Anyone who was remotely sentient during the aftermath of the 2016 election should be the furthest thing from surprised that the frenzy of that period has now been replicated in the aftermath of the 2020 election, albeit with a different partisan and temperamental hue.
I attended the official meeting of the Electoral College in Harrisburg, PA — December 2016 — and it was quite a mind-melting experience. Once an uneventful formality that hardly anyone except hardcore obsessives even knew was happening, the actual convening of the Electoral College had become an object of national fascination. Protesters, egged on by Democratic-affiliated advocacy groups and frenetic social media campaigns, had shown up at the State Capitol to berate Pennsylvania’s Republican electors and demand that they not vote to certify the state’s popular vote outcome for Donald Trump — on the ground that Trump had committed “treason,” and therefore posed such a dire national security threat that centuries of precedent should be summarily thrown out the window in order to block his assumption of office. The precise nature of this alleged “treason” was seldom clarified. It sufficed that they’d been given the impression of some nebulously treasonous activity through a series of Intelligence Community leaks, dutifully laundered as always through the corporate media, which by then was in a hair-on-fire tailspin over Trump’s victory.
The bid to interfere in the Electoral College process that year, and deprive Trump of the presidency through extra-legal means, obviously failed. But it gained enough elite support along the way to be highly notable, especially given how extreme the proposed remedy was (simply ignore popular vote outcomes in various states and block Trump on the basis of CIA rumors.)
Top media figures, academics, and activists like Peter Beinart, Larry Lessig, Michael Moore, Paul Krugman, and DeRay McKesson joined the haphazard putsch effort. TV stars like Martin Sheen and Bob Odenkirk recorded impassioned video pleas arguing for electors to subvert the expressed will of voters. John Podesta, the Hillary Clinton campaign chairman whose Gmail account was reputed to have been successfully “phished” by fearsome Russian “hackers,” issued a statement demanding that electors be granted an unheard-of “intelligence briefing” — with the implication for what should be done with that “briefing” information too obvious to need stating outright.
The meeting in Harrisburg concluded with the expected affirmation of Trump’s win — followed by a desperate woman screaming from a balcony at the top of her lungs, “You just gave us Hitler,” before being escorted out by police.
Of course what happened subsequently was that even years after Trump had safely taken power, the corporate media’s top luminaries continuously used the phrase “hacked the election” to describe the purported actions of Russia on behalf of Trump in 2016. Supermajorities of Democratic voters came to believe not just that Russia “interfered” in the election, but directly installed Trump into power by tampering with voting machines. Now, though, journalists who fostered these blinkered beliefs will feign incredulity that their conduct could have contributed to widespread “doubt” as to the “legitimacy” of that election. And they’ll be aghast at any suggestion that this was inevitably going to generate yet another crazed anti-legitimization initiative in 2020.
The mad rush to impeach Trump on the ground of his very election being illegitimate began at approximately the moment that all-out “#RESISTANCE” was declared in opposition to him — perhaps when Florida was called on Election Night. It took awhile for the plan to mature, but finally culminated in December 2019 when impeachment was ratified — based on what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said was her view that with Trump, “all roads lead to Putin.” Survey a representative cross-section of people advocating for impeachment during that time and you’ll likely find they struggle to even recall what it was all supposed to be about — something to do with a Ukraine phone call. That’s because the arcane details were immaterial; impeachment was the fulfillment of a deep desire to formally censure Trump using the most sacrosanct and rarely-invoked constitutional procedure. And it all stemmed from a fundamental refusal to accept that he was ever rightfully elected in the first place.
So if anyone is surprised that this would breed a retributive instinct in Trump and his supporters after he too has gone down to defeat, they are more delusional than one might have thought. Retribution appears to be a significant driver in what’s motivating the recent conduct of Trump’s chief post-election lawyer Rudy Giuliani, for instance, who was involved every step of the way in mounting Trump’s legal defense throughout the Russia investigation and impeachment episodes. At certain junctures, Giuliani was even able to make a good point in complaining about the illogical treatment that his client, Trump, had been subjected to by crusading Democrats and journalists.
But at other junctures, his attitude appeared to be little more than unrestrained vengeful resentment. (Giuliani’s bitter animus against Joe Biden in particular may originate with one of the most memorable moments of Biden’s mostly-forgotten 2008 presidential primary campaign, in which Biden lambasted Giuliani for only ever being able to structure sentences that include “a noun, and a verb, and 9/11.”)
More than anything else, the effort currently being mounted by Giuliani & co. to overturn the 2020 election results should be best understood as an attempt at payback. The hallucinatory press conference Giuliani assembled last week in DC was an emotional-gratification theatrical production, not a legal presentation in any recognizable sense. That he brought beside him lawyer Sidney Powell, whose Twitter feed on any given day looks indistinguishable from a random online QAnon enthusiast, did not bespeak a serious attempt to accomplish any tangible litigation goal. Powell’s allegation of a wild international communist algorithm conspiracy to fraudulently elect Biden — apparently implicating “thousands” of people, including Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp — was evidently too much even for Trump, who dumped her on Sunday.
The overtly farcical nature of this Trump post-election legal effort — call it Rudy Giulani’s Magical Mystery Tour — is just the latest manifestation of Trump’s chronic inability to wield the machinery of state and public opinion to consolidate power. You’d think, given his routine classification as an unrelenting “fascist,” he could occasionally figure out how to marshal the resources of the presidency to achieve his political goals. But over and over again, this has proven unfeasible.
Trump’s post-election denialism doesn’t constitute anything close to a “fascist coup,” as had been so frantically predicted by media commentators in the lead-up to the election. But it’s nonetheless noteworthily novel in a few other key respects. His blithe willingness to denounce the entire United States electoral system as hopelessly rigged, corrupt, and riven by systematic fraud springs from Trump’s lack of allegiance to any traditional notion of “American exceptionalism” dogma — the dogma which had once bound together so much of the bipartisan political class in the pre-Trump days. His departure from this mode of thinking is a primary reason why he has generated so many waves of unceasing elite panic.
Because it’s hard to make the case that U.S. maintains the status of some religiously-ordained “Shining City on a Hill” — the classic Ronald Reagan cliche — which all other peoples should aspire to emulate, when the country’s chief executive is tweeting to high heaven that its elections are hopelessly and structurally fraudulent. Such rejection of election legitimacy routinely occurs in putatively backward countries deemed not to be “Exceptional” in the eyes of the U.S. State Department and/or think-tank complex — but for this to have been the case in the US is something new. In the future, the kinds of foreign policy interventionists now predictably filling the ranks of Biden’s forthcoming administration will have a marginally harder time justifying why the U.S. is endowed with the eternal right to impose its democratic customs on other countries by force. (Though they’ll surely try their mightiest regardless.)
Coup hysteria aside, the current post-election period highlights yet again why Trump should be conceived as the first “post-exceptionalist” president — almost entirely untethered from the hallowed doctrines of his bipartisan predecessors. Though it should be said that Trump’s actual governance, by way of the policies his administration and Congressional allies pursued, was far from any kind of stark break from the past — corporate tax cuts and well-heeled conservative Supreme Court appointments are perfectly in line with what one would have expected from any run-of-the-mill Republican president. It’s his lack of compunction about doing things like avowedly “de-legitimizing” an American election, however, that sets him apart — rhetorically and psychically, if nothing else — from those in longstanding establishment circles who so virulently despise him.
The American Right has quite a bit to be heartened by in the election results. Trump, despite being castigated endlessly for four years straight as the most dire existential threat to have ever faced the Republic — and ruthlessly opposed by every cultural power center outside of the narrow conservative offshoots — nonetheless won nearly 11 million more votes than in his previous election. The racial reductionist conceits propounded by insular media elites has been comically undermined by the significant uptick in nonwhite support for Trump, especially among Hispanic voters. And so on.
But instead of acknowledging this, many Trump supporters will remain mired in elaborate election fraud fantasies — thus inhibiting their ability to even begin rationally grappling with the results. Bereaved Clinton supporters in 2016 latched onto similarly outlandish coping mechanisms, which also greatly inhibited their analytical capacities for years to come. Conservatives who spend too much time on social media are often slightly less couth than their left and liberal counterparts, but the denialist impulse is roughly the same. Meanwhile the state election certifications are pouring in; the lawsuits are being dismissed with prejudice. But the general “legitimacy” crisis, of which Trump was a forerunner, has only grown more pervasive.
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