“When people tell you who they are,” Maya Angelou once said, “believe them.”
To this, we could add a President Donald Trump corollary: When people tell you that they will refuse to graciously accept defeat, and will instead undermine the legitimacy of the very democratic process that got them elected, in a cloud of misinformation and litigation, believe them.
On Thursday night (5 November) Donald Trump, presumably seeing which way the electoral winds were blowing, made a short speech in the White House briefing room – though to call it a speech is perhaps to elevate it above what it was. It was a series of baseless lies. Trump (according to Trump) had won on the legal votes counted, but claimed there were many more illegal votes: “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.” No substantial amount of “illegal” votes had been identified, however, just votes that were still being counted.
He railed, again, against mail-in voting, despite having used this method himself in the past. He claimed that his campaign was being denied observers where votes were being counted, which they were not. He threatened litigation and, indeed, his campaign is suing and trying to bring cases to stop counting and get ballots thrown out.
A Trump campaign legal adviser said earlier on Thursday, “We’re waiting for the United States Supreme Court – of which the president has nominated three justices – to step in and do something.” That this is not how the Supreme Court works is perhaps less important than the fact that the sitting president was hoping the judicial branch would hand him an election.
Trump also took time in his speech to credit the Republicans keeping the Senate, though he did not explain why, if the Democrats were rigging the election, they wouldn’t take the extra step of retaking the Senate. “They’re trying to steal an election,” Trump said. And it was true: somebody does appear to be in the process of attempting to do that. It was the person making those claims.
Media outlets cut away from his speech. The pundits on CNN, which I was watching, expressed disgust. Even some Republicans made statements, however muted, against their leader. The New York Post, like Fox News, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp; many believe Trump would not be president without the right-wing media ecosystem Murdoch created. But even the Post, on Thursday, broke with the president. “Downcast Trump makes baseless election fraud claims in White House address,” the headline read.
It was, of course, saddening. But it was not surprising. The president told us in clear language before the election that this is what he would do. It would have been more surprising – it would have been stunning, actually – if Trump had graciously admitted that things were not going quite as he had hoped. The man claimed there was fraud in the popular vote in 2016 in an election that he won. To imagine that he would face the music calmly for the good of the country is to completely suspend disbelief.
The only shocking part about any of this was how quickly the censure came from individuals and institutions which have, for years, enabled the president.
[See also: Why US democracy as we know it may soon be over]
This is not, after all, the first thing that Trump has done that undermines US institutions and norms. He has been doing this for four years. He apparently pressured the Ukrainian president to announce an investigation into Joe Biden, his political opponent – withholding aid until he did so – yet Senate Republicans did not vote to remove the president after the House impeached him. Many also stood by him during the child separation scandal – the period during which migrant and asylum-seeking children were ripped from their parents and guardians, some of whom have now been lost to them forever. Nor did they step in when the president’s adviser, Stephen Miller, wondered aloud about ending birthright citizenship. They didn’t ask him to wait a moment when his attorney general, Bill Barr, moved to represent the president in a sexual assault case. They did not push back against his handling of the coronavirus pandemic or tell the president to stop lying and pretending that Covid-19 is going away. On Thursday, incidentally, the United States had over 120,000 new cases. Perhaps the president can be forgiven for thinking that his enablers wouldn’t resist him here. He’s simply being who he always was and doing what he said he would do.
The dangerous thing is that, at present in the US, a substantial number of people will continue to hear and agree with the president.
Some of Trump’s supporters protested on Wednesday in Michigan, demanding that the votes stop being counted; others protested in Arizona, also demanding that the votes stop being counted (they were protesting against other Trump supporters demanding that counting continue, but no matter). Some in Arizona had guns with them, for Arizona is an open-carry state. Almost 70 million people voted for Trump, and many of them will believe that he is the rightful president, that this election was stolen from him and that the democratic process was rigged.
At time of writing, the situation has stayed largely peaceful. There is a real risk that it does not. It is perhaps even more likely that the president has done irreparable damage to America’s institutions, norms and processes, and to the faith the American people have in their own votes.
He’s told them who he is. And they believe in him.