Mr. Trump’s efforts ring familiar to many who have studied authoritarian regimes in countries around the world, like those run by President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary. — Peter Baker, The New York Times
Mr. Trump’s efforts ring familiar to many who have studied authoritarian regimes in countries around the world, like those run by President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary. — Peter Baker, The New York Times
An Insurgency From Inside the Oval Office
President Trump’s effort to overturn the election he lost has gone beyond mere venting of grievances at the risk of damaging the very American democracy he is charged with defending.

President Trump’s relentless effort to overturn the result of the election that he lost has become the most serious stress test of American democracy in generations, one led not by outside revolutionaries intent on bringing down the system but by the very leader charged with defending it.

In the 220 years since a defeated John Adams turned over the White House to his rival, firmly establishing the peaceful transfer of authority as a bedrock principle, no sitting president who lost an election has tried to hang onto power by rejecting the Electoral College and subverting the will of the voters — until now. It is a scenario at once utterly unthinkable and yet feared since the beginning of Mr. Trump’s tenure.

The president has gone well beyond simply venting his grievances or creating a face-saving narrative to explain away a loss, as advisers privately suggested he was doing in the days after the Nov. 3 vote. Instead, he has stretched or crossed the boundaries of tradition, propriety and perhaps the law to find any way he can to cling to office beyond his term that expires in two weeks. That he is almost certain to fail and that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be inaugurated on Jan. 20 does not mitigate the damage he is doing to democracy by undermining public faith in the electoral system.


Mr. Trump’s hourlong telephone call over the weekend with Georgia’s chief election official, Brad Raffensperger, pressuring him to “find” enough votes to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in that state only brought into stark relief what the president has been doing for weeks. He has called the Republican governors of Georgia and Arizona to get them to intervene. He has summoned Michigan’s Republican Legislature leaders to the White House to pressure them to change their state’s results. He called the Republican speaker of the Pennsylvania House multiple times seeking help to reverse the outcome there.

Mr. Trump and his staff have floated the idea of delaying Mr. Biden’s inauguration, even though it is set in stone by the Constitution, and the president met with a former adviser who has publicly urged him to declare martial law to “rerun” the election in states he lost. Mr. Trump’s erratic behavior has so alarmed military commanders who fear he might try to use troops to stay in the White House that every living former defense secretary — including two he appointed himself — issued a warning against the armed forces becoming involved.

Undaunted, the president has encouraged Vice President Mike Pence and congressional allies to do anything they can to block the final formal declaration of Mr. Biden’s victory when Congress meets on Wednesday, seeking to turn what has historically been a ceremonial moment into a last-ditch showdown over the election. The idea has disturbed even many senior Republicans and it is guaranteed to fall short, much to the president’s frustration.

... But Mr. Trump’s efforts ring familiar to many who have studied authoritarian regimes in countries around the world, like those run by President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary.

“Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, and his pressure tactics to that end with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, are an example of how authoritarianism works in the 21st century,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present.” “Today’s leaders come in through elections and then manipulate elections to stay in office — until they get enough power to force the hand of legislative bodies to keep them there indefinitely, as Putin and Orban have done.”


... Mr. Trump’s fidelity to the concept of American democracy has long been debated. From the earliest days of his campaign for the White House, critics suggested that he harbored autocratic tendencies that raised questions about whether he would eventually subvert democracy or seek to stay in power even if he lost, questions that grew loud enough that he felt compelled to respond. “There is nobody less of a fascist than Donald Trump,” he insisted in 2016.

But Mr. Trump did little to disabuse those fears in subsequent years. He expressed admiration for strongmen like Mr. Putin, Mr. Orban, President Xi Jinping of China and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, evincing envy of their ability to act decisively without the checks of a democratic government. He asserted at various points that the Constitution “allows me to do whatever I want” with the special counsel investigating him and that his “authority is total” to order states to follow his wishes.

He sought to turn government agencies into instruments of political power, pressuring the Justice Department to prosecute his enemies and go easy on his friends. He made expansive use of executive orders that courts at times ruled went too far. He was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House in 2019 for abuse of power for pressuring Ukraine to help him sully Mr. Biden’s reputation although he was later acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.