What starts as farce may end as tragedy, a lesson that pundits should already have learned from their sneering dismissal of Trump when he first announced his presidential candidacy. Yes, the Trump campaign’s lawsuits are pinnacles of incompetence, too incoherent and embarrassing to go anywhere legally. The legislators who have been openly pressured by Trump don’t seem willing to abide the crassness of his attempt. States are certifying their election results one by one, and the General Services Administration―the agency that oversees presidential transitions—has started the process of handing the government over to President-elect Joe Biden. If things proceed in their ordinary course, the Electoral College will soon vote, and then Biden will take office.
But ignoring a near catastrophe that was averted by the buffoonish, half-hearted efforts of its would-be perpetrator invites a real catastrophe brought on by someone more competent and ambitious. President Trump had already established a playbook for contesting elections in 2016 by casting doubt on the election process before he won, and insisting that he only lost the popular vote due to fraud. Now he’s establishing a playbook for stealing elections by mobilizing executive, judicial, and legislative power to support the attempt. And worse, much worse, the playbook is being implicitly endorsed by the silence of some leading Republicans, and vocally endorsed by others, even as minority rule becomes increasingly entrenched in the American electoral system.
It’s not enough to count on our institutions to resist such onslaughts. Our institutions do not operate via magic. They do not gain their power from names, buildings, desks, or even rules. Institutions rely on people collectively agreeing to act in a certain way. Human laws do not simply exert their power like the inexorable pull of gravity. Once people decide that the rules are different, the rules are different.