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President Donald Trump sits at his desk in the Oval Office on Nov. 13, 2020.
President Donald Trump sits at his desk in the Oval Office on Nov. 13, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters

'These are the words and actions of an attempted coup'

It's just now starting to become clear that Trump is serious. He intends to overturn an election in which he was defeated.


In the wake of the 2010 midterms, House Republicans made a dangerous threat. The newly elected GOP majority in the chamber said it had no intention of raising the debt ceiling, at least not unless the Obama White House met Republicans' unconditional demands.

There was, however, a small problem: few took the threats seriously. The political mainstream assumed the party was simply engaged in hollow posturing; investors shrugged; and even Democrats found it hard to believe Republicans would crash their own country's economy on purpose. The widely held assumption was that the GOP was bluffing, thumping its chest to make a point, but with no intention of trashing the full faith and credit of the United States.

Eventually, the political world confronted a difficult realization: Republicans weren't kidding. The threats weren't hollow. The far-right party was quite sincere in its hostage strategy, and it didn't much care about the consequences.

As this reality came into focus, anxieties spiked. Markets fell. Job growth abruptly slowed to a near halt. Phone lines on Capitol Hill crashed, as the public reached out to lawmakers.

It took a little while, but people began to say, "Wait, Republicans are actually going through with this. The nightmare scenario is actually happening." It was the first crisis of its kind in U.S. history, and though few wanted to believe it would happen, it did.

Nearly a decade later, Donald Trump signaled his willingness to nullify his own country's presidential election. Many weren't altogether sure what to make of the threats, but it was widely assumed that cooler heads would prevail.

It's just now starting to become clear that Trump is serious. He intends to overturn an election in which he was defeated. We should, in the words of Masha Gessen, "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 so, as the political world confronts another first-of-its-kind crisis, brought on by yet another radicalized Republican, stark realizations are coming into view. The front page of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis features a striking headline in a large font this morning: "Trump trying to nullify election: He wants GOP lawmakers to ignore will of voters."

The front page of the New York Times included an all-caps headline that told readers, "Trump targeting Michigan in ploy to subvert vote." The lede on the front-page article alerted readers to the president's attempts "to overturn the 2020 election" through an "audacious use of brute political force."

The Washington Post ran a front-page headline that read, "Trump wages full assault to overturn election." The accompanying article reads:

President Trump is using the power of his office to try to reverse the results of the election, orchestrating a far-reaching pressure campaign to persuade Republican officials in Michigan, Georgia and elsewhere to overturn the will of voters in what critics decried Thursday as an unprecedented subversion of democracy. After courts rejected the Trump campaign's baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud, the president is now trying to remain in power with a wholesale assault on the integrity of the vote by spreading misinformation and trying to persuade loyal Republicans to manipulate the electoral system on his behalf.

Note, this isn't an opinion column; it's just a factual description of what's unfolding. The United States is, in fact, currently led by a man "trying to remain in power with a wholesale assault on the integrity of the vote."

In the immediate aftermath of Election Day 2020, the White House's allies suggested the president has the right to pursue every possible avenue. Just this morning, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) argued, "The president has every right to see that every ballot's counted."

But we're well past that point now. Trump and his team don't want to count ballots; they want election results in some states to be invalidated. A member of the president's legal team was explicit on this point yesterday on Fox Business, arguing, "The entire election, frankly, in all the swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for Trump."

With this in mind, the president is still scheduled to meet this afternoon with GOP leaders from the Michigan legislature, who were yesterday summoned to the White House for unsubtle reasons.

Reuters reported that Trump's strategy for "retaining power despite losing the U.S. election is focused increasingly on persuading Republican legislators to intervene on his behalf in battleground states Democrat Joe Biden won." The Post's report added the president's hopes that Republicans in some states will simply "flip" results in his favor, voters' will be damned.

"These are the words and actions of an attempted coup, according to historians and other experts," the article said.

It matters, of course, that Trump will almost certainly fail. But the fact that he's making such an attempt is itself a scandal of historic proportions, and he's creating new norms, standards, and strategies that will outlive what remains of his failed term.

As with the GOP's debt-ceiling crisis in 2011, few wanted to believe this would, or even could, happen. But here we are.