For months I was one of a number of political observers warning that Donald Trump was laying the groundwork for a coup to overturn an election loss. Yet he is very close to the exit ramp from the White House. I examined what happened to his plans at New York:
State election-results certifications are rolling in for Biden; federal and state judicial panels are monotonously rejecting his legal challenges to the results; and the number of Republican elected officials supporting the conspiracy theories his lawyers are offering is eroding steadily. Now that the threat of a seriously contested (or even overturned) presidential election is receding (though not entirely disappearing), it’s worth asking why it went down as it did. As someone who feared a “red mirage” scenario, in which the president would tally an early Election Night lead then prematurely declare victory, I feel a responsibility to examine what went wrong for Trump, and right for democracy. Below are some possible explanations for his failure to mount a serious challenge to his defeat.
Back in the spring and summer of this year, when Trump began attacking voting by mail as inherently corrupt, it began to occur to many of us that in convincing Republicans to vote on Election Day he might be trying to engineer a scenario in which he would gain a temporary lead from in-person results, then attempt to disallow the mail ballots that would swing the election to Biden days or even weeks after November 3. Critics of “red mirage” talk often dismissed such fears as overestimating Trump’s seriousness, not to mention his ability to convince others to go along with any effort to stop the counting of mail ballots on or after Election Day.
Perhaps these critics were right: Trump’s “plan” to steal the election failed because there was never really a plan beyond throwing mud at the election process and hoping something stuck. That interpretation would explain the Trump campaign’s erratic postelection legal strategy, and its too little, too late efforts to mobilize the president’s supporters to put pressure on election officials and state legislators to skew the vote or set it aside in favor of arbitrarily appointed Trump electors. In other words, if there was a plan, it was incompetently executed.
Another possibility is that Trump was doing well enough in the initial returns that he hesitated in contesting the election, as there was a real possibility he could win without chicanery. He won Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas decisively, and was obviously in a competitive position in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. When it became obvious that later mail ballots were going to resolve the results in the closest states, early on November 4, Trump did make his long-expected victory claim, and vaguely threatened legal action to stop the counting of “illegal” votes. But it was not the clarion call for revolution many of us feared, as I noted at the time in trying to parse his wee-hours remarks in the East Room:
“This is all guesswork, beyond the president’s clear indication that he doesn’t want to allow all legal votes to be counted and reported, on the specious grounds that a ballot postmarked by Election Day is somehow cast afterward. I suppose it’s a small victory that he’s talking about going to court rather than inciting violence or using his own powers to suppress vote-counting by brute force.”
There was something irresolute about Trump’s victory claims and his failure to call his supporters into the streets that suggested either divisions among his team or perhaps doubt as to whether Biden would win without court interventions. It’s useful to remember that the experts didn’t actually call the election for Biden until November 7. So pulling the trigger on a full-on election contest might have seemed risky at that point.
Reflecting what probably seemed like the imperative of securing small changes in the results from very close states, Team Trump’s initial legal strategy seemed focused on very narrow issues — particularly a continuation of Republicans’ national and state preelection lawsuits that aimed to stop the extension of mail-ballot deadlines (a particularly big issue in North Carolina and Pennsylvania). Here’s how I summarized the situation in all-important Pennsylvania as of November 9:
“Election-law expert Rick Hasen estimates that about 10,000 total votes were received between November 3 and November 6, and some of them, of course, were cast for Donald Trump. At the moment, Biden’s lead in the Keystone State stands at 45,000. And even if Trump could somehow flip (or call into question) Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, he’d need to win 36 additional EVs from the 45 still unresolved (26 of them in states where Biden currently leads) to reverse the overall outcome. To sum it all up: If he had some ham, he could make a ham sandwich, if he had some bread.”
Again, it was too little, too late.
However you analyze the path that brought Trump to the situation where his lawyers resorted to wild conspiracy theories (as reflected in the insane presser they held on November 19) and frantic efforts to slow down state certifications of results, it was obvious by mid-November that Trump’s only hope was to create enough phony doubt about the outcome in key states to justify a power grab by Republican legislators. The idea, which was fully aired in many of the preelection “red mirage” speculations (I wrote about it in April), was that state legislators would assert a constitutionally sanctioned (if controversial and arguably in conflict with their own statutes) right to appoint electors themselves since “fraud” had tainted the popular-vote results. Trump publicly called on GOP legislators to do just that, as Politico reported on November 21:
“[W]ith few cases pending in courts, Trump’s options have narrowed and he is becoming increasingly reliant on longshot scenarios where election results are not certified and Republican-controlled statehouses in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia intervene to declare him the winner.
“GOP legislative leaders in those states have not endorsed this approach. Trump summoned Michigan legislative leaders to the White House on Friday, but they later issued a statement indicating they had not seen any reason to intervene on Trump’s behalf.”
For this long-shot strategy to have worked, Trump would have needed to begin much earlier — perhaps in close coordination with his early and incessant attacks on voting by mail — to prepare Republican legislators for this audacious step, while mobilizing tens of thousands of MAGA bravos to surround state capitols and demand an intervention to stop Biden’s alleged theft of the election. Clearly none of that groundwork was done in advance, and when the time came for Trump to call on Republican legislators to save his bacon, they appeared sympathetic but unwilling to violate their own laws and procedures to overturn popular-vote results. Conservative opinion leaders were at best divided on such desperate measures, too. So as my colleague Jonathan Chait pointed out, a coup didn’t have the united party support required to make it work:
“Trump’s attempted coup is going to fail because he hasn’t gotten the party fully onboard with it. It’s not hard for them to say no: Trump didn’t even begin to organize his scheme until it was too late, he has too many states to flip, and the alternative facing them — a moderate Democrat constrained by a right-wing court and a likely Republican Senate — is hardly scary …
“The popular Republican stance has been to indulge Trump’s lies while dismissing the danger he poses. ‘To launch a coup you need more than a giant, suppurating grievance and access to Twitter,’ Wall Street Journal opinion columnist and former editor Gerard Baker scoffs. ‘You need a fanatical commitment, a detailed plan, an energy, a sophisticated apparatus of revolution.'”
We may have to wait until memoirs are written or Trumpian tongues are otherwise loosened to find out whether a seriously contested election was ever in the works, or if the whole “red mirage” scare was just another by-product of a president with no respect for norms and the power to order his troops to break them — though not enough of them, and not quickly or efficiently enough.