“STOP THE STEAL” has become the anthem of outraged Republicans who believe President Donald Trump’s claims that Democrats stole his re-election by committing massive voter fraud. It is the hashtag they rally around online and the slogan they chant when they throng in the streets, as they did on November 14th in Washington, DC, earning a laudatory drive-by from the presidential motorcade.
But this is not the first time surrogates of Mr Trump have deployed it. Roger Stone, a former adviser to the president who recently had his prison sentence for several convictions commuted, actually founded a group by that name in April 2016—then to expose Senator Ted Cruz’s purported plot to steal the Republican nomination. Similar pre-emptive claims of voter fraud were made before the general-election contest with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Now that Mr Trump has actually lost, the slogan has finally been deployed in earnest.
Mr Trump has a long-held aversion to admitting defeat, or really conceding any fault at all. That is now throwing up an unprecedented scenario: an incumbent American president refusing to hand over power due to baseless claims of electoral fraud. It is a serious democratic norm to trample over—one easy to underplay because of public confidence that other institutions, like the courts and the military, will not accede to Mr Trump’s wishes. The chances of a reversed decision are low. The lawsuits filed in the swing states that Mr Trump lost are floundering. Despite Mr Trump’s recent replacement of civilian leadership at the Department of Defence, there is little risk of a self-coup.
Even if this low-energy autogolpe does not succeed, Mr Trump’s actions are still alarming. Presidential transitions involve a large number of civil servants: some 4,000, are politically appointed, with 1,200 requiring confirmation by the Senate. By not conceding, Mr Trump has stalled this process. Mr Biden is not receiving his classified presidential daily briefings. His team does not have access to secure governmental communications, relying instead on encrypted messaging apps. The commission to study the 9/11 attacks found that the shortened transition in 2000, caused by the disputed result in Florida, may have contributed to American vulnerability to terrorist attacks. By contrast, the well-managed transition between George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the midst of the global financial crisis enabled faster implementation of economic relief. Asked what was at stake this time, Mr Biden said “more people may die” if the Trump administration refused to co-ordinate on virus suppression and vaccine distribution.
The stalled transition is also a test for the president’s party. Never-Trump Republicans had hoped the president would be dealt a stinging electoral rebuke, forcing a reckoning among accommodationist party grandees. That did not happen. Down-ballot Republicans benefited from the high turnout among Mr Trump’s supporters, probably keeping control of the Senate and eroding the Democratic majority in the House. They also wiped out Democrats in state elections, bringing power over gerrymandering. “They think the ducking and accommodating of Trump without quite sounding like Trump—that worked fine,” says Bill Kristol, a conservative writer long opposed to the president.
Most prominent Republicans still in office have continued to humour the president. “All legal ballots must be counted. Any illegal ballots must not be counted,” said Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. The implication that there may be sufficient fraudulent ballots to alter the election’s outcome has so far proven to be baseless. Only a few exceptional Republicans, like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, have acknowledged the results and congratulated Mr Biden.
Others have gone even further than Mr McConnell’s careful statement. Brad Raffensperger, the Republican in charge of administering elections in Georgia, which Mr Biden narrowly won, has come under withering criticism from members of his own party for refusing to tilt the result in Mr Trump’s favour. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the Republican senators who face run-offs in January that will determine control of the Senate, issued a joint statement calling for his resignation. Lindsey Graham, an especially Trumpist senator, personally called Mr Raffensperger to dispute the absentee ballots cast in the race.
At some point, reality will intervene. The remaining lawsuits will fizzle. States have started to certify their election results. The electoral college will formally vote on December 14th to make Mr Biden the next president. More and more Republicans are telegraphing that they understand this by, for example, saying that Mr Biden probably ought to be receiving classified intelligence briefings after all.
Yet the equivocations now portend a Republican Party that remains firmly under the grips of post-truth Trumpism. This may be a rational strategy in the short term to ensure the president campaigns in the coming, critical Senate run-offs in Georgia. But it will probably last beyond that. Mr Trump will relish his role as kingmaker who anoints the winner of Republican primary contests by tweet. The president has reportedly also been talking of running in 2024, which would effectively freeze the next generation of Republicans in place.
Hyperpartisanship has wreaked havoc on American politics, but at least most voters could agree that the other side won fairly and squarely. That no longer appears to be the case. According to our latest poll from YouGov, 88% of those who voted for Mr Trump think that the election result is illegitimate. There are always some gripes after hotly contested races. But the scale this time—like Mr Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the results—is breathtaking.
During the much-closer election in 2000, where 537 votes in Florida separated winner from loser, 36% of Mr Gore’s voters thought the result was illegitimate. Similarly, 23% of supporters of Hillary Clinton felt fleeced after her election loss in 2016. Perhaps as the weeks wear on, and Mr Biden inches closer to inauguration, the number of Republicans who see him as illegitimate will shrink. But Mr Trump seems unlikely to ever concede, and would rather establish the myth of his stolen election as a new lost cause among his supporters. If that happens, it would add a dangerous strain to America’s factionalism—one that cannot be easily contained.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “To the bitter end”