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Facing defeat, Trump takes aim at his own country's democracy

What would it look like if a would-be autocrat tried to take power in the United States in defiance of Americans' will? We no longer need to wonder.
Image: Donald Trump, NAT Trump
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Nov. 5, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP

Over the last few years, Americans have grown accustomed to seeing and hearing Donald Trump with almost painful frequency. Between his rallies, interviews, press conferences, and social-media videos, his presence was a ubiquitous part of our civic life.

But a funny thing happened after the president delivered a ridiculous Election Night speech at the White House: the Republican incumbent maintained a surprisingly low profile for a couple of days. Politico noted briefly yesterday, "Is anyone else surprised the president has not done a news conference or interview in the last 24 hours? As his campaign aides and lawyers fan across the country, President Trump has been uncharacteristically quiet."

Perhaps he needed a little time to take stock, come to terms with the vote tallies, and figure out exactly what he wanted to say to the nation, the world, and the future historical record. Late yesterday, Trump delivered some of the most important remarks of his presidency, and as the New York Times noted, they were also among the most malignant.

What the president of the United States did tonight wasn't complicated but it was stunning, even after four long years of the politically extraordinary. President Trump attacked democracy. In his remarks tonight from the White House, Mr. Trump lied about the vote count, smeared his opponents and attempted to undermine the integrity of our electoral system.

It's worth emphasizing for context that this was not an example of Trump simply popping off, peddling rambling nonsense off the top of his head. Rather, the president read from a prepared text.

It was, in other words, a deliberate, calculated attack. Trump didn't stumble into this accidentally, getting ahead of himself with reckless rhetoric he hadn't thought through; the chief executive of the world's preeminent superpower chose to target his own country's democracy because it suited his purposes.

To be sure, we had every reason to suspect this was coming. Indeed, it was among the most telegraphed political punches in recent memory: in the weeks and months leading up to Election Day, the president was unsubtle in his efforts to undermine public confidence in the nation's electoral system. He told us what he intended to do and how he intended to do it.

It was not a bluff. As Masha Gessen warned just days after Trump's 2016 victory, "Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization."

And that's ultimately the truth that came into sharp relief from the White House podium yesterday afternoon: our president is a would-be autocrat, raging against the electorate that rejected him, lying brazenly and uncontrollably, all while creating "an imagined version of reality" in the hopes that it might help him maintain a hold on power.

It's tempting to condemn Trump's remarks yesterday as a pitiful tantrum, which would be more than fair under the circumstances. But the assessment would be incomplete, because the Republican's efforts are more than pathetic; they are dangerous.

As Vox's Ezra Klein noted, ahead of the briefing-room remarks, "[W]hat we're seeing is the sitting President of the United States using the power of his office, his megaphone, and his supporters, to try to stop the votes against him from being counted. Not a drill, a joke, a hypothetical. It's happening."

We used to be a country that threatened sanctions against despots who tried to undermine their country's democratic process this way. But in 2020, we're a country led by someone who would gladly take a sledgehammer to the pillars of our political system for the most pernicious of reasons: he is a failed, flailing vandal, desperate to avoid looking like a loser.

Alas, there's a familiarity to the tactics. A Washington Post report added overnight, "Trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the unresolved presidential contest, Trump is pulling out a playbook perfected by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians. It relies on sowing doubt about the institutions of law and government, spreading misinformation or outright lies that serve a leader's political ends, and relying on a cadre of loyal supporters to believe what they are told, Putin scholars said."

What would it look like if a would-be autocrat tried to take power in the United States in defiance of Americans' will? We no longer need to wonder.