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Donald Trump's defeat is good. Why does it feel so bad?

The Week logo The Week 12/14/2020 Joel Mathis
a man holding a sign: A Trump flag © Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images A Trump flag

Today should be a celebratory day. The Electoral College will gather in state legislatures across the country and cast its votes, and Joe Biden will officially be designated the next president of the United States. The system, such as it is, is still working despite dozens of junk lawsuits, multiple attempts to undermine the will of the voters, and endless falsehoods from the loser of the presidential election. We're not an authoritarian country, yet.

But it doesn't feel great, does it?

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 made many of us fear for American self-government. But the election of Biden in 2020 hasn't provided the relief we'd hoped for — not yet, at least. That's probably because thousands of Americans are dying every day from the coronavirus, a disaster that grows more tragic with each passing moment, but also because, while the Electoral College vote should be the functional end of the 2020 presidential election, it almost certainly isn't. There are still cards for Trump and his allies to play, and it is clear they'll be playing those cards right up to noon on Inauguration Day.

The most notable card, of course, is Congress. In early January, the legislative branch will meet to tally the presidential election results — a rubber-stamping exercise in most years. But Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), a Trump ally, has other ideas: He is contemplating a challenge to the voting results in the swing states of Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, and Wisconsin.

"We have a superior role under the Constitution than the Supreme Court does, than any federal court judge does, than any state court judge does," Brooks said. "What we say, goes. That's the final verdict."

Like other efforts to overturn Biden's election, Brooks' scheme probably won't be successful. It is, however, dispiriting.

I've spent much of the last four years anticipating a moment of ultimate clarity — a point in time when Trump's influence in our politics would be snuffed out, or when his victory over America's institutions and good sense would be complete. There would be a moment when he either won or lost and the rest of us would have to live with the results.

Instead, Trump has created a little-known third option: He has lost, and he keeps losing, then losing some more, but he refuses to bow to reality. Worse yet, he has persuaded a critical mass of elected Republicans to join him in that refusal. Dozens of Republican members of Congress and state attorneys general joined Texas' misbegotten lawsuit to overturn the election results. The Supreme Court made quick work of that case on Friday, but the fact that so many elected officials signed onto the legal kamikaze mission suggests that Trump's influence on the GOP won't soon fade. The president may lose influence and attention once he leaves the White House, but, with some exceptions, the party seems more hostile to good old-fashioned democracy than ever.

The picture gets worse when you account for the specter of violence. The offices of the Michigan legislature will be closed today because of threats. In Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Washington, election-related fights spilled into the streets over the weekend, replete with stabbings and a shooting. This isn't exactly a peaceful transition of power.

Today's Electoral College vote won't fix these problems. We're stuck in limbo — not quite a failed democracy, but not quite a full democracy either. Maybe we will have to live with that muddled state for a while. That will be difficult and exhausting, but the alternative is to surrender to the lies and cynicism of Trump and his cronies.

The beginning of a new presidential administration usually feels like an opportunity for a fresh start, a bit of spring cleaning in the federal government. We're not getting that this year. The rot won't be removed so easily. So while today should be a day to celebrate the renewal of our self-governance, it seems instead like a time to mourn.

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