By Monday evening, it must have been clear, even to Donald Trump, that the jig was up. During the previous forty-eight hours, the President’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election result and entrench himself in the White House for another four years had suffered a series of heavy blows. This past weekend, in yet another setback for his legal team, a conservative federal judge in Pennsylvania mockingly dismissed a voter-fraud case that had been filed days earlier. On Monday morning, more than a hundred Republican national-security officials published a public letter calling on Trump to “cease his anti-democratic assault on the integrity of the presidential election.” And, on Monday afternoon, Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers certified that Joe Biden had won the state by more than a hundred and fifty thousand votes.
Trump’s legal options were shrinking away, his political support was crumbling, and even some of his senior aides in the White House were telling him that it was time for a formal transition to a Biden Presidency. Finally, Trump gave in. In a letter to Biden that was leaked to CNN and other media outlets, Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee who heads the General Services Administration, an independent federal agency that, among other duties, provides financing and other forms of support to Presidential transitions, said that she was now ready “to make those resources and services available.” Immediately after Murphy’s letter emerged, Trump sent two tweets, in which he thanked her for “steadfast dedication” and said, “Our case “STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good … fight, and I believe we will prevail!” But then Trump went on, “Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”
Given Trump’s chronic aversion to being labelled a loser, and his clear intention to use the myth of a stolen election as a rallying cry for his supporters going forward, this pair of tweets may well be the closest he ever comes to issuing a formal concession. Indeed, later on Monday night, he said, in another tweet, “Will never concede to fake ballots & ‘Dominion’.” (“Dominion” refers to Dominion Voting Systems, a company that figures prominently in one of the Trumpian conspiracy theories about the election.) But in an administrative sense, the deed has been done. Trump’s tweets, together with Murphy’s letter, marked an official acknowledgement that Biden is now the President-elect, and, as such, is entitled to all the perquisites that go with that status. The flip side of this recognition went unacknowledged by the White House, but it can no longer be denied: Trump is officially a lame duck.
Trump’s anti-democratic assault—it was refreshing to see even some Republicans using such plain language—isn’t over. In the days and weeks ahead, Rudy Giuliani and his colleagues will go on with their madcap legal efforts. And Trump will surely continue to insist that he won the election, probably to his dying day. But the official start of the transition has turned all that into a sideshow. For now, at least, the future belongs to the next President, who is already busy rolling out his Cabinet appointments.
No matter how you regard the specific prospect of a Biden Presidency, these developments are excellent news for American democracy. Four years ago, I wrote a column about the threat that Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton presented. While distancing myself from some historians and political scientists who were then comparing the President-elect to Hitler or Mussolini, I noted some of the serious dangers that lay ahead: “If anything, the isolation and pressures of the Oval Office might further warp his ego and exaggerate his dictatorial tendencies. Surrounded by yes-men, he could well be tempted to try to expand his powers, especially when things go wrong, as they inevitably do at some point in any Presidency.”
I was perhaps too optimistic. Faced with the prospect of losing office, Trump has, for months, been waging a systematic campaign against the most basic institution of democracy: the election. When protests erupted across the nation following the police killing of George Floyd, Trump whipped up racial divisions, incited his supporters to violence, and sought to deploy active-duty troops on the streets of Washington, D.C. As the election approached, he repeatedly claimed that it would be rigged against him, and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. And after Americans turned out to vote in record numbers, he launched a desperate effort to overturn the election result.
One can argue about whether this effort amounted to a fully-fledged effort to stage a self-coup, or autogolpe, or whether it was too botched and legalistic to merit such a description. In any case, it was a disgraceful display of political vandalism that has done considerable and lasting damage. If the polls are to be believed—and one of the lessons of the election is that they should never be entirely believed—a majority of Republicans support Trump’s claim that the 2020 vote was crooked. And why wouldn’t they? “Republican senators and representatives, in their silence, are allowing the idea to take hold that the whole system is rigged,” Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, noted last Thursday, in the Wall Street Journal. The fact that, this week, some elected Republicans at the national level belatedly came forward and called on Trump to allow the transition to begin doesn’t negate the abject servility that they have displayed since the election—and, indeed, since the 2016 election.
The American system of governance will take a long time to recover from Trump and Trumpism, if it ever does. But this is a day to celebrate the good news. In the past month, some of the key permanent institutions of U.S. democracy have proven up to the task of resisting a series of grave challenges. (Set aside the national Republican Party, which is now largely an appendage of Trump.) In the midst of a terrible pandemic, the much-maligned U.S. voting system was adaptable enough, and robust enough, to handle a record turnout of more than a hundred and fifty-six million people. When Trump challenged the election results, the localized and patchwork nature of the voting system proved to be an advantage. With even Republican-run states, such as Georgia, zealously guarding their authority to conduct the election and the vote count, Trump and his lawyers were forced to fight on many different fronts—and practically everywhere they ran into resistance from local election officials and the courts.
The Trump legal team endured many setbacks, but none was so humiliating as the ruling issued, on Saturday, by Matthew Brann, a judge of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, who rejected the Trump campaign’s last-ditch effort to block the certification of that state’s results. The Trump complaint “like Frankenstein’s monster, has been haphazardly stitched together,” Brann noted. It contained “speculative accusations” that were “unsupported by evidence.” Brann is no leftist: Senator Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, subsequently described him as a “longtime conservative Republican whom I know to be a fair and unbiased jurist.” Brann was a jurist who, in this case, went on to say, “In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state. Our people, laws and institutions demand more.”
As the election was free, fair, and decisive, Trump and Giuliani can’t supply more, of course. From the start, they have been recklessly promoting a farrago of lies, irrelevancies, and half-truths. So far, at least, the people, laws, and institutions that Brann referred to have proved strong enough to prevail over this malign project. In this holiday week, the country still faces a lot of grave challenges. But its resilience is something to give thanks for.