Fintan O’Toole: At 2.23am, the US president launched an attempted coup

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Trumpism is alive and kicking – and openly contemptuous of democracy

At 2.23am Washington time this morning, the president of the United States launched an attempted coup. It was not a secret plot. He did it openly and followed a script he had pretty much published in advance of the show. Close to half of Americans voted for him in the full knowledge that he was going to do it.

And the great irony is that it may not have been necessary. At that moment, the outcome of the election was still entirely in play. Trump behaved like an autocrat even when it was quite possible that he could still win by being a democrat.

This is the great crisis of the American republic: elective authoritarianism is now an official and equal rival to democracy. It runs on its own track, parallel to the one that has previously prevailed.

Trump’s speech from the White House, delivered not as a candidate, but with the full pomp of incumbent power, was exactly what anyone who has been paying attention to him for many months now would have expected it to be.

He claimed that an unspecified “they” were seeking to disenfranchise his voters, and that he had won states (Georgia, North Carolina) where the result was still entirely in doubt. He demanded that counting stop in key states where vast numbers of votes were still to be tallied. He characterised those votes as fraudulent – and by implication those who cast them as criminals.

Most of all, Trump declared the election a fait accompli. He consigned it to the past tense: "Frankly we did win this election." Even friends and allies of Trump like the former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie admitted that this was a travesty of the law and of the electoral process.

So why did he do it? A clue was in one of his final speeches on Monday evening, at a rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He played a video in which clips of Joe Biden’s stutter were edited together for his supporters to join him in contemptuous mockery. “What a disaster,” Trump added. “I can’t believe this is even happening. The concept of losing to this guy!” This is what it comes down to: losing to a man he sees as a born loser is unbearable for Trump. There are no circumstances in which it can be allowed to happen.

This is autocracy at work. Despots of the kind Trump aspires to be live in a world of their own. I wish it, therefore it is. I say it therefore you must believe it. Events are not independent of the leader’s will. They obey it.

‘Alternative facts’ 

Right at the beginning of his presidency in January 2017, Trump's senior counsellor Kellyanne Conway used the term "alternative facts" to defend patently untrue claims about the size of the crowds at his inauguration.

For many months now, Trump and his enablers have been preparing an alternative election – the one in which he triumphed. He won, not by getting most votes (which he clearly did not: he has probably lost the popular vote by an even greater margin than he did in 2016), but by declaring illegitimate tens of millions of votes cast for Joe Biden.

As this scenario plays out in Trump’s head, his hand-picked judges on the Supreme Court will ultimately take his story from the fiction shelves and move it to the history section. This will be what “really” happened: the Democrats tried to steal the election, but the good guys restored it to its rightful owner, the incumbent.

There was never any serious doubt that, for Trump, the election is real only in the sense that “reality TV” is. It uses, because it must, people and settings that actually exist. But they are there to put a gloss of authenticity on a thoroughly rehearsed and ruthlessly edited show.

Because Trump doesn’t do shame, this illusion has been conjured into existence before our very eyes. On September 23rd, asked whether he would “commit here today for a peaceful transferral of power after the November election”, Trump replied, “Get rid of the [mail-in] ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful – there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation”.

In effect, of course, this plan for an alternative election with a preordained outcome implicitly acknowledged the probability of Trump’s failure. You don’t go all-out to stop the counting of the votes if you think you’re going to win. You don’t seek to dump tens of millions of ballots if you think they might be love letters to the incumbent.

The decision to green-light the coup plan, presumably made around two hours after midnight, must reflect an analysis by the Trump campaign that, if all the votes are counted, he loses.

That is, however, by no means a certainty. It would be one more grotesque irony in a bizarre election if it were to turn out that Trump’s attempt to abort the democratic process was in fact unnecessary, that he just may have managed to repeat his miracle of 2016, losing the popular vote heavily but squeaking through the Electoral College.

That this remains a real possibility is itself a kind of triumph for Trump. He has shown an astonishing resilience, not just to hold almost all of what he had but, against all odds, even to win significant numbers of new voters in states such as Texas (where he added a million to his 2016 numbers) and Florida.

Among the forces ranged against him was, obviously, a raging pandemic made vastly worse by his own malign misgovernment. It ought to have told against him. Yet if anything, it seems to have worked in his favour.

Personal resurrection

This happened in two ways. First, his personal resurrection after his near-death experience with Covid-19 has reinvigorated his fans. It reshaped him as both the Comeback Kid and as God’s chosen one. And, in truth, there has been something almost miraculous about his supercharged energy in the last days of the campaign.

Secondly, while Biden responsibly shut down much of his physical ground operation to protect public health, Trump’s brazen disregard for it gave him a huge campaigning advantage, ruthlessly exploited not just at his super-spreader rallies, but on the doorsteps. Not caring if people die, it turns out, is an electoral asset.

Nor have Trump’s failures to keep his promises necessarily hurt him – though this conclusion, like the overall race, hinges on those key mid-western states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

On the one hand, there is no evidence that Trump voters really cared that he did not build the wall (almost all of what he managed to build on the Mexican border is a mere upgrading of existing barriers) and that Mexico did not pay for it. They shrugged their shoulders and decided that the wall was more a symbol than a reality – and if Trump keeps saying it’s there, it’s there.

But what of Trump’s more substantial appeal, the one that is not essentially about identity politics: the promise he made to working-class voters whose jobs, lives and communities have been devastated by the decline of manufacturing industry?

Behind all the showmanship and hate-mongering, this is what was most real in Trumpism: the implosion of a world. Places that were the beating heart of the greatest industrial power ever known have had to watch as their economic lifeblood slowly drained away. Since 1997, 91,000 industrial plants have closed in the US and five million manufacturing jobs have gone with them.

Trump won in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016 because he said, in effect, “I will bring back your lost world.” But he didn’t.

If you’re rich, Trump delivered big tax cuts for you. If you’re a religious conservative, he reshaped the Supreme Court in your image for a generation. But if you’re a worker in an old industry, Trump stabbed you in the back.

In Saginaw in 2016, candidate Trump pledged that “We will make Michigan into the manufacturing hub of the world once again.” By 2020, President Trump had presided over a loss of 50,000 manufacturing jobs in the state.

When it came to it, Trump chose the interests of his vastly wealthy donors over those of his voters in those crucial states. In 2017, he signed a tax “reform” package that incentivised corporations to offshore jobs by slashing the rates they pay on foreign profits.

His administration has also given more than $400 billion dollars in federal contracts to companies that sent American jobs offshore to low-wage economies. The result was entirely predictable: the bleeding continued for those working-class communities. Another 200,000 manufacturing jobs have been offshored under Trump.

Rust Belt

But does this kind of reality matter any more? Objectively, Trump ought to have lost huge numbers of his voters in the Rust Belt. His premature coup attempt suggests that even he believed that he had in fact lost them.

And yet, so many of them stuck with him. He performed superbly in Ohio and well enough in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to give him, as things now stand, a real chance of a legitimate victory.

How did he manage this? Not by putting forward any plan – even a fanciful one – to revive manufacturing industry. Counter-intuitively, Trump put forward no real platform at all. He simply turned Trumpism up to 11.

He emphasised its form and diminished its content. He dialled up the absurdity, the hype, the swagger, often to the point of open derangement. He muted, almost completely, anything that might pass for policy. And it worked well enough to leave the election on the razor’s edge.

This success owes much to the way Biden accepted the basic proposition that everything was about Trump. Just as Trump amplified his own greatness, Biden magnified Trump’s threat to democracy. He was not wrong in this, as the attempted coup proved.

Where the miscalculation lay was in the implicit belief that potential Trump voters cared about this threat. They simply didn’t. Trump told them well in advance what he was going to do on election night – disenfranchise tens of millions of voters. They said: sure, go ahead.

Everybody knew that Biden was a relatively weak candidate, an old-fashioned Irish pol who harked back to an era of centrist consensus that has long gone. The bet was that a grandfatherly appeal to decency and empathy would counter the passionate intensity of Trump and his fans. It was that the politics of grief with which Biden’s tragic family history has infused his persona, would banish the politics of grievance that Trump has so forcefully mobilised.  That gamble was lost.

The failure of Biden’s attempt to appeal to the better nature of Republicans and get even a substantial minority of them to rally around a defence of the actual republic has profound consequences, whatever the final outcome.

It means that Trumpism is alive and well. There will be no remaking of the Republican Party because Trump’s command over what used to be conservatism is now total. Notably, the old conservative rearguard action to reoccupy the shell of the GOP, manifest for example in the Lincoln Project, had no discernible impact on the election.

Authoritarian project

But Trumpism is not just alive. It is vindicated as an explicitly authoritarian project. Its anti-democratic tribe will almost certainly retain a majority in the Senate. It has a currently impregnable majority on the Supreme Court.

Even more importantly, though, it has a rock solid popular base. Trump’s populist triumph in 2016 has turned out not to be a wave. Waves recede. This is much more like a lava flow that has solidified into a permanent feature of the American cultural, social and political landscape.

These are people who know exactly what Trump is – and love him for it. They are not, as Biden thought at least some of them would be, embarrassed or repelled or ashamed. They have tasted Trump and find him very moreish.

Even if Trump does not succeed, by the hook of the Electoral College or the crook of the Supreme Court, this combination of deep institutional power and fervent popular support will set the terms for the immediate future of the United States.

Those terms are clear: the minority imposes its will on the majority. The US political system makes this feasible. Trump has made it, for nearly half of the voters, both desirable and righteous. What future is there for a democracy in which those terms have become an unwritten part of its constitution?

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer

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