With President Trump’s efforts to overthrow the 2020 elections steadily disintegrating, the country appears to have escaped a doomsday scenario in the campaign’s epilogue: there have been no more tanks on the streets or widespread unrest since November 3, no brazen interventions by the judiciary or a party-political legislature. The apparent victory of Joseph R. Biden Jr. has stood up to Mr. Trump’s plot of conspiracy theories and his campaign of unsubstantiated lawsuits.
In the end – and the post-election stalemate sparked by Mr Trump and his party is nearing its end – the president’s attack on the election gasped to a climax. It was marked not by dangerous new political convulsions, but by a letter from an obscure Trump-appointed bureaucrat, Emily W. Murphy of the General Services Administration, approving the process of formally handing government over to Mr. Biden.
For the moment, the country appears to have avoided a ruinous collapse of its electoral system.
The Americans might not be so lucky next time.
While Mr. Trump’s mission to undermine the elections has so far failed at every turn, it has nonetheless uncovered deep cracks in the building of American democracy and paved the way for future disruption and possibly disaster. With the most amateur of efforts, Mr Trump managed to freeze the transfer of power for almost a month. He commanded submissive indulgence on the Republicans and aroused fear and frustration among Democrats as he explored a number of wilder options to defeat Mr Biden.
He never came close to his goal: key state officials defied his pleas to disenfranchise large numbers of voters, and judges almost laughed his legal team out of court.
Ben Ginsberg, the most prominent Republican electoral lawyer of his generation, said he doubted future candidates would try to repeat Mr. Trump’s precise approach because it was so unsuccessful. Few candidates and solicitors, Ginsberg said, would consider Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell – the public faces of Trump’s litigation – as the authors of a brilliant new playbook.
“If we look back in a few months and find that this Trump strategy was just a total failure, it is unlikely to be copied,” said Ginsberg, who represented former President George W. Bush in the 2000 election campaign. “But the system was subjected to a stress test like never before.”
That test, he said, revealed enough vague provisions and loopholes in American electoral law to make a crisis all too plausible. In particular, he noted the lack of uniform standards for the timely confirmation of elections by state authorities and the uncertainty as to whether state lawmakers have the authority to nominate their own voters despite the referendum. The 2020 elections, he said, “should be a call for consideration for these issues.”
But even without causing a full-blown constitutional crisis, Mr Trump has already broken the long-standing norm that a defeated candidate should admit quickly and gracefully and avoid contesting the results for no good reason. He and his allies also opposed the long-standing convention that the news media should declare a winner, instead taking advantage of the fragmentation of the media and the rise of platforms like Twitter and Facebook to give its supporters an alternative reality experience.
The next Republican candidate to lose a narrow election could find some voters who expect him or she to mimic Mr Trump’s behavior, and if a Democrat uses the same tactic, the G.O.P. had no right to complain.
More importantly, legal and political experts said, is the way Mr. Trump identified dangerous pressure points within the system. These flaws could be destabilizingly manipulated in a closer election by someone else – perhaps one that contained real evidence of tampering or foreign interference, or an outcome that yielded a winner who was handily beaten in the referendum but scored a razor-thin victory in the Electoral College.
In these scenarios, it may not be that long a move for a losing candidate to try to stop the certification of the results by unremarkable state and regional bodies, or get the state legislature to nominate a list of voters or political candidates under pressure to block a change of president in the federal government.
Indeed, Mr. Trump managed to intervene in normal electoral processes in several states. He called Michigan Republican leaders to the Oval Office when his allies brought up the idea of appointing pro-Trump voters from the state, which Mr Biden carried with more than 150,000 votes. And it inspired an attack from the right against Republican Foreign Secretary Brad Raffensperger, who refused to confirm Mr Trump’s false claims about election rigging. Although Mr. Raffensperger oversaw a fair election, both Republican Senators of Georgia who channeled the president called for his resignation.
Michael Li, senior attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the country had a “Lord of the Flies” moment that demonstrated the willingness of some powerful actors to facilitate an undisguised effort to sabotage a free and fair election.
“It’s easy to laugh at the Trump challenges just because they were so out there,” said Mr. Li. “But what’s scary, you step back a little and see how many people were willing to go along, until they pretty much were deep in the process. “
“Ultimately, there will be shortlisted elections,” he added. “This one wasn’t very close. The fact that people are willing to tread dangerous paths should give us all a break.”
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Trump will end up as a uniquely aching loser or as the herald of a new Wild West era in the American election campaign. There have been far tighter elections this century – including the 2000 vote that plunged the country into a week-long review of Florida’s shaky vote counting procedures, and the 2016 election that saw Mr Trump through a historically broad split between the popular vote and the the referendum was elected president electoral college. But someone else entertained the caustic tactic that Mr. Trump tried to use.
As with numerous other presidential plans over the past four years, Mr Trump’s conspiracy against the elections has been unraveled in part because of external factors – such as the large number of swing states Mr Biden wore – and in part because of his own awkwardness. His attorneys and policy advisors never developed an actual strategy for reversing the referendum in several large states based on a combination of televised chest pounding and savage claims of electoral fraud in large cities for which there was no evidence.
Barbara J. Pariente, the former Florida Supreme Court Justice who oversaw the state-level battle over the 2000 vote, said it was essential for Congress to clarify the process after the election was conducted and decided be, or that in the future a major misfortune threatens years. Mr. Trump’s team has already violated basic standards of legal conduct by filing cases where large numbers of votes were cast “with no evidence of inappropriateness” and then asking a court to investigate further.
“When I look at what is happening now, I think that this is a real attack on our American democratic system and that millions of Americans doubt the result,” said Ms. Pariente. “In my opinion, this has serious implications for the future of this country.”
Even if Congress imposed clearer electoral procedures, there is reason to doubt whether the rules could reverse the total war mindset modeled by Mr. Trump. Otherwise, he has drawn up a roadmap for his own party – or under certain circumstances, a complaint-laden Democrat – to wage a fierce battle against an unfavorable election result with loud voices on the right-wing media and much of the conservative base his party.
And it is this final cohort, the millions of voters who remain loyal to Mr Trump, largely indifferent to the facts of the voting results and the intricacies of the legal process, that is the most potent type of weapon for this defeated president. or another leader who might follow suit.
Shawn Rosenberg, a professor of political and psychology at the University of California at Irvine, who has written pessimistically about the course of American democracy, said Mr Trump made effective use of the gap between the complexity of the country’s political system and the more rudimentary most voters have their government. For the average partisan, questions of political norms and procedures are “very abstract” and far less important than just winning – an impulse that Mr. Trump fomented to the detriment of democratic institutions.
Mr. Rosenberg warned that while Mr. Trump’s political opposition did manage to oust an incumbent – a rare achievement in the nation’s presidential system – the election was not the kind of overwhelming escape that American democracy considered “invulnerable” to the United States Kind of erosion could have been exhibited in newer democracies like Poland and India. That was a disappointment for Mr. Trump’s critics on both left and right, he said.
“Their hope was that he had gone so far that he would instill this awareness and determination in the American people,” said Rosenberg. “And that was clearly not the case with around 72 million of them.”