US President Donald Trump's relentless effort to overturn the result of the election that he lost has become the most serious stress test of American democracy in generations, one led not by outside revolutionaries intent on bringing down the system but by the very leader charged with defending it.
In the 220 years since a defeated John Adams turned over the White House to his rival, firmly establishing the peaceful transfer of authority as a bedrock principle, no sitting president who lost an election has tried to hang onto power by rejecting the Electoral College and subverting the will of the voters — until now. It is a scenario at once utterly unthinkable and yet feared since the beginning of Trump's tenure.
The President has gone well beyond simply venting his grievances or creating a face-saving narrative to explain away a loss, as advisers privately suggested he was doing in the days after the November 3 vote. Instead, he has stretched or crossed the boundaries of tradition, propriety and perhaps the law to find any way he can to cling to office beyond his term that expires in two weeks. That he is almost certain to fail and that President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated January 20 does not mitigate the damage he is doing to democracy by undermining public faith in the electoral system.
Trump's hour-long telephone call over the weekend with Georgia's chief election official, Brad Raffensperger, pressuring him to "find" enough votes to overturn Biden's victory in that state only brought into stark relief what the President has been doing for weeks. He has called the Republican governors of Georgia and Arizona to get them to intervene. He has summoned Michigan's Republican Legislature leaders to the White House to pressure them to change their state's results. He called the Republican speaker of the Pennsylvania House multiple times seeking help to reverse the outcome there.
Trump and his staff have floated the idea of delaying Biden's inauguration, even though it is set in stone by the Constitution, and the President met with a former adviser who has publicly urged him to declare martial law to "rerun" the election in states he lost. Trump's erratic behaviour has so alarmed military commanders who fear he might try to use troops to stay in the White House that every living former defence secretary — including two he appointed himself — issued a warning against the armed forces becoming involved.
Undaunted, the President has encouraged Vice President Mike Pence and congressional allies to do anything they can to block the final formal declaration of Biden's victory when Congress meets Wednesday (US time), seeking to turn what has historically been a ceremonial moment into a last-ditch showdown over the election. The idea has disturbed even many senior Republicans and it is guaranteed to fall short, much to the President's frustration.
"The 'Surrender Caucus' within the Republican Party will go down in infamy as weak and ineffective 'guardians' of our Nation, who were willing to accept the certification of fraudulent presidential numbers!" Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday, quickly drawing a fact-checking warning label from the social media firm.
He denied subverting democracy, posting a quote he attributed to Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of his Republican allies: "We are not acting to thwart the Democratic process, we are acting to protect it."
But Trump's efforts ring familiar to many who have studied authoritarian regimes in countries around the world, like those run by President Vladimir Putin in Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary.
"Trump's attempt to overturn the election, and his pressure tactics to that end with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, are an example of how authoritarianism works in the 21st century," said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of "Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present".
"Today's leaders come in through elections and then manipulate elections to stay in office — until they get enough power to force the hand of legislative bodies to keep them there indefinitely, as Putin and Orban have done."
The call with Raffensperger, which was recorded and released to the news media after Trump tweeted a false version of the conversation, provided a breathtaking case study of how far the President is willing to go to preserve power. He ran through one unfounded conspiracy theory after another and pushed Raffensperger to "find 11,780 votes" to flip the election outcome, appealing to him as a Republican to show loyalty and implicitly threatening criminal charges if he refused.
"So what are we going to do here, folks?" Trump said at one point. "I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes."
The call was unseemly enough that even some of the President's allies distanced themselves. "One of the things, I think, that everyone has said is that this call was not a helpful call," Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, one of the Republicans pushing to reject Biden electors from swing states, conceded on Fox News.
Trump's claim that the election was somehow stolen from him has gained no traction in any of the dozens of courts that he and his allies have petitioned, including the Supreme Court, with three justices he appointed. Republican election officials in swing states like Raffensperger have rejected his assertions as false. Even Trump's own attorney general, William Barr, said he saw no widespread fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election.
A group of 22 historians released a statement Monday pointing out that the 2020 election was not even particularly close in historical terms. Biden won more Electoral College votes than the winning candidates in five elections since 1960 and larger popular vote majorities than in more than half of the presidential elections held in the past six decades.
"Yet in none of these elections did any losing candidate attempt to claim victory by brazenly sabotaging the electoral process as Donald Trump has done and continues to do," said the letter, organised by Douglas Brinkley of Rice University and Sean Wilentz of Princeton University. Among the signatories was Michael McConnell of Stanford University, a former appeals court judge who was effectively repudiating the effort led by one of his former clerks, Senator Josh Hawley.
Trump's fidelity to the concept of American democracy has long been debated. From the earliest days of his campaign for the White House, critics suggested that he harbored autocratic tendencies that raised questions about whether he would eventually subvert democracy or seek to stay in power even if he lost, questions that grew loud enough that he felt compelled to respond. "There is nobody less of a fascist than Donald Trump," he insisted in 2016.
But Trump did little to disabuse those fears in subsequent years. He expressed admiration for strongmen like Putin, Orban, President Xi Jinping of China and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, evincing envy of their ability to act decisively without the checks of a democratic government. He asserted at various points that the Constitution "allows me to do whatever I want" with the special counsel investigating him and that his "authority is total" to order states to follow his wishes.
He sought to turn government agencies into instruments of political power, pressuring the Justice Department to prosecute his enemies and go easy on his friends. He has made expansive use of executive orders that courts at times ruled went too far. He was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House in 2019 for abuse of power for pressuring Ukraine to help him sully Biden's reputation although he was later acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.
When Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published their bestselling book, "How Democracies Die," in 2018, warning that even the United States could slide into autocracy, they faced blowback from some who thought they were overstating the case. "We were criticised by some as alarmist," Ziblatt, a government professor at Harvard University, said Monday. "It turns out we weren't alarmist enough."
Ziblatt said a healthy democracy requires at least two political parties that know how to compete and lose. "I hope and think we will get through the next few weeks," he said, "but our democracy can't survive in any recognisable way for long if we don't have two parties committed to the rules and norms of democracy".
In the end, this period of conflict and confrontation should not have come as a surprise to anyone who watched Trump over the past four years. He foreshadowed his plans to challenge the election as invalid unless he won, suggesting early in 2020 that the November vote be postponed and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Even now, just two weeks before the end of his term, Trump has left doubt about how he will leave the White House when Biden is inaugurated.
What else Trump could try to do to stop it remains unclear because he seems out of options. But he is not yet willing to acknowledge the reality of his situation, much less follow John Adams' example.
Written by: Peter Baker
Photographs by: Stefani Reynolds and Anna Moneymaker
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES