Donald Trump is refusing to concede the presidency, but he will not remain in office past 20 January, when his term officially ends. Despite the groundswell of hysterical liberal opinion that for months warned of a Trump “coup”, and which demanded that everyone back Joe Biden as an act of anti-fascism, the situation in the United States, for all the sound and fury, is one of relative normality.
Not a single legitimate ruling-class institution or observer has backed Trump’s baseless claims of massive electoral fraud. Nor will any state institutions refuse to recognise Biden as president. No section of or leaders from the armed forces, of which Trump is still commander-in-chief, has declared loyalty to the “real president”. Nor are any ranking federal, state or city law enforcement officials pledging allegiance to Trump. Nor has any state governor. No state legislature has overridden any certified election result—and none will.
Prior to the election, an article in the Atlantic, the pre-eminent magazine of US liberalism, gamed scenarios in which Trump might deploy the military on polling day, halt the delivery of mail-in ballots or dispatch federal agents to seize ballots at polling stations. It wasn’t an outlier piece; the press was full of commentary about the imminent threat Trump posed to constitutional democracy. Some of the most unhinged outbursts came not from liberals but from socialists. Back in May, Nathan J. Robinson, socialist editor of Current Affairs magazine, tweeted: “The threat Trump poses cannot be overstated. A 2nd Trump term might well bring the country into outright dictatorship ... There might never be another election in this country”.
In the days after the election, the derangement continued. “What Donald Trump is attempting to do has a name: coup d’état”, wrote Timothy Snyder, Levin professor of history at Yale University and author of The Road to Unfreedom, in a Medium post on 13 November. “Poorly organized though it might seem, it is not bound to fail.” On the same day, Neil H. Buchanan, a scholar at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, wrote: “It is terrifying to think just how possible a Trump coup still is”.
What we have seen, however, is not an unfolding coup by a strongman crushing the liberal institutions before him, but a man almost totally impotent in the face of the opposition. The court system, the key institution in the regular Republican arsenal for minority rule, thus far has ruled against Trump’s legal challenges. The latest, by federal Judge Matthew Brann, a former Republican Party official, dismissed a request by the Trump campaign for an injunction against the certification of Pennsylvania’s election results.
Trump’s own Justice Department, as Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky noted in a 22 November article in the Washington Post, “has met [the president’s] fantastical claims of widespread voter fraud with two weeks of skeptical silence, not taking any overt moves to investigate what Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, claims is a globe-spanning conspiracy to steal the election”.
A day earlier in the New York Times, Jim Rutenberg and Kathleen Gray wrote that “President Trump has revealed the fragility of the electoral system—and shaken it”, before admitting that “both parties agree he has no real chance” of overturning the election and that he “continues to draw losing rulings from judges who bluntly note his failure to present any evidence of significant fraud or irregularities”.
Even Fox News, which until recently was basically the propaganda arm of the White House, is now considered an enemy by Trump because it has called the election for Biden, and some of the network’s personalities have questioned his assertions of mass voter fraud.
Yet all Trump can do in response to his mounting losses and narrowing base of allies is cry on the internet and wander aimlessly around the golf links. Hitler at least burned down the Reichstag to usher in dictatorship; Trump fumes in his bedroom, all-capping into the wee hours. Some coup leader.
The president has encouraged his supporters to protest in the streets. And without question, the far right in the US does pose a threat. It has grown under this presidency and is likely to continue growing under the next. But the post-election demonstrations were relatively small—as has been the case for pretty much all far-right mobilisations in the last four years. They may be menacing, but the situation remains a far cry from the Ku Klux Klan’s third wave in the mid-1960s.
Trump’s weaknesses were pretty clear well before the election. While liberals insisted that the president was undermining the country’s institutions, those same institutions were launching investigations against and prosecuting Trump’s allies. His campaign chair, Paul Manafort, was jailed. So was his lawyer, Michael Cohen. So was his adviser, Roger Stone. So was his campaign deputy chair, Rick Gates. Trump himself is facing several investigations. He hasn’t been able to stop any of it. Some strongman.
But if Trump was and continues to be so obviously weak and isolated, why did such hype take hold? In part because establishment liberals, and even conservatives, did believe that Trump posed a threat—to the credibility of US capitalism’s governing institutions and to its international standing. In their New York Times piece, Rutenberg and Gray admit even now that the real threat is that Trump casts doubt on the legitimacy of the US electoral system. That is, they think it would be terrible if people didn’t believe in the greatness of one of the most corrupted democracies in the West.
The hype was also about mobilising mass electoral support for Joe Biden. The US ruling class and its representatives do not want a genuinely democratic system of government. And they sure as hell don’t want wealth redistribution or social welfare befitting an advanced economy. Their candidate, Biden, promised little would change for the US working class. But Joe Biden vs. fascism guaranteed a strong voter turnout without the overhead of promises to materially improve people’s lives.
It was so compelling that even socialists fell for it. That it continues to be a talking point even now, when it is so clearly over for Trump, is testament to the argument’s utility in distracting from the task of criticising and mobilising against Biden. For it is Biden, not Trump, who soon will be the most dangerous man in America—and indeed the world. Biden has been elected to rehabilitate US imperialism and to rebuild confidence in the murderous institutions of American capitalism. He has been entrusted with the job of providing stability, so that the US ruling class can have a degree of certainty; so that bosses can do what they do best: exploit labour.
Democracy is under attack in the United States. Mass voter suppression, gerrymandering, an anti-majoritarian political geography—there is a long list of ways in which the will of the majority is subverted. But the anti-democratic nature of the US system is not “Trumpian”. It is embedded in the institutions that Biden hopes to rehabilitate. That the establishment has succeeded in framing the most recent election as a struggle for the soul of democracy is an insult to all of the serious fights for democracy ongoing in the US and around the world.
Joe Biden has won the election, yet progressives are still being mobilised in his defence and in the name of democracy because the outgoing president is tweeting bad things and proceeding with dead-end litigation. So if Trump’s is the worst, the most pathetic coup ever, it is exceeded in its piteousness only by the outlandish response it has generated.