On November 16, nearly two weeks after voting wrapped up in the United States, President Donald Trump posted “I won the Election!” on his Twitter account, which prompted Twitter to tag the post with a disclaimer that read, “Multiple sources called this election differently.” Despite some close races in battleground states, virtually every media outlet has called the race in favor of Joe Biden, with CNN projecting Biden winning 306 electoral votes and 50.9 percent of the popular vote – at least 5 million more votes than Donald Trump.
And yet the sitting U.S. President, a man so untethered from reality that he once mused about purchasing the territory of Greenland, has not only pointedly refused to concede, he has actively stoked conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of the results. He has falsely declared himself to be the winner, filed baseless lawsuits, and alleged without proof that voting irregularities, in conjunction with a shadowy media effort to steal the election, are the only reason Biden is ahead.
Much of the Republican establishment has gone along with this charade, demanding that all the “legal” votes be counted, which seems sensible on its face, while creating the underhanded impression that there must be some illegality afoot. All the while, Donald Trump continues to speak directly to his millions of supporters, beating back the currents of reality with imagined conspiracies and empty claims of fraud.
It is clear that Republicans believe they are playing a game, indulging Trump’s fantasies in the short-term so his base can air their grievances. In this way everyone can save face while ultimately accepting the results of the election. In the process, these attacks that undermine the legitimacy of the election will have unknowable long-term consequences for America’s democratic institutions and principles. As Republicans prepare to dig in and oppose Joe Biden for the next four years, some may even believe undermining his legitimacy to be an advantage.
This game is hardly new, though it is more familiar in countries with less robust institutions. During the Indonesian presidential election in April 2019, Prabowo Subianto engaged in a very similar sort of tactic. Despite overwhelming evidence that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo had won a decisive re-election victory, Prabowo came to the stage and declared himself the winner, alleging various wrongdoings in the election process. He did a similar thing in 2014, refusing to concede and challenging the results in the Constitutional Court (where he lost).
In 2019, it was generally accepted that Prabowo was going through the motions to save face. And a few months later, he was welcomed into Jokowi’s cabinet as minister of defense and his party, Gerindra, has become part of Jokowi’s massive governing coalition in the legislature. Even so, not everyone understood that this was mainly a rhetorical game being played out between elites.
When the election results were certified in May, riots erupted in the streets of Jakarta that lead to several deaths. And this is the same fear looming over Donald Trump’s theatrics. Republicans may believe Trump’s twitter rants to be a rage-posturing outlet for normalizing his electoral defeat. But his supporters may not understand that this is all part of a larger grift. On November 15, pro- and anti-Trump groups clashed violently in the streets of Washington. The longer Trump draws this out, refusing to concede and stoking the anger of his supporters, the more likely such clashes are.
But there is one critical difference between these two cases. In Indonesia, political parties are often clustered around very similar ideological ground, as recent work by Ed Aspinall, Diego Fossati, Burhanuddin Muhtadi, and Eve Warburton has shown. That is why it was not really surprising that Prabowo and Gerindra eventually joined forces with Jokowi. Despite the theatrics, the competing parties in the Indonesian election ended up on the same team. Their ideological commitment to similar governing ideas means that once the dirty business of campaigning was over, they could get on with the work of executing a more or less shared policy and economic vision, such as the controversial Omnibus bill on job creation.
Such ideological coherence across party lines does not exist in the United States. Like Prabowo, Trump is trying to save face but there is no chance that he will be part of the Biden administration. The anger and the grievances he is stoking will not end in a broad governing coalition, as it did in Indonesia. They will merely inflame tensions in the American electorate, while undermining faith in its democratic systems and institutions. He will rage against the election results, but instead of securing any kind of meaningful concession for his efforts he will end up as the poor man’s Prabowo, furious and defeated and with no governing power to show for it.