No, Donald Trump is unlikely to pull off what the Spanish call an autogolpe — a government self-coup. But that will not be for lack of trying. The US has never experienced a losing incumbent who insists the election was stolen. It is hard to think of a genuine democracy where that has happened.
That is why people should still take the spectre of an attempted reality-TV coup seriously. Mr Trump has been saying for months that he would treat his defeat to Joe Biden as fraudulent. The real question is how much damage he can do to a system whose legitimacy is already wobbling.
The answer is a great deal. The limits to what Mr Trump can do lie not within himself but in the reactions of other people. So far, too many elected Republicans have acquiesced with the fraudulent postal ballot line, which makes no logical sense. The Republican party gained or held seats in many of the swing states that are in question. Many Republicans celebrating their wins are thus simultaneously questioning the ballots that pushed them over the finishing line. They cannot have it both ways.
But consistency is not the guiding principle. There are three reasons for Republican complicity with Mr Trump’s stolen election line. The first is psychological. They want to guide him through the stages of grief, the first of which is denial. The theory is that by humouring Mr Trump’s alternative narrative they will help guide him towards acceptance of defeat. There is little evidence this will work. No counsellor would tell a bereaved patient that their deceased is actually still alive. In Mr Trump’s case, this tactic will only exacerbate the next stage of grief — anger.
The second motive is to keep the conservative base riled up. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, needs to win at least one of the two Senate election run-offs in Georgia on January 5 to keep control of the chamber. That would give him the whip hand over the incoming Biden administration. But this is a risky tactic. US states must certify their electoral college choices before it votes on December 14, three weeks before the Georgia run-off. Mr McConnell would therefore have to deny the results of the electoral college. Both he and William Barr, the US attorney-general are playing games with the transfer of power, which is ingrained in American culture. If tempers continue to rise, America will become more and more like a gas soaked hangar, vulnerable to the next lit match.
The third motive — to suppress minority votes — will last long after Mr Biden’s inauguration. Mr Trump’s fate may be sealed. But it serves Republican purposes to keep his hopes alive. The goal is to limit America’s rapidly changing electorate as long as possible. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who was re-elected last week, put it most succinctly: “If we don’t challenge and change the US election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again. President Trump should not concede.”
Even if Republican leaders play along with Mr Trump until January 20, there is little reason to believe the system would buckle. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, America’s most senior general, has already made it clear he is not in favour of sending US troops on to America’s streets. The Pentagon’s top brass have been schooled to obey the US constitution, which says nothing about providing grief counselling to outgoing commanders-in-chief. There is no reason to disbelieve the Biden campaign when it said the “government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”
The threat to America is more insidious. Mr Trump effectively began his journey to the White House in 2011 when he claimed that Barack Obama had been born in Kenya, disqualifying him for the presidency. Millions of Republicans believed his “birtherist” conspiracy theory. Many Democrats see Mr Trump’s presidency as illegitimate because of allegations of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The two are not comparable — Mr Obama was born in the US and there is strong evidence of co-ordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. But it is perception that drives politics.
Whatever drama Mr Trump has in store for his final 70 days in office, Republicans are inciting their base to treat Mr Biden as illegitimate. In so doing, they are offering Mr Trump the keys to the post-presidential Republican party.