He won’t give up until all the votes are cast and counted
“Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser”. So once said American Football coach Vince Lombardi. It is a philosophy Donald Trump takes to heart – though his record is somewhat patchier than Lomabrdi’s. Trump has a pathological, visceral fear of being seen to fail, to lose.
Any other presidential candidate would have given up weeks ago, particularly as Trump has already set the narrative for a comeback, courts permitting. Biden’s win is questioned by a large proportion of Republicans, Trump can play the injured party; the victim of the system. It doesn’t matter particularly what the objective truth is; it’s never mattered with Trump. What matters is what people believe. But Trump isn’t any other presidential candidate
Of course, it was never meant to come here at all. Plan A was to win the election outright, as in 2016 – and he came a lot closer than many thought he would, me included. It was clear that Biden was heading for a huge number of votes and that Trump would need to improve on his 2016 total by several million. Given his approval rating, his handling of Covid and the associated economic problems, that looked an ask too far.
However, the noises coming from the Republicans in the final few days of the campaign of having signed up many new voters was clearly accurate. In retrospect, it may well be that Trump’s attempts to effectively run against the radical left paid dividends, generating the kind of protest vote he couldn’t muster against Biden himself.
Whatever the reason, Biden’s wins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia were paper-thin. Had they gone the other way, the election would have gone with it. But they didn’t. (Overall, Biden will have won by over 6m votes by the time they’re all counted but of course, that doesn’t matter under America’s idiosyncratic system).
Given the closeness of the result, it was inevitable that Trump would switch to Plan B: to challenge the results in the courts. This has been markedly less successful in terms of outcome but we should remember that for Trump, legal action has always been an end in itself as well as a means to an end. Remember his advice to Theresa May that the UK should sue the EU? He never said for what the UK should sue but that’s not the point: the point is that for him, the action itself creates doubt, undermines legitimacy and might prompt the other side to cut a deal.
The tactic doesn’t work so well in politics though; especially not at the highest level where cases will be contested. And legally, Trump’s allegations of fraud, malpractice and other irregularities have gone precisely nowhere – not least because his lawyers have been reticent about advancing the wilder theories and claimed evidence made publicly, which says a lot about how solidly they’re grounded. As a means of building a political myth, they have value. As a means of reversing the election result, they’re worthless.
Hence Plan C: rather than having the courts overturn the election result, have the certifying politicians do it and either (ideally) replace Biden’s electors with Trump’s own, or at least create enough doubt and confusion that no electors are awarded from the disputed states so that Biden fails to gain 270 Electoral College votes, sending the election to the House, where the Republicans hold a majority of state delegations. Unfortunately for him, he’s having no more success there yet than in the courts. After an initial squabble in Wayne County, Michigan, the votes were eventually certified; the whole state of Georgia is signed off. And local officials don’t have a free hand to simply ignore the vote: they are bound by law and have duties under it.
Given that Trump needs to take at least 37 Electoral College votes from Biden to deprive him of victory, both Plans B and C look doomed. Which brings us to the question: what is Plan D? Trump still has options ahead of him. (Note – these are not all mutually exclusive Some may turn out to be Plans E or F yet).
Throw in the towel
One option is to do the decent thing. Trump wouldn’t, presumably, be doing it because it is the decent thing but because the barriers to remaining in the White House after January 20 are simply impractical and accepting the fact of that, while continuing the dispute the ‘true’ result of the election may allow him to burnish the myth of a stolen election with an eye to 2024. It also stops him looking desperate and absurd. It would, however, run strongly counter to his instinct and his values.
Continue the fight in Congress
An alternative is to have his proxies continue to challenge the result wherever possible – which once the Electoral votes have been cast means in Congress, which counts them. This is usually a formality but so far, almost no Congressional Republicans have acknowledged that Trump has lost. As with Plan C, if Trump can get senators to throw out Biden votes because of alleged irregularities, that could again result in the House deciding matters. Whether Congressional Republicans would be willing to go along with such an outrageous abuse of the system is another matter but the evidence from all their actions during 2020 is that we shouldn’t rule it out.
Physically disrupt the Electoral College vote and/or count
The reason why the likes of Putin or Kim are no doubt laughing at Trump at the moment is because for all his talk, he’s actually quite squeamish when it comes to really using, or inciting, violence and is likely to lose power because of it. It’s not a mistake they’d make. Violence, however, is an option. Trump has millions of vocal supporters, many who own firearms, who believe the election was stolen from them, and him, and could be called onto the streets to, for example, prevent Electoral College members from meeting and casting their votes. True, the forces of law and order could be called out but that then becomes a game of chicken. How far are you really prepared to push it? Once you go down that route, there is no turning back, there is no sure way of knowing what forces might be unleashed, and a defeat would mean losing everything.
I don’t think Trump would go that far, not least because he doesn’t have the military onside and trying to undertake a genuine coup with uncoordinated amateurs is a disaster waiting to happen. But also because those sort of actions lie outside his framework. Trump is not unpredictable; on the contrary – he is very much a creature of instinct driven by experience and habit. Trump only does things people don’t expect because they expect him to act like a president, not like Trump. But his experience is his life in business and entertainment. If he was willing to embrace disruptive tactics, he’d have had armed supporters out on the streets on November 3 ‘monitoring’ polling stations in Democrat areas. Indeed, given how close the election turned out, such suppression tactics might have tipped the balance. He didn’t.
Instead, expect more of the same. Procedural shenanigans that end up going nowhere and a lot of empty noise from the White House.
p.s. While Trump is sulking about his defeat and his inability to affect the aftermath, the world moves on. The US recorded 200,000 new Covid cases yesterday: more than double the number three weeks ago and quadruple that of six weeks ago. The deaths, lockdowns and job losses which will inevitably follow will provide the more real setting against which the political drama plays out. I wonder whether that might just tip the scales a little more against the president, particularly given Trump’s complete indifference to the issue.