Our pretend President and pretend billionaire is now mounting a pretend coup. America cannot pretend to know exactly how it will end.
As everyone in New Zealand has heard, Donald Trump has decisively lost the election but refuses to concede, something no modern president has withheld. And while a concession is not at all necessary for transition, Trump is taking other actions that have left the whole world nervous about his intentions. Especially if you live here.
He has filed an array of lawsuits since the election claiming fraud, miscounts and other wrongdoing. None seem to have actual merit. Not one of these suits has succeeded and most are quickly laughed out of court - nine of them in one day last week. In Arizona, where Biden beat Trump by about 10,000 votes, Trump's lawyers themselves withdrew their suit when it was pointed out they were only contesting 191 votes out of 10,000. In Pennsylvania, a Trump lawyer reluctant to lie to a judge's direct question admitted there was no fraud and the case was dismissed. On Saturday, Trump's lawyers for Pennsylvania dropped Trump. And yet, Trump promises to file more. "WE WILL WIN!" he tweeted. A "Stop the Steal" demo organised by Republican operatives yesterday in Washington DC attracted perhaps 5000 and ended with at least 10 arrests and some fights.
There have long been rumours Trump operatives are working quietly with some state legislatures on a plan to overturn the pro-Biden vote and appoint instead their own pro-Trump delegates - "electors" we call them. In America, as you may have by now reluctantly learned, the national popular vote is meaningless and the President is elected by an "electoral college" whose 538 members are sent by each state. The plan, long suspected among Democrats, is to hijack the electors. The almost non-existent voting irregularities would be the excuse.
The Republican Party so far is largely going along with Trump's bogus charges or just keeping their mouths shut. Notable exceptions seem to include Rupert Murdoch, former President George Bush, campaign guru Karl Rove and a very few Republican senators.
At the same time, Trump has made some sudden changes at the Pentagon and in the security agencies that have spooked folks who watch these things. He fired our Defence Secretary immediately after the election and replaced him with a minor anti-terrorist analyst and former Green Beret. Last week, he appointed three reliable loyalists to other top security positions. One specialised in attacking the idea of Russian election interference here, something our Mueller Report documented. Another called President Barack Obama a "terrorist leader". This is not the A Team.
There are rumours that CIA director Gina Haspel might be fired. On Saturday, comedian Bill Maher told his cable audience that if Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley is fired next, the coup is on.
My friends here in Seattle are divided. The Republicans among them are split. Several actually think Trump is fighting to overturn a transparently rigged election; most think he's just "trolling the libs" and will eventually leave quietly. Several suspect he's doing all this to bring out his base for a crucial January runoff election in Georgia that will decide who controls the US Senate.
Among my Democratic pals, the most common view is that Trump is a malignant narcissist trying to save face, while simultaneously keeping his base eager for a post-presidential TV career. Or for 2024. Or he's trying to milk his supporters for money for his election defence fund. The Pentagon changes? Maybe the new guys are planning to shred embarrassing documents. But are these really coup-level dudes? My calmer friends see the firing as simple revenge for acts of public disagreement with Trump. The appointments are rewards for lackeys.
Other friends are more nervous. Like Maher, they fear Trump is trying to build the pretext for overturning a clear election. They point out that Trump has been predicting election fraud against him since he ran … in 2016. They worry he's planning to mobilise our various private right-wing militias, which have made bellicose statements of loyalty lately. He's stacking the Pentagon with loyalists who will neutralise the army or use it against protesters. And he's planning to give the state legislatures an excuse for changing the outcome of a vote.
I have another theory. I think Trump is putting on a show. And he hasn't really written the ending yet.
After 12 years starring on the reality TV show The Apprentice, deep knowledge of our totally phoney pro-wrestling and a lifetime selling real estate, he's really very good at it. He's the consummate conman. Our age's PT Barnum.
Despite staring on The Apprentice as the Jeff Bezos of real estate, Trump actually isn't much of a manager or businessman. Run the United States? He could barely run the Trump Organisation. He's been bankrupt six times. He has huge debts. Is he even a billionaire? Real billionaires aren't sure, because real billionaires don't run endless fraudster scams like Trump University and sell branded frozen meat. Bill Gates doesn't sell chewy Gates Steaks. Mark doesn't sell Zuckerbergers. Warren Buffet doesn't run a phoney school that teaches stock picking.
But thanks to the force of personality, showmanship, the intuitive skill of a natural conman and relentless repetition, most people who voted for Trump think that he's a brilliant business leader.
His presidency has been a similar show. He talked endlessly of beating Covid while our daily new cases approach 200,000 and our total deaths near 250,000. He yells that Biden and his son are crooks who should be in prison, based on utterly unsubstantiated emails that seem to have come from Russian intelligence. He demands we build an unnecessary wall and will not let it rest. He brands opponents as "terrorists". It's always so ... exciting.
And now comes the Pretend Coup. Does he really have the necessary state legislatures committed to mischief? Are the few thousand militia members sufficiently trained to pull something off? Are there disloyal army units? Almost certainly not. "They don't seem to have mustered the purpose, competence or unity of action to succeed," a top Washington political lawyer tells me. "It's more of a ... show."
But the danger of pretending, of putting on a show, is that it can become deadly real. Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922 with just 26,000 fascists started as an armed demo. It ended up with Mussolini as Prime Minister.
So stay tuned. Because while I think it will all end normally with Trump fleeing to Florida, we can't really be sure.
Hell of a show.