That Creeping Authoritarian Coup

Something about Barack Obama made too many people too angry. He was too cool – calm all the time – and he was courteous and polite, and pleasant and often funny, and reasonably humble, and superbly educated without bragging about it, with a smart cool wife and two great kids, and he was urban and Black too – which was a rebuke to a lot of the White folks. What was he trying to do, show them up? He was too articulate. That wasn’t fair. He was too well-liked around the world. That wasn’t fair either. He was even thin and elegant. The list is long. Many hated this guy, or at least deeply resented him.

They could do something about that, and about all the others like Obama. Elect someone to burn it all down, someone like Donald Trump. He sneered at these people. He insulted everyone. And he ruined his enemies. He showed no mercy – ever. Donald Trump really would burn it all down. Angry voters loved him, and there were a lot of angry voters. He’d change everything.

He did that, and now he’s going to finish the job, and that might kill us all. The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Lara Jakes explain that:

President Trump, facing the prospect of leaving the White House in defeat in just 70 days, is harnessing the power of the federal government to resist the results of an election that he lost, something that no sitting president has done in American history.

Perhaps no one thought of it before, or they were timid little mice, but now Trump has his very own personal government and his very own military too, as he sees it, and they can destroy anyone he tells them to destroy. And he did just win reelection:

In the latest sign of defiance, the president’s senior cabinet secretary fueled concerns on Tuesday that Mr. Trump would resist handing over power to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. after legal challenges to the vote. “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Mr. Trump’s attorney general has at the same time authorized investigations into supposed vote fraud, his general services administrator has refused to give Mr. Biden’s team access to transition offices and resources guaranteed under law and the White House is preparing a budget for next year as if Mr. Trump will be around to present it.

The president has also embarked on a shake-up of his administration, firing Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper as well as the heads of three other agencies while installing loyalists in key positions at the National Security Agency and the Pentagon. Allies expect more to come, including the possible dismissals of the directors of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A.

He’s cleaning house, because he’s staying in that house, or else he’s being told to just move along and to go away:

The rest of the world increasingly moved to accept Mr. Biden’s victory and prepared to work with him despite Mr. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the results. Speaking with journalists, Mr. Biden called the president’s actions since Election Day “an embarrassment” that will not serve him well in the long run. “How can I say this tactfully?” Mr. Biden said. “It will not help the president’s legacy.”

That is an issue:

The standoff left the United States in the position of the kind of country whose weak democratic processes it often criticizes. Rather than congratulating Mr. Biden and inviting him to the White House, as his predecessors traditionally have done after an election changed party control, Mr. Trump has been marshaling his administration and pressuring his Republican allies into acting as if the outcome were still uncertain, either out of faint hope of actually overturning the results or at least creating a narrative to explain his loss.

But no one should be surprised:

The president’s efforts to discredit with false claims both the election results and the incoming Biden administration is in many ways the culmination of four years of stocking the government with pliant appointees while undermining the credibility of other institutions in American life, including intelligence agencies, law enforcement authorities, the news media, technology companies, the federal government more broadly and now election officials in states across four time zones.

Throughout his presidency, Mr. Trump has tried to condition much of the American public not to believe anyone other than him, with evident success. Although the evidence shows there was no widespread conspiracy to steal the election in multiple states that Mr. Trump has invented, at least one poll showed that many supporters accept his claims. Seventy percent of Republicans surveyed by Politico and Morning Consult said they did not believe the election was free and fair.

Vladimir Putin has long said that western democracy just doesn’t work, that it’s rather stupid and a stupid way to organize any government. Trump seems to agree with Putin, again:

“What we have seen in the last week from the president more closely resembles the tactics of the kind of authoritarian leaders we follow,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that tracks democracy around the world. “I never would have imagined seeing something like this in America.”

Mr. Abramowitz doubted there was much danger of Mr. Trump overturning the election. “But by convincing a large part of the population that there was widespread fraud, he is seeding a myth that could endure for years and contribute to an erosion of public confidence in our electoral system,” he said.

Putin is smiling. Trump did his work for him. All those people who voted for Biden and Harris don’t get it. Their votes mean nothing. Trump had already won. Or maybe he didn’t win:

Mr. Biden has proceeded without waiting for Mr. Trump’s concession and spoke on Tuesday with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Ireland. Most major world leaders have congratulated him on his victory, including close Trump allies like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, another Trump favorite, joined the chorus on Tuesday. The major holdouts remained Presidents Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China.

So, Secretary of State Pompeo told the world that Trump will be president once again next year. Plan for nothing else. And they didn’t, and Biden kept chugging along:

Mr. Biden said he was not overly concerned with the Trump administration’s refusal to provide transition money, offices and access to agencies, insisting he could assemble a government by his Jan. 20 inauguration. “We are going to be moving along in a consistent manner, putting together our administration, White House,” he said. “Nothing is going to stop us.”

Mr. Biden agreed that it would be helpful to have access to classified information like the presidential daily briefing, something an outgoing administration usually provides an incoming president. But he added, “The fact that they are not willing to acknowledge that we won at this point is not of much consequence to our planning.”

Biden simply shrugged. That is sure to anger Trump. And then there’s Pompeo:

In a testy exchange with journalists at the State Department, Mr. Pompeo insisted that American efforts to prevent voter intimidation and ensure free and fair elections around the world were not diminished by Mr. Trump’s refusal to concede.

“We must count every legal vote,” Mr. Pompeo said, adopting the president’s language. “We must make sure that any vote that wasn’t lawful ought to not be counted. That dilutes your vote if it’s done improperly.”

He snapped when asked if Mr. Trump’s delaying tactics undermined the State Department’s efforts to pressure political leaders abroad to accept losing results. “That’s ridiculous and you know it’s ridiculous, and you asked it because it’s ridiculous,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo can often be sarcastic, particularly when speaking to reporters, but the State Department made no effort to clarify if he was joking.

But he had made a mess of things:

The delay in acknowledging the results has left American embassies in limbo. At least some embassy officials have been told to steer clear of any efforts to help Mr. Biden with foreign leaders who want to congratulate him, as they normally would during a transition. Diplomats said they could not even begin enumerating the successes of the Trump administration for fear of describing it in the past tense.

Some ambassadors sought to straddle the line of neutrality even as they pointedly did not recognize Mr. Biden as the victor. “It’s been a hard-fought race that has shown us the American spirit of both grit and resilience,” Robert “Woody” Johnson, the ambassador to Britain, said on Twitter. “Nothing in the history of America worth achieving has ever come easy.”

In short, say nothing much and wait to see how this works out, but Trump is cleaning house:

In extending his purge of the Pentagon on Tuesday, Mr. Trump replaced three more policy officials with loyalists. Some Defense Department officials worried that the replacements could be more amenable to striking American adversaries than their predecessors were.

James Anderson, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy who was at odds with the White House, stepped down and was effectively replaced by Anthony Tata, who became “the senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for policy,” as the announcement put it.

Mr. Tata, a retired Army one-star general who has called Islam “the most oppressive violent religion” and referred to former President Barack Obama as a “terrorist leader,” withdrew from consideration for the top Pentagon policy job in August amid opposition from both Republican and Democratic senators. The president also installed Kashyap Patel, a former aide to Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California, who played a key role in helping Republicans try to undermine the Russia investigation, as chief of staff to the new acting defense secretary, Christopher Miller, adding alarm at the Pentagon over moves to stock the department leadership with loyalists.

Expect mass resignations. The place will be filed with Trump flunkies. None of this is good. And none of it is normal:

“We have not seen any president in history lose re-election, refuse to concede defeat and take actions that threaten the abuse of presidential power to keep himself in office,” said Michael Beschloss, a prominent presidential historian. “Here, Donald Trump is yet again in a historical category of his own – and this time, it is ominous for democracy.”

Richard Norton Smith, who wrote a biography of Herbert Hoover and is writing one on Gerald R. Ford, two of the nine [sitting presidents before Mr. Trump who lost bids for another term in a general election], recalled Hoover’s anger at the man who beat him, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and their frosty car ride to the inauguration in March 1933.

“But the point is Hoover, however embittered he was over FDR’s unwillingness to cooperate, as he defined the term, shared the same car, just as he had welcomed the Roosevelts for the ritualistic pre-inaugural tea the night before,” Mr. Smith said. “They might despise one another, but their personal animosity was outweighed by their commitment to the democratic process.”

And there was this:

Nearly 80% of Americans, including more than half of Republicans, recognize President-elect Joe Biden as the winner of the Nov. 3 election after most media organizations called the race for the Democrat based on his leads in critical battleground states, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

And the New York Times made some phone calls:

Election officials in dozens of states representing both political parties said that there was no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome of the presidential race, amounting to a forceful rebuke of President Trump’s portrait of a fraudulent election.

Over the last several days, the president, members of his administration, congressional Republicans and right wing allies have put forth the false claim that the election was stolen from Mr. Trump and have refused to accept results that showed Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the winner.

But top election officials across the country said in interviews and statements that the process had been a remarkable success despite record turnout and the complications of a dangerous pandemic.

They all said that if there was something big and bad going on, a plot to rig anything, it was going on elsewhere, in some other state:

“There’s a great human capacity for inventing things that aren’t true about elections,” said Frank LaRose, a Republican who serves as Ohio’s secretary of state. “The conspiracy theories and rumors and all those things run rampant. For some reason, elections breed that type of mythology.”

Steve Simon, a Democrat who is Minnesota’s secretary of state, said: “I don’t know of a single case where someone argued that a vote counted when it shouldn’t have or didn’t count when it should. There was no fraud.”

“Kansas did not experience any widespread, systematic issues with voter fraud, intimidation, irregularities or voting problems,” a spokeswoman for Scott Schwab, the Republican secretary of state in Kansas, said in an email Tuesday. “We are very pleased with how the election has gone up to this point.”

Everyone said the same sort of thing:

The New York Times contacted the offices of the top election officials in every state on Monday and Tuesday to ask whether they suspected or had evidence of illegal voting. Officials in 45 states responded directly to The Times. For four of the remaining states, The Times spoke to other statewide officials or found public comments from secretaries of state; none reported any major voting issues.

Statewide officials in Texas did not respond to repeated inquiries. But a spokeswoman for the top election official in Harris County, the largest county in Texas with a population greater than many states, said that there were only a few minor issues and that “we had a very seamless election.” On Tuesday, the Republican lieutenant governor in Texas, Dan Patrick, announced a $1 million fund to reward reports of voter fraud.

And even Rudy got slapped down:

Perhaps none of the Trump campaign’s claims received more attention than an allegation made over the weekend in Pennsylvania by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. On Saturday, Mr. Giuliani held a news conference in the parking lot of a Philadelphia landscaping company and claimed that the election in the city had been rife with fraud.

The office of the state’s top law enforcement official said that there was no evidence to support Mr. Giuliani’s claims, and that the election in the state was “fair and secure.”

“Many of the claims against the commonwealth have already been dismissed, and repeating these false attacks is reckless,” said Jacklin Rhoads, a spokeswoman for Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who is Pennsylvania’s attorney general. “No active lawsuit even alleges, and no evidence presented so far has shown, widespread problems.”

But that didn’t stop Team Trump:

On Monday, the Trump campaign accelerated their legal efforts, filing a lawsuit in the seven Pennsylvania counties where the president lost that claimed mail voting created an unfair, “two-tiered” system during the election – though the system is also in place in counties the president won. The campaign also announced plans to file another suit in Michigan.

The president has kept up a barrage of Twitter posts with false claims about improprieties in Nevada and Pennsylvania, predicting he’d prevail in Georgia, where he is behind, and said Wisconsin “needs a little time statutorily,” though he offered no explanation for what he meant.

Nellie Gorbea, the Democratic secretary of state in Rhode Island, said the amount of attention on the election would make illegal voting extremely difficult. “It would be nearly impossible to do voter fraud in this election because of the number of people tuned in,” she said.

That makes all of this nonsense:

One of the secretaries of state who did not respond to requests for comment about the election in his state was Corey Stapleton of Montana, an outgoing Republican. But Mr. Stapleton did post a message implicitly addressing the president’s ongoing fraud claims. “I have supported you, Mr. President,” he wrote.

“@realDonaldTrump accomplished some incredible things during your time in office! But that time is now over! Tip your hat, bite your lip, and congratulate @JoeBiden.”

That’s not going to happen:

Six states where President Trump has threatened to challenge his defeat continued their march toward declaring certified election results in the coming weeks, as his advisers privately acknowledged that President-elect Joe Biden’s official victory is less a question of “if” than “when.”

Trump began the day tweeting about “BALLOT COUNTING ABUSE” as he and his allies touted unproven claims that fraud had tainted the election in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Vice President Pence gave a presentation to Republican senators on Capitol Hill about new litigation expected in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia — imploring them to stick with the president, according to several Republicans in the room.

But even some of the president’s most publicly pugilistic aides, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and informal adviser Corey Lewandowski, have said privately that they are concerned about the lawsuits’ chances for success unless more evidence surfaces, according to people familiar with their views.

They know. Everyone knows:

Multiple election officials and legal scholars said there is little Trump can do to stop the process. Even where the opportunity for a challenge exists, it rests on difference-making evidence of wrongdoing – which the Trump campaign has not presented.

“With a 12,000-vote outcome, they’d have to show some irregularity, some fraud, some error in a quantity that exceeded 12,000 votes statewide,” said Cathy Cox, a Democratic former secretary of state in Georgia. “If you come up with 100 voters who were ineligible, it’s going to be a big ‘so what,’ because it’s not going to change the outcome of the election.”

Trump almost certainly cannot delay certification around the country, barring the emergence of major new evidence of fraud, said Derek T. Muller, a professor of law at the University of Iowa.

“I don’t see anything significant at the moment,” Muller said, noting that he could not recall an instance in which a federal court has delayed the certification of a statewide election.

And that’s that:

One Trump adviser said most of the legal actions did not amount to much, and he expected it to be over by Saturday or Sunday “unless something really changes and we find real evidence.”

There is none. It’s over, and Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick sums up the nonsense:

With news that Mitch McConnell has decided to embrace Donald Trump’s use of patently frivolous litigation to deny the results of the 2020 election, and that Attorney General William Barr has authorized the Justice Department to lend a hand by issuing a bizarre memo giving federal prosecutors approval to pursue “vote tabulation irregularities” – violating the Justice Department’s own long-standing practice of waiting until states certify their election results – we find ourselves trapped inside the same Möbius strip that has confounded us since 2016. On the one hand, this is all just a tantrum, a giant roll-around-on-the-floor-in-the-Pop-Tarts-aisle baby-fit by the world’s oldest living captive of Piaget’s first stage of cognitive development. And at the same time, when that tantrum involves the firing of the secretary of defense (via Twitter), threats of future firings that expose the national security apparatus to genuine instability and risk, and concerted and purposeful GOP attacks on the legitimacy of voting and the very concept of respecting election results, it is hard to dismiss it as mere empty theater. After a weekend of thinking we might be free of this, it turns out that the feeling that we’re teetering on an existential brink is not yet gone.

So here we go again. It’s either a creeping authoritarian coup, or just a really annoying sequel to a horror movie that seems never to end. We’re either experiencing something really profoundly worrisome, or this is just the coddling of a narcissist who just needs a cozy offramp.

But maybe both are true:

Americans showed up and voted last week, and elections officials conducted themselves heroically, often in the face of threats and intimidation. Votes were counted – are being counted – in scrupulous accordance with state law. The center held. This is an extraordinary turn of events in the face of deliberate efforts to persuade voters that the election would be a farce. But the reason the days since the election have been so unsettling is that this one fixed and robust pillar of democratic rule – that the people cast votes and the votes count – is the very thing now under attack, not just with the careless words of a wounded president, but with the concerted alignment of a party that cannot now seem to accept anything short of a total vanquishing of its opponents.

So, now what?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to That Creeping Authoritarian Coup

    • There are about 75,000,000 who voted for Joe Biden, from people like myself who admire and deeply respect Joe, to those who agonized whether to vote at all, but finally cast a ballot. The solution long term is within we in the 75,000,000. This is Armistice (Veterans/Remembrance) Day, and can and should be one hell of an Army of individuals, hand-to-hand where we live: our relatives, friends, people who at least respect us as individuals. It is tough work, but in war it is the privates who are in the trenches. I blogged this morning on the occasion of Armistice Day, if you wish:

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