refuse to agree to accept the results of the election unless he won it ± and then doubling down by saying that his first act on taking office would be to jail Hillary Clinton.

The authoritarianism expressed in those statements was so naked that I simply couldn’t believe that they weren’t immediately and universally denounced by Democrats and Republicans alike. Turns out he wasn’t kidding.

Campbell noted that

one of the most penetrating comments on Trump’s character in 2016 came from none other than Ted Cruz, who described him as a sociopath, who wholeheartedly believed whatever he happened to be saying at the time.

It’s quite likely, Campbell continued,

that Trump is not deliberately “lying” in his recent statements, that he genuinely believes that evil forces are conspiring to steal an election that he actually won.

On that note, Ted Cruz’s remarks about Trump in May 2016, which appear in sharp contrast to his sycophancy now, capture the essence of our president — and why the combination of this man and this historic moment, is so worrying:

This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. And in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying.

He accuses everybody on that debate stage of lying. And it’s simply a mindless yell. Whatever he does, he accuses everyone else of doing. The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.

Everything in Donald’s world is about Donald. And he combines being a pathological liar, and I say pathological because I actually think Donald, if you hooked him up to a lie-detector test, he could say one thing in the morning, one thing at noon and one thing in the evening, all contradictory and he’ll pass the lie detector test each time. Whatever lie he’s telling, at that minute he believes it.

Cruz added:

Bullies don’t come from strength, bullies come from weakness. Bullies come from a deep, yawning cavern of insecurity.

The fact that Trump does not care about the scope of the mayhem he creates — that he revels in anarchic conflagration — creates exceptional danger.

Philip Bobbitt, a professor of law at the University of Texas and at Columbia, is an expert in national security. He raised the question of what is called “continuity of government.”

If Trump succeeds in preventing acceptance of Biden as president all the way to Jan. 20, 2021, Bobbitt notes in an email, what is known as “continuity of government” becomes a problem.

Continuity of Government is an artifact of the nuclear age: what happens to the National Command Authority vested in the president — and to nuclear deterrence — if a surprise attack decapitates the US leadership? The problem resurfaced after 9/11 when it became known that the fourth plane seized by Al Qaeda was headed to the Capitol and would have struck during morning business in the House. The result could have rendered Congress helpless until new elections replaced enough House members to reconstitute a quorum; in the interim martial law would have prevailed.

These problems could be lethal in the chaos Trump is seeding.

A number of scenarios, Bobbitt noted,

by no means fanciful, could result in the constitutional drop-dead date of Jan. 20, leaving the country and many elements of government deeply divided as to who the rightful occupant of the presidency is.

In that event, Bobbitt asked, “What happens to the national command authority vested in the president?”

“There is a second, related problem,” Bobbitt continued:

The continuity of government vulnerability spawned a number of emergency powers granted to the president, some highly classified. We could well face the use of these powers by the president based on his professed belief that the election was irredeemably flawed and that a “coup” against him is underway.

While the focus now is on the period until Dec. 14 because “Dec. 8 is the deadline for resolving election disputes and completing any state recounts and contests, and Dec. 14 is the day the electors meet in each state to vote and execute their ballots,” Bobbitt warns that

the subsequent period from the 14th to Jan. 20 may be even more fraught and the worst outcome would be confusion on the 20th. What, for example, would be the response of the United States government if North Korea or Russia took some aggressive action in their respective theaters on the 20th?

The unpredictable danger Trump and his henchmen are putting the nation in has no antecedent. Trump’s irrationalism has become a contagion. As he presides over the destruction of reason, he exploits and electrifies his public. No one knows where this will lead. Delusion can become tragedy. It’s happened before.

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