How We (Narrowly) Avoided a Coup

The first thing I want to say is, hallelujah.

The second thing I want to say is, the danger is not completely past.

It appears that we have, mercifully, avoided the worst case scenario that many (myself included) have been screeching like howler monkeys about for months and even years: a defeated Donald Trump using the power of his office, the slavish devotion of his followers, the complicity of the right wing media, and other levers both subtle and violent, legal and illegal, to cling to the presidency, even if it meant plunging this country into a constitutional crisis, to include fighting in the streets.

He tried, but it didn’t happen. Joe Biden clearly won the election, beating him by almost four million votes and still counting, with a final Electoral College tally that figures to be 306-232…..exactly what Trump’s was four years ago (which he never tires of calling a “landslide.”) No serious institution, entity, or individual questions it, and all the mechanisms of power have shifted into action to begin the normal transition process. Even before the networks called it for Joe, Heather Cox Richardson informs us that “the Secret Service sent reinforcements to Wilmington, Delaware, to surround Biden in a protective bubble, in anticipation of….a victory speech,” and a national defense airspace was established over Biden’s Delaware home. (Though what we really need is a no-fly zone over Pence’s hair.)

But that said, exactly as expected, Trump is stubbornly insisting that he won in defiance of reality, refusing to concede, and pouring fuel on the fire of domestic unrest, all with the effect of undermining the authority of the incoming administration and the integrity of our electoral system going forward. The transition promises to be rocky, to say the least, and when it is done, tens of millions of right wing Americans (don’t call them “conservatives”) will remain who view the Biden presidency as illegitimate. A low-level pro-Trump insurgency employing domestic terrorism, to a greater or lesser degree, is also likely.

So that happened.

But let us leave the future aside for now and drill down on how it was that we managed to avoid the worst case scenario of a full-on power grab, for therein lie lessons we are definitely going to need in this brave new post-Trump world that is dawning.

THE POOR MAN’S AUTOCRAT

While Trump did (and continues to do) many of the proto-authoritarian things we long expected in trying to hang onto the presidency, the question remains: why did he not do the others?

It damn sure wasn’t out of moral principle.

Why no seizure of ballot boxes or abuse of the Insurrection Act? Why no mobilization of the National Guard, deployment of ICE agents as a private army, false allegation of Chinese interference, or exploitation of the pandemic to stop the vote count?

My best guess is that Trump thought he could win this thing without going that far. He nearly did, which is fucking terrifying.

That proved a fatal miscalculation, born in part of his own egomaniacal overestimation of his popularity, and conversely, the depth, breadth, and commitment of the millions of American voters who opposed him.

By all accounts, Trump’s plan hinged on being able to claim victory early last Tuesday while ahead in the vote count in key swing states. So one of the sweetest ironies was Fox News calling Arizona for Biden relatively early on Tuesday night, putting a knife in Trump’s scheme. Reportedly, first Kushner and then Trump himself personally called Murdoch and screamed at him to retract the call. Rupert gave him two fingers up. As if out of spite, Fox never did take Arizona out of the Biden column, even after other outlets temporarily did. It was fitting penance for baby Fox—only four years old at the time—prematurely calling Florida for Bush in 2000 and setting that debacle in motion.

In the broader scheme, I suspect Trump also didn’t really have the huevos to go full Pinochet. But then again, he has always been an autocrat manqué, a pale shadow of his idols Putin, Erdogan, or Duterte. Sure, Trump’s a coward and a sadist and a bully who has no problem ordering children ripped away from their mothers and warehoused in cages. He’s tough enough when they enemy is a toddler. But in the end, he was too lazy, craven, and weak-kneed to face down Joe Biden, the Pentagon, and the whole of American democracy, proving the thesis of folks like Anthony Scaramucci and The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood (who memorably quipped, “A civil war sounds like a lot of work.”)

Don’t get me wrong: I ain’t complaining. But in the end, Trump has proven to be exactly what we always knew he was: a vain, narcissistic, cheeseburger-gobbling game show host and lifelong grifter with a spray-on tan, not made of the sterner stuff that real autocracy requires.

So slink off to Mar-a-Lago, Don—or maybe well-feathered exile in the UAE, brokered by Erik Prince, out of the reach of extradition and the long arm of Letitia James—and console yourself with your self-pity and your new job as Limbaugh’s replacement and the continuing adoration of Mouthbreather Nation.

Meanwhile, America will march on without you, and try to begin the process of repair.

LEGAL EAGLES AND LEGAL PIGEONS

Even the things Trump did try were pathetic, and largely confined to two fronts: informational warfare—which is to say, dervish-like spin—and legal maneuvering in the courts, Don’s preferred gladiatorial arena.

The latter has been surprisingly anemic, disorganized, and ineffective. I say “surprisingly,” but did we really expect more or better? The Florida recount of 2000 was the template we all imagined, but that effort was led by the GOP’s corps of wise old statesmen like James Baker and Warren Christopher (and included among its foot soldiers the young John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, now all on the Supreme Court). By contrast, Trump’s campaign to overturn the result is being handled by the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Eric Trump, and Richard Grenell, apparently taking their guidance directly from Trump himself (which explains a lot). If the GOP team in Florida in ’00 was the legal equivalent of Tiffany & Co., Trump’s team this time is like three guys selling fake Rolexes on a blanket on Canal Street.

In fact, we were told Jared Kushner was in search of precisely that sort of “James Baker figure” to take charge of the legal campaign and lend it gravitas. Um, how about the real James Baker, who recently disgraced himself by telling journalists Peter Baker and Susan Glasser that he would be holding his nose and voting for Trump, because, ya know, tax cuts? But in the wake of November 3rd, JB III told The New York Times that Trump was wrong and that the votes should be counted. (Wow, that’s what passes for courage in the Republican Party these days—basic civics?)

To be fair, in 2000 the Bush team held several advantages Trump’s doesn’t. They were dealing with only one state, for a start, not four to six, and were leading in the count, rather than ahead in some places and behind in others, forcing Trump to argue that the count should continue in Arizona and Michigan but be halted in Pennsylvania and Georgia, a real-life re-enactment of an episode of “Veep.” (Moral bankruptcy is great for one’s versatility.) Most crucially, Bush’s folks were dealing with genuine questions of irregularity and confusion (the butterfly ballot; hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chads, etc), not trying to gin up nonexistent fraud out of thin air.

In any event, the legal effort seems doomed to failure—virtually none of the many lawsuits the administration has filed have found purchase—notwithstanding Trump’s belief that he bought a third of the Supreme Court and can now call in those favors. Still, Trump’s forces are brazen, like legal advisor Harmeet Dhillon, whom Heather Cox Richardson reports told Lou Dobbs: ‘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.’”

But speaking oféminence grises (oréminence grases) from the old GOP, Bill Barr has been mysteriously MIA throughout this whole process—AWOL might be a better metaphor—rumored to be quarantined at home fighting COVID, or at least pretending to be. That didn’t stop him from skirting the law in order to send armed federal agents to ballot-counting locations around the country, ostensibly to investigate “voter fraud.” But he has not taken the aggressive or prominent role in the theft of the presidency that many of us feared. Billy, it seems, is evil, but smart enough to know a losing effort when he sees one.

In Barr’s stead, Rudy Giuliani was left holding a stark raving mad press conference that prompted comedy writer Zack Bornstein to tweet: “I could write jokes for 800 years and I’d never think of something funnier than Trump booking the Four Seasons for his big presser, and it turning out to be the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot between a dildo store and a crematorium.”

SHOOTING THE MESSENGER, AGAIN

Team Trump’s PR effort is not going any better than the legal one.

Risible though it is, the chief Republican talking point is to attack its usual whipping boy, the press, by sneering, “The media doesn’t decide elections.”

Nice try, guys.

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the media no more decided this election than a scoreboard wins the Super Bowl. The American people made its will known, and MSNBC, CNN, and—yes—even Fox merely reported it. Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Kevin McCarthy, and the other lickspittles can cry and whinge all they want, but it won’t change the facts, and it won’t stop the inevitable.

One level up on the moral ladder (i.e., at Level One) the majority of Congressional Republicans are merely keeping silent, heads down, trying not to say anything one way or another….which is craven, but tactical. Clearly they are trying to walk a tightrope, positioning themselves for the post-Trump world without alienating the still rabid Republican base. It’s not a dumb move, but it’s a cynical and unprincipled one; I’m shocked, shocked. And if they for a moment we’re ever going to forget their support for Donald Trump, they best think again.

As of this writing, only a few prominent Republicans have come out and told Trump to man up, like Chris Christie. (Donny did give him COVID, after all.) Among Republican US Senators, only Romney and Murkowski have publicly reached out to congratulate Biden or even acknowledge his win, as was customary until now. (Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, did tell “ABC This Week” that Trump should concede.) So did George W. Bush, the only living Republican ex-President, which is meaningful: even if much of MAGA Nation hates him, the conservative establishment does not. It’s kind of the least he can do, after 2000, Iraq, and the rest. In fact, he might have spoke up against Trump sooner, and frustrated many by not doing so. But like Jim Mattis, for what it’s worth, his words now have more punch precisely because he kept his powder dry.

Only the diehards of MAGA Nation accept and promote the transparently dishonest claim that the election was rigged, and they represent only a subset of a minority that just got beat pretty bad in an election. Foremost among them was the odious and irrelevant Newt Gingrich, who pioneered the scorched earth politics that brought us to this pretty pass, who told Fox News, I think that it is a corrupt, stolen election.  As if anyone cares what Newt Gingrich thinks.

(Indeed, the only downside of the Biden win is that Newt will return to the US from his cushy perch in Rome, where his third wife—the one he cheated on his second wife with, while she was battling multiple sclerosis— is US Ambassador to the Vatican.)

But Gingrich’s dangerous, hypocritical, anti-democratic rhetoric—which is to say, Trump’s—is roiling the right wing mediasphere, as in this insane and chilling Trump-style all-caps tweet from radio host Mark Levin:

REMINDER TO THE REPUBLICAN STATE LEGISLATURES, YOU HAVE THE FINAL SAY OVER THE CHOOSING OF ELECTORS, NOT ANY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, SECRETARY OF STATE, GOVERNOR, OR EVEN COURT. YOU HAVE THE FINAL SAY — ARTICLE II OF THE FED CONSTITUTION. SO, GET READY TO DO YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL DUTY

And I’ll remind you that Levin has a weekly audience of about 7 million listeners, on the mainstream Westwood One network.

Is it any surprise then that angry Trump supporters—some of them heavily armed, and in body armor—are gathering on the steps of various state capitols over an election they believe was “stolen” from their hero? I’m worried about that, of course, and the trouble they will make going forward, but I don’t think they’re going to reverse the results of the vote.

NBC News reported that, no surprise, the White House itself has been fomenting these protests, using a barely concealed cutout:

A texting company run by one of President Donald Trump’s top campaign officials sent out thousands of targeted, anonymous text messages urging supporters to rally where votes were being counted in Philadelphia on Thursday, falsely claiming Democrats were trying to steal the presidential election. The messages directed Trump fans to converge at a downtown intersection where hundreds of protesters from the opposing candidates’ camps faced off Thursday afternoon.

‘This kind of message is playing with fire, and we are very lucky that it does not seem to have driven more conflict,’ said John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s online watchdog Citizen Lab. Scott-Railton helped track down the source.

“ALERT: Radical Liberals & Dems are trying to steal this election from Trump! We need YOU!” the text said, directing recipients to ‘show your support’ on a street corner near the Philadelphia Convention Center where votes were being counted and tensions were running high.

It’s one thing to rally your supporters to protest; it’s quite another to feed them lies, undermine faith in a fair election, and foment unrest that could easily turn violent. But, oh yes, it’s the left that is full of anti-democratic radicals who are jeopardizing “law and order.”

Spare me.

THESE SWIFT COURIERS

But not even the ongoing skullduggery of Trump Nation could detract from the joy of watching it dealt a deathblow.

In my house, like many people, my wife and I had been mainlining the news for 96 straight hours when the moment finally came on a beautiful Saturday morning. Naturally, irony being what it is, we had just taken a brief break from the TV when our nine-year-old daughter came into the room saying, “Hey, I hear people banging pots and pans. Is there a parade or something?”

Once we realized what was going on, we went out into the streets along with what seemed like everyone else in New York City. I wasn’t in Berlin when the Wall fell, having left Germany only the month before, but three of my good friends were, and this reminded me of that. Even as steeped as I am in this issue (see the weekly output of this blog), I didn’t anticipate the level or scope of the emotion and the catharsis, either for myself or the broader world.  

It was sweet, and earned, and overdue, and a glorious global verdict on the piteous reign of Donald J. Trump. (As the writer Jason Philip Miller noted on Twitter, “Live your life in such a way that the entire planet doesn’t dance in the street when you lose your job.”)

At one point, a USPS truck crept through the giant spontaneous dance party on the corner of 2nd Street and 5th Avenue here in Brooklyn. The crowd went wild and the driver reciprocated with a pumping fist and a honking horn. You couldn’t have staged it any better. “We Deliver” read the logo on the side of the truck.

“You delivered for us, and we delivered for you,” as my wife said.

In Washington DC a huge crowd gathered outside St. John’s Church in Lafayette Park, with nary a Bill Barr-brand tear gas canister or horse-mounted policeman in sight. How fitting. All over the country celebrations continued into the night, and all the bells were ringing, and the people were singing on this night we drove old Dixie down—for now. (Yes, I know I am inverting the meaning of that beautiful but toxic song.)

NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel remarked that the reaction, both in the United States and abroad, was as if we had just overthrown a dictator.

Well, we did.

Yeah yeah, I know Trump wasn’t a true dictator, per above But by the standards of the world’s oldest and most stable representative democracy, he was shockingly, chillingly close—way too much so for comfort, and way more than almost anyone once thought possible.

That night—still pretty drunk—we tuned in to see what SNL would do. A lot of people remember when Kate McKinnon, in character as Hillary, played and sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the show right after the shock of the 2016 election. For a wildly overplayed song, it was still very moving. So having Alec Baldwin as Trump play and sing a mournful version of “Macho Man” was a witty reprise.

But when I think back to 2016, I remember a different cover of that tune. A few nights before, my friend Michael DeNola and I had seen the great Tim Minchin play at the Beacon here in New York. It was a comedy show, but he closed it solemnly, by lowering the houselights and playing Cohen’s anthem in total darkness, with the whole audience singing along. And that was before Election Day, when we all still though Hillary would win. It was a remarkable and poignant moment—as if a premonition of the nightmare to come.

I’ve thought about that moment a lot in the four years since then. Because we all know what the best cold dish in the world is.

THE BAFFLED KING

As the Internet meme says, Trump has now had the full 2020 trifecta: he got corona, lost his job, and now he’s gonna be evicted from his house.

In terms of next steps, the Constitution does not call for a defeated president to offer a concession speech: Once the people have spoken, it matters not what the loser thinks of it. For all his bluster and tantrum-throwing, Trump will soon find himself marginalized as the machinery of American governmental bureaucracy grinds forward in establishing his successor.

For in the end, Trump’s ultimately feeble efforts to steal this election were thwarted by the sheer force of the millions of Americans who voted for Joe Biden over him…..by the media that faithfully reported those results without succumbing to any gaslighting, in a very ordinary way that resembled coverage of previous elections…..by the institutions—and the public servants who populate them—who acted as duty demanded.

The lesson, for aspiring future autocrats, is that they will have to push a lot harder next time. Don’t think they won’t.

The lesson for us is that we have the power to stop them, if we fight.

We still have to reckon with how many windows Trump will break on his way out of the White House, and just how hard he will try to sabotage things for his successor. As Julia Segal tweeted, “Anyone hoping for a peaceful transition has never had to pull a toddler out of a Chuck E. Cheese.”

Will he, for example, sell classified information to the highest bidder for his own profit? That’s a pretty pricey broken window, but I don’t put it past him. (Arguably he has already been holding auctions like that throughout the kleptocracy that passed his presidency.)

And while the major machinery of power is moving inexorably to support the incoming Biden administration, deadender Trump loyalists are already making trouble. Just this morning the Washington Post reports that a “Trump administration appointee”—the head of the GSA—“is refusing to sign a letter allowing President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team to formally begin its work this week.” Country first, right folks?

Given that, it seems to me that it’s those—on both right and left—scoffing in hindsight over alleged Chicken Little alarmism who are the ones being naïve, not those of us who warned that the sky might be falling. It very well could have, if things broke just a little bit differently. And next time they might.

Heather Cox Richardson one last time:

While this election saved democracy for now, the forces that gave rise to Donald Trump’s presidency have not been vanquished. America is still under siege by oligarchs who are trying to take control of the country. They win supporters by spinning a false narrative that feeds fear and fury to drive ordinary Americans apart. And, as we now know, 70 million voters are open to their narrative, even if it means children torn from their parents, half of the country demonized as anti-American, a lawless administration, a deep recession, and more than 230,000 Americans dead….

But whatever the future brings, there is no doubt that today is ours. After four years in which we have indulged the worst of our nation, we have voted to reclaim the best.

*********

Illustration: the great Edel Rodriguez, cover of Der Spiegel, November 7, 2020, a bookend to his cover of February 4, 2017, which also appeared in this blog, June 21, 2018.

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