US institutions have a record that is far too patchy to wager the country’s democratic future on
What started on a golden escalator five years ago ended in the parking lot of a garden design company next to a sex shop and across the street from a crematorium. The Four Seasons Total Landscaping incident – someone appeared to have booked a gardening services’ purveyor instead of the luxury Four Seasons hotel – was heavy with symbolism, and perfectly timed.
The colossal joke triggered a sort of joyous breaking of a fever, as the power of the Trump administration ebbed away in front of the assembled cameras. The tension caused by the red mirage of Trump’s strong early showing during the election melted away, and all that remained was laughter. Social media rejoiced in the symbolic diminishment of Trump. Serious news channels tried and failed to cover it straight. The memes were bountiful.
It was the same humour that has permeated the past four years. The familiar amusement at the fact that, sure, the toddler-president means what he says, but he doesn’t have the intellect or reach to execute his many whims.At the moment of his loss, surrounded by even more chaos than usual, the spectre of Trump was reduced one final time. He was no longer a sinister figure lurking in the shadows, but a harmless clown, one who had looked temporarily threatening only because of a trick of the light.
Despite hopes that he might be on the point of conceding, with a speech that appeared to admit the possibility of a Biden administration, the president was back to his old tricks by Sunday afternoon, stating Biden may “have won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA” but that “I concede NOTHING!”. Even as Trump refuses to step down, even as every day a norm is shattered and a deep gash inflicted on the body of American democracy, his threat is minimised.
Elder statesmen didn’t waste a minute indulging this circus. In an interview last week Tony Blair was asked about Mike Pompeo’s assertion that there would be “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration”. A smile played on Blair’s lips as he replied, “I assumed it was some ironic remark.” He went on to pull himself together to reassure us that America has strong democratic processes and systems, and that we shouldn’t dwell on Trump’s antics: “Things will move very quickly.”
He should be more worried.Those strong institutions have a record that is too patchy to wager the country’s democratic future on. The Republican party is the first of those weak links. More foreign leaders so far have congratulated Joe Biden’s election than GOP senators, a pitiful four so far. Choosing loyalty to Trump and the voters they fear they might lose if they come out against him, members of the party have already made an autocratic choice, where their authority flows downwards from Trump, rather than upwards from a democratic decision of the majority. If a serious attempt is made to overturn the election result, this does not augur well.
The judiciary is also looking wobbly. In addition to three supreme court judges, Trump has appointed almost a quarter of all active federal judges in the United States, skewing the courts not only ideologically but demographically, reversing trends under Obama, and resulting in overwhelmingly white, male judges. Over the past year, the majority of cases in which pro-voting rights rulings were overturned in federal courts involved a Trump-appointed judge.
And there is a real path to Trump overturning the results. The details are arcane, but in a scenario where state legislatures conclude that the popular vote has been corrupted, they are enabled by the constitution to discard that vote. Republican-controlled state legislatures could then appoint sympathetic electors who would cast votes for Trump, even if Biden won those states’ popular vote. It is a far-fetched and unfathomable path, but several of the components needed to make it happen are already in play: a willing legislature, a pliable judiciary and a belief among millions of Americans that the election results are not valid.
But the complacency that treats Trump as a joke that went too far endures. Mostly because Trump is, objectively, a mess. We expect autocrats to come in a different, more convincing form. We expect them at least to be able to finish a sentence. The sloppy incoherence and chaos of Trump and his administration makes it hard for some to believe that they are capable of pulling off anything as organised as a coup. But if enough Republican lawmakers and enough Republican voters can be activated to make it happen, Trump himself needs to do very little. And he doesn’t even need to pull it all the way off to set a dangerous precedent – for it to be a trial run.
Instead of preparing for, and heading off, the worst-case scenario, and despite all the norm-shattering of the past few years, a stubborn American exceptionalism still remains, one that in sage tones calms any fears of a Trump takeover. The Biden camp has chosen to carry on with a transition process during which they have not even been allowed to access messages of congratulation, and still use no stronger language than calling Trump’s refusal to concede “an embarrassment”.
The whole episode is “terrible for democracy, but ultimately a bad case of Trumpian bluster rather than an ominous portent of tanks in the streets” predicts the New Yorker. When a person is robbed of power, “they immediately become less scary”, Slate tells us. “Thank goodness Trump is too incompetent to properly organise a coup,” says the Washington Post. But, as the author Talia Lavin put it, “it is almost as if mainstream political journalists in the United States suffer a kind of Promethean ailment: each morning, an eagle draped in an American flag swoops down and removes their temporal lobe.” The lesson they are constantly unlearning is that with Trump, things seem unthinkable until they are inevitable. And by then, it’s too late.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist