In a crisis, a compromise is worse than no solution at all
Late last month, I wrote that there was a strong chance -- I called it 50-50 -- that Donald Trump would engineer a "self-coup" in order to remain in power despite having lost the election.
The president, I explained, is a desperate cornered rat. Once he leaves office, he becomes vulnerable to a variety of criminal investigations. By far, the one he has to worry about the most is being conducted by the Manhattan district attorney into corrupt business practices, charges that could not be discharged by a presidential pardon if President-elect Joe Biden were to issue one. Trump "could spend the rest of his life in prison," I wrote, "unless he declares martial law and becomes America's first dictator."
I acknowledged that Trump "doesn't have the support of the military -- but he doesn't need it." Instead of a Latin American-style military coup, I said, "his would be a 'police coup' carried out by the numerous local police departments whose unions endorsed him for reelection, alongside federalized state police and deputized paramilitary MAGA goons."
It hasn't happened yet, and maybe it won't, but nothing has changed about Trump's precarious legal situation. One of the lessons of history is that nothing trumps the strong human motivation for personal survival. An intelligent assessment of Trump's thinking must begin with the question: Why wouldn't he attempt a coup?
Patriotism? Love of country? Respect for constitutional norms? I won't go as far as many of the president's other critics, who call him a narcissist who doesn't care about anything or anyone except himself. They don't know that, and neither do I.
Here's what I do know: Whatever love of country and the craftwork of the Founding Fathers is in Trump's soul cannot possibly weigh as heavily in his mind as the prospect of dying in prison, the first president in history to have faced prosecution and conviction. And that's after months or years of humiliating hearings and trials and appeals where he has to sit quietly and watch his lawyers try to save his skin as prosecutors try to "flip" members of his family, lest they, too, wind up behind bars.
A more powerful reason to hesitate is the possibility of failure. If Trump's "police coup" goes belly up, he goes to prison, possibly for treason, for life. Sounds awful, but it's no worse than the New York charges he's so scared of.
The only reason I can imagine that Trump would leave office peacefully on Jan. 20 would be that he is psychologically broken. It's theoretically possible. But the continuing rambunctiousness of his Twitter feed and recent public statements reveal zero evidence that he's resigned to his fate.
Feel free to dismiss this as the paranoid rant of a left-wing political writer, albeit one who told you we would lose the Afghanistan war and predicted that Trump would win the 2016 election when everyone else was telling you something different. But you should probably consider this: The dean of Very Serious Journalist Persons, columnist David Ignatius of the Washington Post -- a foreign affairs writer so mainstream and respectable that he supported invading Iraq and argued that the CIA should not be held accountable for torture and political assassinations -- now agrees with me. In doing so, he draws upon some interesting deep-state sourcing.
"Not to be alarmist," Ignatius wrote on Dec. 26, "but we should recognize that the United States will be in the danger zone until the formal certification of Joe Biden's election victory on Jan. 6, because potential domestic and foreign turmoil could give President Trump an excuse to cling to power."