The Guardian view on Trump’s strategy: overturn result, cheat democracy

The US president is seeking to bring down a system that defeated him

Donald Trump boarding Air Force One at Palm Beach International Airport on 31 December 2020.

‘A classic demagogue, Mr Trump is signalling to his supporters that they, like him, should refuse to respect the election’s outcome and reject Mr Biden’s presidency.’ Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

This week, Donald Trump will undermine democracy in the US by supporting the claim that Democrat Joe Biden did not fairly win last November’s presidential election. A peaceful handover of power in a democracy requires losing candidates and their followers to admit defeat. But Mr Trump has manufactured a controversy purely to maintain power and to overturn a legitimate election.

US courts have repeatedly thrown out Mr Trump’s evidence-free cases. This has not stopped the president’s accomplices in Congress. They, backed by Mr Trump’s vice-president, on Wednesday plan to challenge Mr Biden’s win to force a debate and votes in Congress. Some scholars point to a historical precedent as offering a slim, perhaps vanishing, chance that the nightmare will continue. Mr Trump will not let an opportunity pass to relitigate an election he lost.

For the good of America, he must fail. The alternative is ultimately the collapse of political norms and civil strife. A classic demagogue, Mr Trump is signalling to his supporters that they, like him, should refuse to respect the election’s outcome and reject Mr Biden’s presidency. There is a well-grounded fear that protests could erupt, some of them armed. Mr Trump might call out the national guard or send federal agents to deal with demonstrations. This chaos, Mr Trump no doubt hopes, will pave the way for an autocratic takeover.

Mr Trump is a sore loser who cannot stand that he was beaten in a fair election. He should move on but sees no reason why he should yield. After all, Mr Trump has not been punished for his transgressions against tradition, decency and the law. Instead, he has been rewarded. He thinks he can get away with almost anything. The Republican party has only itself to blame for incubating Trumpism, a parasitical ideology that threatens to take over the host.

Mr Trump has thrown open the door to the argument of power rather than the power of argument in US electoral politics. With the help of social media, the president has polarised the electorate, building a “counter Republic” online, in which anger and fear are motivating emotions. In this world, the US apparently is being engulfed by socialism and liberal values. Mr Trump sells his chimerical fight as a necessary one, even if it cheats democracy itself. This has allowed him to frame the undoing of a presidential election as just an extension of other anti-democratic Republican tactics – such as gerrymandering and voter suppression – to constrain political opponents.

Politicians in the US need to give up on the fantasy of a Trump second term. Questioning the integrity of the presidential election without proof of wrongdoing threatens the idea of liberal democracy. It leaves the US distracted by canards when its real problems are painfully obvious. No one outside of Trump’s orbit thinks that Washington DC ought to play host to rival inaugurations on 20 January. Mr Trump is not embracing chaos to express dissent. He is seeking to bring down the system that defeated him.

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