What Is Trump Playing at?


As newspapers and media across the country and around the world reported Joe Biden’s victory and Donald Trump’s defeat in last week’s election, Trump himself — along with his Republican allies in Congress, including the entire Senate majority leadership and the Republican House minority leadership — remained defiant.

I queried a number of American historians and constitutional scholars to see how they explain what should be an inexplicable response to an election conducted in a modern democracy — an election in which Republican victories up and down the ballot are accepted unquestioningly, while votes for president-elect Biden on the same ballots are not.

Many of those I questioned see this discrepancy as stemming from Trump’s individual personality and characterological deficiencies — what they call his narcissism and his sociopathy. Others offer a more starkly political interpretation: that the refusal to accept Biden’s victory stems from the frustration of a Republican Party struggling to remain competitive in the face of an increasingly multicultural electorate. In the end, it appears to be a mixture of both.

Many observers believe that the current situation presents a particularly dangerous mix, one that poses a potentially grave danger to American democracy.

Jonathan Gienapp, a professor of history at Stanford and the author of “The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era,” noted by email that there have been close, contested elections in the past,

In this context,

This, Gienapp concluded, “is what rot looks like.”

James T. Kloppenberg, a professor of American history at Harvard, responded to my inquiry with a broad overview, worth quoting at length:

It is just these underpinnings of democracy that Trump threatens, especially now:

Trump’s behavior, Kloppenberg argues, is the culmination of long-term developments within Republican ranks:

Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, was outspoken:

In fact, Wilentz warned:

Wilentz envisaged

Wilentz and others argue that Trump is gearing up to violate a principle of peaceful transition established shortly after the founding of the nation.

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“You have to go back to the very odd and dangerous election of 1800 for anything remotely similar,” Ned Foley, a constitutional scholar and professor of law at Ohio State, told me via email:

John Adams “was not in on any of those Federalist machinations,” Foley continued, but “it’s worth focusing on just how dangerous it was that the Federalists were thinking of depriving Jefferson of his victory.”

Both Virginia and Pennsylvania, Foley wrote,

Nonetheless, Jefferson was inaugurated and in his March 4, 1801 address, declared not only that “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” but told Americans of all political stripes to

“From my perspective,” Foley wrote,

Wilentz noted that after his defeat in the 1800 election, Adams

Despite this bitterness, Wilentz explained, Adams — in contrast to Trump — “owned the reality that, as he wrote, ‘we federalists’ had been ‘completely and totally routed and defeated.’”

Manisha Sinha, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and the author of “The Counterrevolution of Slavery,” pointed out in an email that there was onetime when there was a substantial rejection of the outcome of a presidential contest:


You Can Do This, Donald Trump

It’s hard to concede. But voters have spoken.

In life, there are winners. “World champions!” And there are losers. “Humiliation!” You wanted to win so bad. “Poor kid.” And it just wasn’t meant to be. But when you do lose, it’s important to do it gracefully. There’s examples everywhere, like these kids. “Kids from Rhode Island going home, but they should be awfully proud.” “Spelling Bee champion.” [APPLAUSE] “Please shake your opponent’s hand.” Or these people. “One of the great traditions in all of sports, a handshake line.” “They were the better team and they played better today.” “Whenever a player plays that amazing, you just kind of have to take your hat off and give ‘em a nod on the head, so congrats on all the hard work.” Johnny from Karate Kid got kicked in the face, and he still said, good match. “Thanks a lot.” Look, it’s not easy to lose. “Last night I congratulated Donald Trump.” “While I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it.” “The people have spoken, and we respect the majesty of the Democratic system.” “And once the decision is made, we unite behind the man who was elected.” “Join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort.” And now, it’s your turn, Donald. You can do it. “I’m not a good loser. I don’t like to lose.” We know. But you lost. So it’s time to concede. It’s time to be a good loser.

It’s hard to concede. But voters have spoken.CreditCredit…Getty Images

While many of the scholars I questioned described Trump’s actions as predictable, they were gravely concerned by the support Republican office holders have displayed for Trump — or at the silence they have kept. So far, only five out of 53 Republican Senators have publicly suggested that Trump take steps to open the transition process to Biden; none are in the leadership.

As my Times colleagues Nicholas Fandos and Emily Cochrane put it earlier this week:

Frank Wilkinson, a writer at Bloomberg and a friend of mine, provided the best explanation for Republican complicity in a July 15 column. His headline says it all: “Trump’s Party Cannot Survive in a Multiracial Democracy.”

In other words, Trump’s refusal to concede, and the support he is getting from his fellow Republicans, is part and parcel of the sustained drive by the right, especially since Barack Obama won a majority in 2008, to constrain and limit political participation by minorities by every available means: gerrymandering, voter suppression, restricting the time and place of balloting, setting new rules for voter identification and so forth.

On this theory, allowing the Nov. 3 vote to stand would, in the face of rising minority participation, endanger the ability of the Republican Party to compete in future national elections.

Richard Johnson, a lecturer in U.S. Politics & Policy at Queen Mary University of London, wrote me in an email that the current situation in the United States has key parallels to the end of the Reconstruction period in the late nineteenth century.

That period, Johnson wrote,

In his book “The End of the Second Reconstruction,” Johnson described

On Nov. 9, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who had just survived a challenge by a Black Democrat, declared on Fox:

Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia, was cautious in his assessment of the threat posed by Trump, but he voiced concern:

Foner pointed out that

Over the short term. Greg Grandin, a professor of history at Yale, sees the Trump challenge petering out, but he argues that the challenge represents a long-term threat to American governance:

Over time, however,

A few decades from now, Grandin wrote in his email, “Trump will be seen as significant, but really just a minor blip compared to the crisis that lay ahead.”

Samuel Moyn, a Yale historian, discounted fears of a Trump-led insurgency for a different reason: that Trump is not up to playing the role of strongman.

“I think we will come to understand him as the weakest recent president,” Moyn wrote by email, “and this ‘unprecedented’ situation in which he refuses to acknowledge election results is just more proof.”

Moyn rejected the notion that “we are in a dangerous situation,” because instead of a serious threat, “we have something more like a parody of a coup, one which moreover is something like a conclusive demonstration of the limits of Donald Trump’s power all along.”

James T. Campbell, a historian at Stanford, emailed:

Still, Campbell has been surprised before.

Campbell noted that

It’s quite likely, Campbell continued,

On that note, Ted Cruz’s remarks about Trump in May 2016, which appear in sharp contrast to his sycophancy now, capture the essence of our president — and why the combination of this man and this historic moment, is so worrying:

Cruz added:

The fact that Trump does not care about the scope of the mayhem he creates — that he revels in anarchic conflagration — creates exceptional danger.

Philip Bobbitt, a professor of law at the University of Texas and at Columbia, is an expert in national security. He raised the question of what is called “continuity of government.”

If Trump succeeds in preventing acceptance of Biden as president all the way to Jan. 20, 2021, Bobbitt notes in an email, what is known as “continuity of government” becomes a problem.

These problems could be lethal in the chaos Trump is seeding.

A number of scenarios, Bobbitt noted,

In that event, Bobbitt asked, “What happens to the national command authority vested in the president?”

“There is a second, related problem,” Bobbitt continued:

While the focus now is on the period until Dec. 14 because “Dec. 8 is the deadline for resolving election disputes and completing any state recounts and contests, and Dec. 14 is the day the electors meet in each state to vote and execute their ballots,” Bobbitt warns that

The unpredictable danger Trump and his henchmen are putting the nation in has no antecedent. Trump’s irrationalism has become a contagion. As he presides over the destruction of reason, he exploits and electrifies his public. No one knows where this will lead. Delusion can become tragedy. It’s happened before.

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