Today, the United States Congress will meet for what normally is a perfunctory duty: accepting the results of the Electoral College.
Some Republican congressmen — led by Huntsville Rep. Mo Brooks and including newly minted Sen. Tommy Tuberville — will attempt to dispute the legal outcome of the 2020 election, which Joe Biden won decisively. They will waste time, and they will continue to spread wild theories of election fraud that have been rejected both by Republican election officials and by courts stretching all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately they will fail.
Most of them, we hope, know they will fail. For some, the entire exercise seems about not so much keeping President Donald Trump in office, but candidates positioning themselves for the 2024 presidential race. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, for one, has vaulted from obscurity to early contender by getting as close to Trump as possible. Brooks may well have his eye on Sen. Richard Shelby’s Senate seat, should Shelby, who is now 86, not seek reelection in 2022.
These cynical ploys, however, could do lasting damage. The only thing keeping the country from a genuine constitutional crisis right now is the fact Trump’s supporters in Congress are outnumbered. Our system is built not just on the letter of the Constitution, but on institutional norms, which have been under assault during the past decade, the past four years especially.
Historians may long debate whether Trump ever really wanted the presidency or whether he saw running for office as just a way to enhance his brand. Having gotten it, however, Trump refuses to give it up without claiming until the bitter end that he was cheated. Whether he believes that or not is irrelevant. His doing so, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, has eroded confidence in the system, at least among his core supporters.
In a phone call last week, Trump even tried to convince Georgia’s secretary of state to find enough votes to give him a victory there, which likely violated federal and state law. Were Trump not so close to leaving office, he likely would be impeached again.
One wonders if all this is Trump’s real objective: sowing distrust. Trump has claimed all sorts of elections have been rigged, including the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries (against Sen. Bernie Sanders) and the 2016 general election — which he won.
If one assumes President Trump believes his claims — and there is more reason to think he does than doesn’t — then the president sees the world as rife with phantom conspiracies out to get him. Being the leader of the free world and arguably the most powerful man on Earth counts for little. Everyone, from the “deep state” to elected members of his own party to his own court appointees, has betrayed him.
This is not a rational way to see the world, which is full of chance, screw-ups, competing interests (even among the so-called “Elites”) and, most of all, things that don’t go as planned.
As he heads out of office, we are seeing the president laid bare. All of those years listening to conspiracy theories like those concocted by Alex Jones were no accident. They were simpatico. It is ironic that some people who rightly believe socialism and communism cannot work, that central planning is doomed to fail, also believe secret, centralized cabals run the world behind the scenes.
On Tuesday, Trump was again on Twitter, trying to overthrow the will of the people and the electoral mechanism established by the Constitution: “The Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors.”
The electors were not fraudulently chosen, but even if they were, the vice president does not have this power. Sitting vice presidents have lost bids to become president on numerous occasions, including Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000. Both had better reason to dispute their election results than Trump does, but both also knew they didn’t have the power to unilaterally make themselves president. Nor can Vice President Mike Pence keep Trump in office.
Today, this sideshow needs to end.