What exactly are we witnessing here? Is this an attempted coup — a real effort by President Trump to cling to power despite the outcome of the election? Or is it a pathetic, doomed-to-fail tantrum by a petulant sore loser who will soon cave under pressure?
It has been four days since the election was called for Joe Biden, and Trump still refuses to concede. “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT,” Trump told his 89 million Twitter followers in breathless all-caps over the weekend. Since Nov. 3 he has charged “corruption,“ “tampering with an election” and “a cesspool of fake votes,” all as part of what he called “the mail-in ballot hoax" to “steal the election.”
These are dangerous, incendiary allegations that stoke mistrust and resentment, weaken the nation and leave half the country feeling cheated and bitter. As he has done all through his presidency, Trump is using fear and division for his own political gain, with no concern for the consequences. A Politico/Morning Consult poll shows that 70% of Republicans now believe the election was not free or fair, compared with 7% of Democrats.
Look, let’s be clear: The president has a right to question actual voting irregularities. If there was real fraud, so widespread that it changed the course of the election, let him make the case. If he’s got some secret trove of evidence confirming that Democrats hijacked the process, now is the time to put it forward. Not in all-caps on social media, but accompanied by serious arguments in a court of law.
But that’s not what he’s doing. Instead he flails, he whines, he blames. Courts have already tossed out several of his campaign's shoddy lawsuits. Dozens of state elections officials from both parties have told the New York Times they see no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities. According to the Washington Post, top Trump aides say privately that the evidence of fraud is thin and that Trump will ultimately have to concede.
Meanwhile, he's grasping at straws; he would need extraordinary reversals in several states to win back the presidency. The simple truth is that Joe Biden is the presumptive president-elect and the burden of proof is on the president to show differently. And it’s just not going to happen, according to the experts.
Yet Trump — who repeatedly refused in advance of the election to commit to a peaceful transfer of power — is brazenly behaving like he won’t leave. He’s going ahead with planning for next fiscal year’s budget. His administration is refusing to give the Biden transition team the money and access that, under federal law, must be made available to the winner of the election — despite what two former presidential chiefs of staff call “the serious costs of a delayed transition.”
Shamefully, senior Republicans and Trump appointees are, at least publicly, humoring the president in his delusion that the election is still up for grabs.
Atty. Gen. William Barr, instead of sitting Trump down and telling him the truth, has publicly authorized further federal investigations into voter fraud (prompting the head of the Justice Department’s election crimes branch to resign in protest).
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, in a confusing statement that seemed to fall somewhere between a joke and a threat, told reporters that there would be a smooth transition “to a second Trump administration.” He also said it was important to count every “legal” vote, implying, as Trump has, that Biden was aided by fraudulent, “illegal” votes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who certainly knows better, has refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory and, in his own mealy-mouthed way, has defended Trump’s quixotic efforts to build a narrative of fraud.
It’s cynical of them. But is it any surprise? This is how too many Republican leaders have behaved toward Trump from the start, enabling and encouraging him to the detriment of the country.
Trump’s refusal to concede could perhaps be written off as just so much empty theater — or as an ineffectual, Captain Queeg-like meltdown — were it not for the 71 million votes he won from Americans around the country and the slavish pandering of Republican officials.
What is Trump’s ultimate game? Is it merely that he can’t stand to be a loser? Is he setting up a false narrative of a stolen election to remain politically relevant after he leaves office — or, God forbid, to prepare for a 2024 bid? Does he honestly believe he can cling to power?
It seems most likely that on Jan. 20 we will indeed inaugurate Joe Biden, and Trump will exit the stage, grumbling and perhaps not conceding even then. But who knows? It’s a volatile situation.
Trump has shown from the beginning of his presidency that he has no respect for democratic rules or norms or history or process or institutions. Four years later at the end of his term, he remains just as contemptuous.
Enough already. As a father, I remember a thing or two about tantrums. There was the wailing phase. There was the part with the kicking and screaming and stiffening of muscles. And then, almost imperceptibly, the intensity would begin to ebb. There were gasping breaths between the diminishing sobs. Tears dwindled, then stopped.
Let's hope the toddler in chief's tantrum follows a similar trajectory.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.