Refusing to admit his loss in the presidential election, Donald Trump continues to propose absurd conspiracy theories, filing angry lawsuits, pressuring state lawmakers to overturn the vote, and generally blocking the transition to the next presidency. On Sunday evening, Trump sent one of his typically nonsensical tweets and wrote: “In certain swing states there were more votes than people who voted, and in large numbers. Isn’t that really important? Stop poll watchers, vote for unsuspecting people, forge ballots, and more. Such monstrous behavior. We will win!”
The deadlocked transition becomes a major problem for Joe Biden as his employees are unable to meet their government colleagues or receive briefings. The Biden team is also not receiving federal funding to set up the offices it needs to fill the new presidency. On Friday, Biden took advantage of this unprecedented situation to raise funds. He tweeted, “Here’s the deal: Because President Trump refuses to admit and is delaying the transition, we need to finance it ourselves and need your help. If you can, help fund the Biden-Harris transition.”
Campaigns often turn to donors to help cover some of the cost of a transition. However, due to the special circumstances of 2020, Biden’s request for money met with conflicting responses. Finally, Trump bans medical experts within the government from speaking to the Biden team. This will slow down the new president’s ability to develop a Covid policy. It is not hyperbolic to say that people are going to die because Trump cannot admit that he has been defeated.
But Biden shied away from fighting Trump for these reasons. As Ben Smith noted in The New York Times“Some of President-elect Biden’s supporters” are frustrated “as he foregoes a confrontation over President Trump’s refusal to admit and delivers a stream of nominations and a fundraiser for the online transition without fanfare.” Biden prefers to staff his administration all the time rather than reacting to Trump’s clowniness. This is an understandable strategy.
Biden’s cautious approach to Trump’s sabotage of transition is in line with the president-elect’s larger theory of the political moment. Biden has long seen Trump as an outlier or an anomaly, a destructive force that somehow won the presidency and distorted the country’s natural development. According to this theory, once Trump resigns, he will lose his influence over the Republican Party. American politics will end its extreme polarization and return to pre-Trump times, forcing Republicans and Democrats to make concessions to rule.
Biden articulated this theory in the speech he gave in May 2019, in which he announced his candidacy. “The American people want their government to work, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask,” Biden said. “I know some people in DC say this is not possible. But let me tell you something and make sure you understand. The country is fed up with partition. You’re fed up with the fighting. You have the childish behavior Fed up. “CNN’s Chris Cillizza noted,” That belief – that Trump was an anomaly, a breakdown in the Matrix – underpinned Biden’s entire primary and general election campaign. He stood up as a candidate for change – to make things the way they were they were in the not-so-bad old days when Republicans and Democrats fought but eventually found ways to work together. “
But already in the transition we see the main problem with this theory: What happens if Trump does not disappear? What if he decides to stay in the fight, stay a Republican kingmaker, and possibly run again in 2024? It would violate political norms as one would have to go back in time to Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt to find a former president ready to get back in the ring. But Trump never respected norms. He likes to be the center of attention.
If anything, the transition has made it clear how much power Trump still has over Republican lawmakers. Only six Republican senators have even recognized Biden’s victory: Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, Marco Rubio, Susan Collins, Pat Toomey and Mitt Romney. Several other senators have asked the Trump White House to share information with Biden despite refusing to recognize the election results: John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, James Lankford. As Carl Bernstein noted on CNN, many Republican senators privately expressed “extreme contempt” for Trump (Bernstein provided a list of 21). But they usually shy away from saying so publicly for fear of offending the Trump-loving Republican Party base.
Trump’s attempts to thwart the election results have brought him into conflict with the Republican governors of states like Georgia and Ohio. As Politico notes these conflicts are a way for Trump to assert power over the party. “Trump’s interventions in Georgia and Ohio provide an early test case of how he could use his stranglehold on the conservative basis to control the party long after he left the White House.” Politico observed. “It doesn’t matter that Trump is no longer in power: cross him and you will pay.”
Trump is preparing to be both kingmaker and something else: the king in exile. The myth of the stolen elections will bind ordinary Republicans more closely to him and make party leaders even more fearful of offending him.
But if Trump remains a force in American political life, what happens to Biden’s theory that Trump’s electoral defeat will restore normalcy? Votes are still being counted, but Biden is likely to have won a decisive popular vote victory of more than 7 million (almost all of the outstanding votes are in democratic areas). But that victory did nothing to sever ties between Trump and the GOP. Most Republican elected officials who are still loyal to Trump cannot even bestow the title of President-Elect on Biden. After inauguration, those same Republicans will be put under tremendous pressure by Trump and his supporters not to partner with Biden and do what they can to sabotage his presidency.
At some point Biden has to admit that he needs a new theory of politics. Just expecting Trump to disappear after the election defeat is a lost hope. Biden must rule as president of a nation where Trump is the leader of the opposition. Which means that Biden can hardly afford to avoid a fight with Trump.