Trump's coup goes beyond a grift: The president is desperately seeking any path to stay in power

New reporting shows that Trump really still thinks he can steal this election

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 21, 2020 1:00PM (EST)

Donald Trump (Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images)

For weeks now, Donald Trump's hopes of stealing the 2020 presidential election from the winner, Joe Biden, have been fading. Nonetheless, the dumbest and worst president in American history continued sending out fundraising appeals to his endlessly gullible supporters, giving birth to the theory — to which I, personally, subscribed — that Trump's coup is little more than another one of his many schemes to defraud people. After all, the Trump campaign spent very little on the actual legal efforts to challenge the election and redirected most of the cash into what is likely going to be used as a slush fund for Trump and his family. 

And yet, as Maggie Haberman and Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported in the New York Times on Saturday, Trump is deep in talks with an increasingly unhinged cast of characters, all of whom believe there must be a way to steal the election even though the Electoral College made Biden's win official last week. The president invited conspiracy theorists like his former lawyer Sidney Powell and former national security advisor Gen. Michael Flynn to the White House on Friday to discuss a potential declaration of martial law as a last-ditch effort to force a second vote in some swing states. That suggestion came from the disgraced Flynn, who has been involved in violently oppressive work on behalf of Turkey's authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan 

The group also discussed "an executive order to take control of voting machines to examine them," though it's unclear what that would accomplish. There's no reason to think the voting machines were hacked and it's unlikely that Trump's team has the technical know-how to alter the machines to generate vote tallies more pleasing to Trump. 

The chattering politicos of Twitter responded to news of such a bizarre spectacle by arguing about the odd placement of the article on page A28 in the New York Times print edition, with one side arguing that the president considering a military coup is major news no matter what, and the other side arguing that because Trump isn't going to pull it off there's no reason to get fussed about it. The latter group is wrong, of course, as Trump is still incredibly successful at undermining democracy, even if he's failing to steal the White House.

The story isn't just alarming because Trump is flirting with violence, either. It's alarming because it's proof that Trump is continuing to push these idiotic conspiracy theories because he really, truly does think there's still a way for him to steal this election. 

That isn't to say this coup is not a fundraising grift. Of course, it is. With Trump, everything is a cash grab. This one is apparently a desperate effort to stay one step ahead of the creditors he's quite likely up to a billion dollars in debt to. But the fact that he's actually taking meetings with wild-eyed conspiracy theorists like Sidney Powell, the head of his coup operations, and otherwise putting effort into this suggests that Trump really does think there's a "Get Out Of Democracy Free" card, and it's just a matter of finding the person who has it. 

Similarly, Anita Kumar and Gabby Orr at Politico published a piece detailing Trump's weeks of making phone calls to various Republican officials, hoping they would just clear up this nagging "lost the election" problem for him, only to be rebuffed. (Not because these officials wanted to rebuff him, to be clear. It's just that there was no way for most of them to help him without opening themselves up to legal consequences.) Orr and Kumar document 31 different state and local officials Trump leaned on to steal the election for him — and that's not counting the House Republicans Trump pressured into signing an amicus brief supporting a petition to the Supreme Court to simply throw out the results in three swing states that went to Trump. 

"There was always this feeling of supreme confidence that no matter how it looks it's all going to work out for him," Scott Jennings, a longtime GOP operative who is close to Trump's team, told Politico. 

In particular, Trump's relentless abuse of Georgia's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, suggests he really does believe that it's just a matter of applying the right combination of bribes and blackmail before someone finally 'fesses up and admits that they actually do know how to make that nasty election just go away. 

"Your governor could stop it very easily if he knew what the hell he was doing," Trump told the crowd at a Georgia rally. "So far we haven't been able to find the people in Georgia willing to do the right thing."

Where Trump got this idea that there's always a guy who knows his way around the rules isn't a mystery. Trump's mentor was the inarguably evil but definitely skilled lawyer/fixer Roy Cohn. Cohn really did have a talent for leveraging bribes and blackmailing anyone to help his clients, like Trump, evade the law or other obstacles. It's likely no coincidence that Trump's business went from successful to bankrupt after Cohn died. Cohn's influence is also seen in Trump's strategy to cheat in the election by leaning on the Ukrainian president for help using threats to withhold U.S. military aid. 

But even Cohn didn't have the power to make an election just disappear with a few well-placed phone calls. Trump is just unburdened by Cohn's intelligence. He is not bright enough to see that this isn't one of those "I know a guy who can fix that for you" situations. 

Of course, as neuroscientist Dr. Seth Norrholm told Salon's Chauncey DeVega, a huge part of the problem here is that Trump is surrounded by enablers. "The worst thing one can do for a malignant narcissist or an abuser like Donald Trump is to tell him or her that they are correct or to otherwise validate the lies and false persona," Norrholm explained. 

It's clear from the reporting that Trump has a nice, soft cushion of people around him — such as Rudy Giuliani or Michael Flynn — feeding his lies and encouraging him to believe that the magic wand Trump can wave to stop Biden's presidency is out there, somewhere. 

Why does it matter whether Trump actually believes he can win? Well, it makes him more dangerous. If this was just a grift, it would be enough for Trump to keep sending fundraising emails and tweeting, but otherwise retiring to the golf course. But he's still actively looking for buttons to push — and entertaining violence as a way to get his way — and he still has many weeks left in office in which he can use his existing power to continue undermining democracy.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Editor's Choice Joe Biden Roy Cohn Rudy Giuliani Sidney Powell