So it turns out that Donald Trump wasn’t going to steal the 2020 presidential election by sabotaging the U.S. Postal Service. It also seems as if the president’s post-election “coup,” which consisted of challenging state-level outcomes in a sordid but embarrassingly slapdash manner, was aimed less at overturning the election than soothing the president’s wounded ego. But the threat Trump poses to the good working order of the Republic isn’t exhausted yet. Now, in a state of unambiguous defeat, the lame-duck president’s capacity for menace is measured in the fantastical stories he tells.
Trump still insists that he won this election by a significant margin, all contrary evidence notwithstanding. It doesn’t matter that these assertions are laughably unsupported—they are heard and, presumably, believed by millions. And that, we’re told, represents a down payment on the assault that he and his diehard supporters will one day wage on America’s foundational laws and customs.
Though New York Times contributing opinion writer Jochen Bittner confesses to being irritated by the constant state of high dudgeon to which the president’s opponents appear addicted, he cannot help but detect in Trump’s final moments in the Oval Office a whiff of encroaching fascism. Though he caveats his argument to within an inch of its life, Bittner likens Trump’s evidence-free claims of electoral victory to the “November Criminals” myth—the notion propagated by, among others, German Nazis that Berlin’s surrender at the end of World War I was the flowering of a conspiracy of turncoats. That myth helped destroy the Weimar Republic and propel National Socialism to the fore. It’s no comfort, then, that if the polls are to be believed, millions of Trump-voting Republicans are similarly beholden to a myth that could only further attenuate Americans’ faith in their political institutions.
And it certainly could, though this remains a theory in search of supporting evidence that rises beyond the realm of the anecdotal. Elsewhere in today’s New York Times, a more dispassionate analysis of Trump’s conspiracy theorizing calls into question its potential impact. “It’s incredibly hard to separate sincere belief from wishful thinking from what political scientists call partisan cheerleading,” Times analyst Emily Badger observes. She notes that tracking surveys found that the 2020 presidential election results caused Republicans to suddenly express sour views on the state of the economy and the direction of the country, which suggests a familiar kind of motivated reasoning is at work. What’s more, this is observable among all partisans, too—not just Republicans. But even Badger allows for the possibility that this time is different.
This is the sitting president crafting a “stabbed-in-the-back” narrative, after all. The potential for dangers cannot be so easily dismissed—at least, not yet. But like the Postal Service conspiracy theory and the post-election “coup,” the notion that Trump is creating the conditions for disaster must discount America’s robust legal and mature republican political culture.
The “Dolchstosslegende” wasn’t the only contributing factor to the decline and fall of the Weimar Republic. So, too, was that nascent government’s excessively democratic electoral system, which discouraged majority factions, a resultant level of parliamentary instability that led to three federal elections in the space of a single year, and a legal system that was unable to intervene against a government that functionally ruled by emergency decree.
While Donald Trump’s desperate pursuit of a face-saving narrative subjects the nation to an ordeal that someone with more respect for the country would abjure, the United States government’s continuity is not dependent on that respect. And if those who are now so vexed by the threat posed by Trump’s transparent falsehoods were honest, they might have reacted similarly when Democrats were peddling a similar sort of rubbish.
As late as 2018, according to YouGov’s polling, a staggering two out of every three self-described Democrats said they believed that Russia “tampered with vote tallies on Election Day to help the president” in 2016. Nor was this fever dream limited to the party’s less respectable fringes. Joe Biden’s nominee to head the powerful Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, was among the many prominent progressive figures lending credence to this conspiracy. If the Democratic partisans presently overcome with anxiety believe that popular fantasy represented a threat to democracy, they kept it to themselves.
What’s more, if the working theory here is that baseless allegations that undermine voters’ confidence in the validity of election results will give way to mass disillusionment, Georgia’s recent experience indicates that the working theory is flawed. After two years in which gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that her 56,000-vote loss was the result of systematic disenfranchisement by public officials, Peach State voters went back to the polls in record numbers to turn Georgia blue for the first time since 1992. Maybe those voters believed Abrams’ claims. Maybe they didn’t. But in the end, the vehicle in this country for the acquisition of political power is on the ballot under a party line, and that tends to focus the mind.
There is little appetite for prudence and perspective when entertaining apocalyptic theories about Trump’s transgressions. They are floated, generate significant purchase, and fall back to earth unnoticed as the receptive audience moves on to the next Trump-era nightmare scenario. Maybe it’s the thrill of the heightened state of anxiety, the elevated self-importance derived from the sense that you’re living through history, or the artificial feeling of power wielded by those who think they can tweet the country out of a disaster. Whatever their thinking, the stuff that produces so much apprehension among Trump’s most high-strung critics is almost always predicated on the assumption that the country’s foundations are less durable than history has shown them to be.