Ten days after the election, Donald Trump is still skulking around the White House, claiming that he was cheated. This shouldn’t surprise anybody who watched him during the campaign. He repeatedly claimed that the vote would be fraudulent, and, at one point, he suggested that Election Day should be delayed. In October, Bright Line Watch, a monitoring organization that was set up in 2017 to monitor Trump’s threats to U.S. democracy, surveyed hundreds of political scientists about their expectations for the election and its aftermath. Many of the respondents predicted that Trump would declare victory early on, attack the “blue shift” caused by the late counting of mail-in votes, and refuse to concede.
That’s precisely what happened, of course. Trump has also empowered an army of lawyers to gin up accusations of voter fraud. Attorney General Bill Barr, breaking with Justice Department precedent, has ordered his underlings to investigate any allegations of irregularities that are “clear and apparently-credible.” As the vast majority of elected Republicans have failed to denounce these alarming developments, some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that Trump and his cronies are trying to stage a coup.
On Thursday, I spoke with Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist who was one of the founders of Bright Line Watch, and asked him whether he subscribed to the coup thesis. “I think that is wrong,” Nyhan said. “What I would emphasize is precisely what we have been talking about pretty much all the time: the concern is democratic erosion.” Democratic erosion isn’t something to be minimized or taken lightly. It refers to the gradual undermining of democratic norms and democratic institutions, which ultimately can prove fatal to democracy, and it’s something that Nyhan and other political scientists have been issuing warnings about since shortly after Trump was elected. “Democratic erosion happens in a slow and piecemeal process,” Nyhan said. “Joe Biden will almost certainly still be sworn in as President, but democratic erosion can still take place. . . . The peaceful transfer of power is the core of democracy.”
Writing in the Washington Post earlier this week, Erica De Bruin, a political scientist at Hamilton College who is the author of the book “How to Prevent Coups d’État,” made a similar argument. Although the measures that Trump and Republican officials have taken to undermine the election “are enormously damaging, they do not constitute a coup,” De Bruin writes. The real danger, she argues, is that Republicans “are violating the norms we rely on to ensure peaceful transfers of power, undermining trust in our electoral process and conveying to their supporters the poisonous notion that Democrats, as a rule, can never win power legitimately.”
Although it seems likely that Trump will eventually accept that he can’t stay in office, nobody should underestimate the damage that he is doing and the dangers he is fuelling. In repeatedly making unfounded claims about the election, he is creating a false narrative, which, in years to come, could well become a Trumpian version of the “stab-in-the-back” legend that some German generals promulgated after the First World War. According to that baseless narrative, which many right-wing extremists, Hitler included, subsequently seized upon to undermine the fragile Weimar Republic, Germany’s soldiers didn’t lose the Great War on the battlefield—they were betrayed by civilian politicians.
In Trump’s equally fictitious narrative, he didn’t lose the election: his opponents stole it by stuffing mail-in ballots, throwing out Trump votes, and engaging in other nefarious tactics. On Thursday, Trump tweeted about an utterly unsubstantiated story from the pro-Trump One America News Network, which claimed that software provided to local governments by the technology firm Dominion Voting Systems deleted 2.7 million Trump votes nationwide. (“There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which oversees election security, said in a statement. “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”)
Although Trump has amped up his fake-history project since the election, some of the foundational work for it was done before the 2020 campaign began, and he was far from the only one responsible. For more than a decade now, Republicans intent on suppressing the minority vote have been making false claims about voter fraud. Trump picked up and amplified these claims. At a rally, in September, he told his supporters, “It’s a rigged election. It’s the only way we are going to lose.”
On the eve of the election—after almost four years of exposure to the President and to media outlets and social-media accounts that support him—Trump supporters already subscribed to a counterfactual version of reality. A survey that Bright Light Watch carried out in October found that seventy-eight per cent of respondents who approved of Trump believed that voting in U.S. elections by noncitizens was common, and seventy-eight per cent of Trump supporters believed that there was widespread stealing of, or tampering with, ballots. Trump’s statements since the election have added to the misinformation. A Politico and Morning Consult poll published earlier this week found that seventy per cent of Republicans now say that they don’t believe the election was free and fair. Whether that many Republicans really think this way is immaterial. Bearing false witness to things that aren’t true is a rite of passage in many extremist groups, and today’s Trump-dominated G.O.P. certainly qualifies as one. The failure of many Republican leaders to repudiate Trump’s false claims is perhaps the most alarming thing that has happened since November 3rd. “We depend on the bipartisan affirmation of the results to help the losers accept the legitimacy of the election,” Nyhan said. “Instead, we are seeing the opposite.”
Ultimately, Trump’s fake history could prove more insidious and lasting than an actual coup attempt. If he were to announce tomorrow that he intends to stay in office and order the U.S. military to recognize him as the rightful President, it seems highly improbable that the generals would heed his call, despite the fact that he has just fired the Secretary of Defense and appointed new civilian leaders to the Pentagon. In all likelihood, any effort to usurp the Constitution would be over quickly, and Trump could end up facing charges of treason. By claiming that the Democrats stole the election from him, and that the mainstream media went along with it, he is creating something more durable: a rallying cry for his most vehement supporters, and a foundational myth for future recruits to Trumpism.
Some of Trump’s backers on the alt-right are organizing a “Stop the Steal” demonstration in Washington, on Saturday. According to a Washington Post story , those planning to attend include Alex Jones, the Infowars conspiracy theorist, and Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys. With anti-Trump rallies also planned for the same day, it’s possible that there will be violent clashes between the rival demonstrators. This summer, Trump cheered on supporters of his, who rode into Portland in pickup trucks and fired paintballs and pellet guns at Black Lives Matter demonstrators. He seems unlikely to stay quiet this weekend.
With both Axios and the Washington Post reporting that Trump has told associates he is going to run again in 2024, there may well be four more years of demonstrations and bogus assertions that a great injustice has been done. “It’s easy to imagine Trump and the conservative media keeping that claim going through 2024 and denying the legitimacy of the Biden Presidency,” Nyhan told me. “To be clear, it is probably going to be a relatively small group of Americans who believe the most extreme versions of those claims. But it’s one that is especially important to the way the Republican Party and the conservative-media universe work. That relatively small group can distort the actions of élites and do a lot of damage.”
Trump is also setting a precedent, and a very bad one. Until this year, it would have been unthinkable for a sitting U.S. President to refuse to concede after being clearly defeated in an election. In the country’s two-hundred-and-forty-three-year history, such a thing has never happened. Now that it has, what will transpire if some future election is considerably closer? “We could have leaders with authoritarian inclinations who are more competent than Trump,” Nyhan noted.