For the past eleven months, I have been saying that we will need to extract Donald Trump from office following his defeat in the November election. My premise is and has been that Trump’s behavior as president made it a virtual certainty that he would reject the results of an election he lost and do everything possible to hold on to power between Election Day and the inauguration. You can find the complete series here, here, here and here –or just keep reading, because I will use this post to synthesize my argument and gauge where we are in the extraction process. To avoid burying the lede: things are challenging but progressing as anticipated, and so far we have avoided scenarios that would have plunged the country into even deeper chaos.
I have long imagined the Trump era as a play in three acts. The aggressive norm-busting of the first two years gave way following the election of a Democratic House majority to a period of accelerated confrontation with attempts at accountability, which reached its peak during the impeachment trial last January. Around that time, I began warning that the third act would center on an attempt to remove an autocrat by democratic means, first through electoral defeat and then, inevitably, by extracting him from power. Last December, I wrote:
This period will coincide with the resolution of a Democratic primary campaign that will culminate in the nomination of the person who will carry the burden of selling a vision of post-Trump America. It will easily be the most challenging year of Trump’s time in office, as both sides stare down the possibility of defeat in a zero-sum conflict over the contours of our society. Then, late in the year, we will vote, and face the prospect that a large segment of the country will not accept the outcome, regardless of how the election turns out.
Several weeks later, in the wake of an impeachment trial where some Republican senators acknowledged that House Democrats had made their case but decided they just didn’t want to remove Trump from office, I observed that the country may not be ready for what’s to come:
We have sorted ourselves into two camps, each threatened by the empowerment of the other. One camp recoils at the incumbent and his behavior over the past three years and feels they cannot take it anymore. The prospect of another four years of Trump feels like a frightening existential prospect for the republic and their place in it. The other camp embraces the incumbent as a savior and protector of their rights and privileges against threats posed by the first camp. They fear their stake in a traditional social order will be forever lost if Trump is ousted.
This division played out in an election where — despite a fatal nonresponse by the administration to the worst public health crisis in a century — roughly 11 million more people voted for Trump than in 2016. Following Trump’s lead, a large share of his 74 million voters do in fact doubt the legitimacy of an outcome that has Biden closing in on a record 80 million votes. This is because Trump is behaving exactly as I expected he would ten months ago when I considered the prospects of a post-election presidential ego explosion:
What if Trump loses? What if he finishes second in the popular and electoral vote? When it looked like this was going to happen in 2016, Trump began casting doubt on the validity of the election. He raised vague, unsubstantiated claims of cheating by the other side and hinted that he might not concede the election or accede to the result. Even when he won, he railed against his popular vote loss by spreading lies about millions of fraudulent votes cast against him. He would have every reason to do it again, considering how the loss of incumbency will mean the loss of protections against criminal prosecution. The Republican Party would have every reason to support him, given how the loss of the White House would throw the party into turmoil. Certainly his base would expect him to defend their position at all costs. They are primed to accept claims that there was a conspiracy by the other camp to steal the election. This scenario . . . has all the earmarks of a crisis of legitimacy.
The triumvirate of Trump, his congressional enablers and his base sustained Trump in office and prevented his anti-democratic impulses from being held in check. Last May, I considered how the reaction of each part of the triumvirate would contribute to our extraction crisis. For obvious reasons, it was clear Trump would never acquiesce to a loss. It was equally obvious that his supporters wouldn’t either, because of their belief in what I called “his fantastic promise that he can protect his white supporters from losing their privileged status.”
Protecting privilege is a powerful fantasy — it is the fundamental basis for Trumpism. The need to uphold that promise is the thing that binds Trump’s followers. Of course they would believe him if he challenged the legitimacy of an electoral loss. Of course they would not accept Joe Biden as a duly elected president.
That leaves Republican elites as the only group who could expedite the extraction process by withdrawing their support in large enough numbers to deflate Trump’s resistance. I felt the only slender hope for this outcome was a lopsided Trump defeat:
It is not entirely impossible to imagine an unambiguous defeat convincing party leaders that parting ways with Trumpism is their quickest way back to power. Unfortunately, their behavior in recent years is not encouraging. Ever since Republicans began embracing minority viewpoints, their leaders have become increasingly willing to reject the legitimacy of the other side in order to protect their power. This is an ominous development. When Mitch McConnell refused to permit a vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, he justified it with the fabricated claim that a nomination in an election year should be held up pending a vote of the people. But would McConnell permit a vote on a Trump nominee if a vacancy occurred this year? Of course he would, because apparently only Republicans have a legitimate right to nominate justices.
And of course he did — rushing through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett while presidential ballots were being cast across the country. This embrace by Republican leaders of a fundamentally anti-democratic approach to the opposition will remain the greatest threat to the republic after Trump is gone. When I wrote about ways to prepare for the extraction phase last June, I said that a crushing Democratic win could have helped avoid the worst:
Nothing will ensure effective extraction more than a big electoral victory. There are any number of ways a determined incumbent, backed by his supporters and his party, can find something funny or suspicious about a close outcome. Whether it entails challenging the electoral votes of a close state or relying on constitutional shenanigans to set aside popular vote outcomes in favor of Trump electors in states with partisan legislatures, Republicans will be emboldened to press their case if the election comes down to one or two states or a few electoral votes. Now imagine a map where multiple states would have to be challenged to reverse the outcome. A map where Trump is defeated by five, six, seven points or more. A map where red and red-leaning states like North Carolina and Georgia, and purple states like Arizona and Florida, all vote to send Trump packing.
Biden didn’t quite get that map or those margins, but he came close enough to block Trump from pursuing an effective legal or political strategy to overturn the results. We would be in a far more tenuous place right now had the election come down to one or two states with margins that could be genuinely contested. Because the result was midway between a landslide and a squeaker, Republicans aren’t feeling emboldened to support Trump — but they aren’t breaking with him either because they continue to fear the wrath of Trump’s voters. That’s why they’re keeping their heads low and largely saying nothing, because while the election dealt a fatal blow to Trump’s administration it did little to rebuke Trumpism. This has set the terms for an extraction stage where Trump lacks the necessary leverage to stay in power but still controls his base and therefore his party.
Under these circumstances, Biden is doing a good job of pursuing two strategies that I suggested back in June could help advance the cause of extraction: fighting Trump’s illegitimacy narrative and moving quickly to establish the inevitability of his administration. While the impossibility of reaching Trump’s supporters will pose a significant obstacle to Biden’s subsequent efforts to unify the nation, they are not the audience for his messaging right now. The point of dismissing Trump’s efforts to overturn the election is to cross-pressure congressional Republicans who of course understand what’s happening. The more pressure they feel to acknowledge what almost everyone else recognizes the more difficult it becomes to keep up the charade.
And Biden is moving rapidly to establish the inevitability of his administration. As I wrote last June:
It will be incumbent on the Biden team to move swiftly to assert the reality that they will be coming to power in January and push back against all bullying . . . Biden will need to battle on two fronts — as the elected heir to an office he is not yet empowered to hold and the winner of an election disputed by his soon-to-be predecessor. He will need to be a noisy president-elect. Every day he should roll out appointments and initiatives, send the incoming congress legislative proposals to prepare for his first days in office, and communicate the unmistakeable message that he is about to become president.
Without question, Trump is doing damage that will resonate beyond his administration. Delegitimizing the election and the electoral process will make it substantially harder for Biden to glue the country back together. Refusing to permit the incoming administration the data and access they need to be ready on January 20 while the pandemic rages out of control is a criminal act. We have yet to experience the barrage of pardons likely to be among Trump’s last official actions. The two months remaining before the inauguration give Trump time to break a lot of things on his way out the door.
But it is equally clear that Trump is in fact on his way out the door. So far we have avoided some very frightening possibilities that were realistic concerns before Election Day. Trump’s legal case to set aside the election is collapsing. His political case is flailing. There will be no Supreme Court judgment that overturns the election. There will be no Trump electors sent to the Electoral College from states Biden won. There was no violence when people flooded the streets in joyous celebration after the declaration of Biden’s victory. There has been no organized violence at all. The Million MAGA March came up about 980,000 MAGAs short.
Vigilance remains essential for the next two months, but the extraction process is on track. Joe Biden will raise his right hand on January 20.