Art of the possible or survival of the fittest? The old dilemma of American politics is not even remotely close to being addressed. The Democratic challenger Joe Biden, by the laws of arithmetic, is the clear winner. He is now the 46th president-elect of the United States with over 80 million popular votes and 306 electoral votes.
The Republican incumbent and 45th president Donald Trump, with close to 74 million electors and 232 votes in the electoral college, is equally clearly the loser. But partly out of sheer vanity–having been humiliated by a competitor whom he had repeatedly insulted–and who he was convinced he could easily destroy and defeat, he refuses to concede.
While indirectly Trump appears willing to accept the inevitable, he still persists in his fictional claim that Democrats stole his re-election by massive voter fraud. Reality, comments The Economist, is a stranger to Donald Trump, who was crying fraud even before the first vote was cast. But, as it has often been the case in his presidency, it is difficult to know how seriously to take his protests.
One theory is that the defeated president may simply be playing to his huge gallery of supporters. According to a poll by Monmouth University, a massive 77% of Trump voters, despite lack of evidence, believe that president-elect Biden ousted Trump through fraud.
The survey finding appears to reflect far more than the ordinary post-election disappointment on the losing side. Even assuming that Trump supporters may be more disposed than others to take his words and claims at face value, such a high level of mistrust in a free election is deeply disquieting.
It signifies, in fact, that the virus of “democratic backsliding” – recently denounced at the U.N. General Assembly during the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of International IDEA, a highly regarded multilateral institution created by Sweden in support of free elections – is not sparing even the United States, long believed to be the gold standard of democracy.
So far, while president Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and cooperate with his successor has hurt America’s credibility as a world champion of democracy, the damage is circumscribed. Public confidence in the courts and in the military is intact. About the November election, the chances of a reversed decision by the courts are rated between very low and non-existent. Even the ill-considered decision by Trump to dismiss the civilian secretary of Defense, that suggested to some fanciful observer the outlandish theory of a possible self-coup, or autogolpe Latin American style, has mercifully sunk without trace.
The damage to institutions caused by Trump’s procrastinations and false tweets is different. The outgoing president has stalled the transition of 4,000 top civil servants who, in deference to the American tradition of the “spoils system”, are not career bureaucrats but political appointees. Some 1,200 of these, to complicate matters further, will require confirmation by the Senate where Republicans (to put it mildly) will be less than willing to cooperate.
Given these circumstances, Biden’s promise to “hit the ground running from day one” will require the skills of an acrobat. In addition, there is Trump. He may be preparing to greet his successor on Inauguration Day with the ultimate “New Year surprise”: a massive demonstration of diehard Trumpists welcoming their wounded hero as a “shadow president” in preparation for his second coming in 2024.
Politics sometimes mixes with pulp fiction. But four years in politics is an eternity. The final joke of this page of history ending in farce is revealed by the Washington Post. In an article titled, “20 Days of Fantasy and Failure”, the journal describes in great detail the tragi-comical drama of a president sequestered in the White House and muttering like a Mad King George “I won, I won, I won”. To placate his fury, his lawyers Rudolph W. Giuliani, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell spoke on the president’s behalf at the Republican headquarters. They argued that Democrats rigged the vote in a number of majority-Black cities, and that voting machines were tampered with by communist operators in Venezuela, at the behest of Hugo Chavez, the former Venezuelan president who died seven years ago.
The Venezuelan story was too fantastical even for Trump who for years had feverishly spread fiction. It quickly degenerated into farce when the president saw the face of Giuliani with black hair dye dripping down his face during a news conference on the fake plot. “It makes him look like a joke”, commented a furious Trump about his trusted lawyer.