President Donald Trump is not trying to simply undermine President-elect Joe Biden's presidency, nor is he primarily trying to position himself for a 2024 presidential run, as many have suggested. No, Trump's No. 1 goal is to overturn the results of the 2020 election. It's time for Biden and other Democratic leaders to describe his actions in the most forceful and universally understandable language possible. And that means, in this case, calling them part of an attempted coup to illegally overthrow the Biden presidency.
In the past few days, several experts have noted that Trump's actions do not technically constitute a "coup" in the academic sense.
In the past few days, several experts have noted that Trump's actions do not technically constitute a "coup" in the academic sense. According to Michael Albertus, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, for example, a coup "typically connotes a violent takeover of government." Yet these same experts warn that Trump's actions are a threat to our democracy.
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New York University history professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of the new book "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present," explained to me that Trump's actions are more aptly described as an "auto-coup" — in which a leader remains in power through undemocratic means. Importantly, Ben-Ghiat notes that this auto-coup should be taken very, very seriously.
Regardless of how you define the word, now is not the time for academic debates. Trump's wildly effective communications strategy proves that sometimes simpler is better. Biden's response, in contrast, has been far too careful and far too polite. On Thursday, Biden called Trump's efforts to undermine the election results "totally irresponsible," adding that his message to immigrants worried about Trump's electoral attacks was "Hang on. I'm on my way." Other leading Democrats have, for the most part, followed Biden's lead.
This message is not surprising given Biden's campaign strategy, which emphasized unity. Such sentiment was also at the heart of Biden's victory speech Nov. 7. But it is nevertheless a very bad strategy.
Italy's Benito Mussolini and Russia's Vladimir Putin amassed power through bullying. These types of leaders treat silence or muted responses as a sign of weakness, emboldening them to push further with their authoritarian goals.
As Ben-Ghiat put it, rather starkly, during a recent interview on my SiriusXM radio show: "Democrats have to ask themselves how they want history to view them: as those who fought ferociously against Trump's efforts to undermine our election or as those who unintentionally appeased him with their silence, allowing him to decimate our democracy."
These are the stakes. Biden and the Democrats cannot hope that simply ignoring Trump will persuade him to give up. His brazen attempts to defraud the American public now include pressuring local GOP elected officials to join his plot. Even assuming Trump does vacate the White House on Jan. 20, these types of attacks could have long-term consequences, especially without clear, forceful pushback. Countless authoritarian regimes began as democracies, as Ben-Ghiat has noted.
Instead of taking the supposed high road, Biden and other Democratic officials must flood the media — including Fox News — with warnings about Trump's lies. Attempts to remain in power against the will of the people are not business as usual in America — they are more akin to something seen in banana republics.
52 percent of Republicans say Trump “rightfully won.” This is incredibly disturbing, and probably unprecedented.
A growing — albeit still small number — of Republican elected officials have begun to publicly call on Trump to concede. Biden is using these defections to double down on unity and bipartisanship. But without a more aggressive media campaign, Biden will be forced to govern a country more divided than ever before. A Reuters poll released Wednesday found that only 73 percent of Americans said Biden won the election, while 52 percent of Republicans say Trump "rightfully won." This is incredibly disturbing, and probably unprecedented.
Team Biden must also repeatedly highlight Trump's lack of credible evidence of voter fraud. Common sense tells us that if the assertions by Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani of a "national conspiracy" to rig the election were true, the Trump effort would have more to show for it. It has been nearly three weeks since Election Day. Instead, Trump's lawyers lashed out at reporters when pressed for details or data.
In fact, Giuliani essentially admitted Tuesday in federal court in Pennsylvania that there is no voter fraud, stating, "This is not a fraud case." (On Saturday night, a federal judge dismissed the Trump campaign's lawsuit in Pennsylvania, calling it a "strained legal argument without merit.") The same thing happened in Arizona, where Trump's lawyer conceded to the judge that the president was not alleging voter fraud. Biden needs to be talking about this hypocrisy every day, all day, on as many platforms as possible.
It is even possible, former federal prosecutor and MSNBC legal analyst Glenn Kirschner suggested on my radio show Thursday, that the actions of the Trump campaign in November could be considered part of "a criminal conspiracy to deprive the voters of their rights."
Biden, as president-elect, is rightfully focused on trying to facilitate an effective transition of power between Trump's outgoing administration and his incoming one. But he must simultaneously be spending the weeks until Inauguration Day vocally defending our democratic elections against authoritarian attacks from within. By standing up to Trump's attempted coup, Biden will be proving to those millions of Americans who voted freely and fairly for him that they made the right choice.
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