Donald Trump isn’t just facing defeat. He’s also facing the biggest decision of his life: should he go quietly? Or should he risk being removed, kicking and screaming, from office?
Whatever he chooses, now is a moment of peril: for him, for his family, for his supporters, but above all for the American nation.
Over this weekend, you will hear any number of wild-eyed commentators on the US news channels speculating grandly about what will happen next.
Protesters supporting Donald Trump have been angered by the prospect of their man losing the White House to Democrat Joe Biden, pictured here, Phoenix, Arizona
But most decent Americans will be sitting at home, subdued, holding their breath.
Many can see a Stars and Stripes flag fluttering from a pole on their front lawns. Have they rallied round that symbol all their lives, only to see it torn apart in 2020? Is their beloved country on the brink of civil war?
Already in Pennsylvania’s biggest city, Philadelphia, violence has threatened to boil over. With the swing state yesterday leaning towards Biden, two armed men, driving a military-looking 4×4 vehicle, were arrested after allegedly planning to attack the Pennsylvania Convention Center where votes were being counted.
Local media yesterday claimed that they were only caught after a relative reported them to the police, worried about what they were going to do.
Indeed, over the past 48 hours, a febrile smog seems to have descended on America. And, by all accounts, it is threatening to erupt into civil conflagration.
Some of the protesters, such as this man in Maricopa County in Phoenix, Arizona, pictured, attended the protests carrying firearms, including this AR-15 assault rifle
As votes were being counted in Phoenix, Arizona, supporters of President Trump, riled up by allegations of electoral fraud, descended on counting stations, with one even wielding a pitchfork.
In Las Vegas, too, pro-Trump protesters were out in force, with many bearing military-grade assault rifles. Up in Portland, meanwhile, the President’s supporters showed their disgust at the result by burning an American flag.
Such scenes marked a disturbing, yet all too fitting, conclusion to an election campaign that has transformed the most powerful country in the world into a tinderbox. And make no mistake: plenty more weapons and plenty more angry, unstable people remain in circulation.
Americans bought 15million guns in the seven months this year from March until September, getting on for double the same period last year. In the swing state of Michigan, for example, where the result of the election is hanging by a thread, sales of guns are up 198 per cent year-on-year.
And so for the many Americans who had hoped for a quiet transition of power, lots will now be wondering not if violence will break out, but when. No doubt those alive in 1974 will be recalling the night of Richard Nixon’s resignation: the tears, his drunken conversation with his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, which ended with both men getting on their knees and praying.
When Kissinger moved to stand up afterwards, Nixon lurched forward, sobbing, pounding the carpet with his fists, asking: “What have I done?” Only then did Kissinger hug Nixon and persuade him, gently, that he had to go.
Other protesters such as these in Portland Oregon insist that all votes should be counted as this is likely to favour Joe Biden
With the country now on the precipice of anarchy, who might play the Kissinger role? Who might convince Trump to concede and go quietly? There are some ‘men in suits’ from the Senate who might give it a shot. But, seriously, would Donald Trump really be willing to listen to them?
Indeed, having seemingly modelled his White House machine on an Italian Mafioso family, perhaps the only people with a chance of persuading him to step down come from within. His wife Melania, perhaps, or his daughter Ivanka.
One way could be to convince him that a clean exit now allows him another shot at the Presidency in four years’ time. Many will baulk at such a suggestion, but I am serious. There is no constitutional bar. And, at 78, Trump would be the same age as Biden if he is sworn in.
But, whatever happens, Donald Trump doesn’t need to do anything in the next few days.
He is still President until January 20 and if he can tie up the courts with legal challenges, the final reckoning can be held off.
Perhaps he could even win. After all, there could be recounts. It might even be that fraud is discovered. But America’s courts are not a pushover. Legal challenges need to have some evidence. And Mr Trump will need to convince his own party that his allegations about fraud – all these ‘stories’ he says he’s heard – actually amount to something.
Angry Trump fans in Detroit, pictured, have been protesting at election count centres
Certainly, he has not convinced the broadcasters. Even Fox News, his favourite channel, was quick to suggest that he had lost the key state of Arizona while many of his supporters were calling for the vote to be annulled.
And then on Thursday night, in a jaw-dropping prime-time news conference in which he repeated his fraud allegations, several of the big broadcast networks suddenly cut their video streams and pointed out that what the President was suggesting – that he had won the election and it was being stolen – was, to use that phrase beloved by Trump, ‘fake news’.
The problem, of course, is that the media and the Donald have been at loggerheads for so long that the unprecedented nature of their intervention may be lost on many supporters of Donald Trump.
They will, for example, have seen CNN anchor Anderson Cooper on Thursday telling viewers that Trump is ‘like an obese turtle on his back flailing in the hot sun, realising his time is over’.
And they will shrug and say: ‘There he goes again.’
For, as several thoughtful Americans have pointed out to me recently, the nation risks going beyond the point where ‘facts’ matter. They suggest that many Trump supporters – remember there are close to 70million people who voted for him – are decent enough folk, but really do not believe anything they are told by the ‘mainstream media’.
They live in a parallel universe. One where Joe Biden has a corrupt son with dodgy business links to China; where Donald Trump is tough on China and wants US businesses to cut their ties with Beijing. But do they know that Trump’s business has a Chinese bank account?
The answer, of course, is no. They simply do not have access to anything we would regard as balanced information. And what they do read only whips them into more of a frenzy. Take the recent book, Trumpocalypse – co-written by Paul McGuire, who is described as ‘an eschatology professor and prophecy expert’ – which has a front cover depicting the White House in flames.
Written in the early years of Trump’s Presidency, it calls itself an ‘explosive exposé of the chilling truth about the fierce opposition to the Trump Presidency, and why the globalist elite…will stop at nothing – assassination, military coup, staged economic collapse, or worse – to overthrow him’.
Yes, it sounds deranged. But keep in mind that one of the Trump-supporting Republicans newly elected to Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene, is a supporter of the conspiracy theorist cult QAnon, which holds, among other things, that the US government is at the heart of a paedophile ring.
Of course, most Republican Party bosses hold such views in contempt. But at the end of the day, they are trying to execute a balancing act.
For they know fully well that some of the President’s backers are unhinged. But equally, they are also aware that plenty of them are perfectly ordinary, pleasant people who just got sick of the old politics.
And just as the British Conservatives are looking to keep their new-found supporters in former Labour seats in the north of England, the Republicans are desperate not to jettison theirs.
So for every Republican who, like Donald Trump Junior suggested yesterday, thinks that now is the time for ‘total war’ there is another who does not want to see their party destroyed in the crossfire.Indeed, many grandees, such as the Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan, are starting to push back. Yesterday, he described Trump’s lawsuits as ‘wrong for the country’.
Others remain reluctant to go public with their criticism, but behind the scenes are equally terrified that if war breaks out on America’s streets, the man in the White House will refuse to intervene.
Lessons here can also be drawn from Nixon’s last days, when there were also serious questions about whether the outgoing President would use the military to protect himself and the White House.
Tensions were high, with protestors on the streets in Washington DC. In response, officials privately worried that Nixon would ring the streets around the White House with tanks. In effect, they feared, he was going to seal himself in and prepare to fight it out.
There was even serious talk of soldiers being called to Washington to force Nixon to leave while the military chain of command was warned not to follow his orders.
With that in mind, those now close to America’s 45th President will be deeply aware of their role in their country’s future. Some Trump supporters, however, have suggested that all of this chaos is part of the way it has to end.
The Stanford university academic Victor Davis Hanson, for example, compares Trump to Clint Eastwood’s police anti-hero Dirty Harry who, at the very end of a long chase scene, goes rogue and shoots the psychopathic villain, ‘ending both their careers, and walks off after throwing his inspector’s badge into the water’.
Similarly, Hanson suggests, after this election there was never going to be an easy, genial transfer of power. Many Democrats spent yesterday sharing news clips of President Bush Senior handing over power to Bill Clinton or McCain conceding that he had lost to Obama, with a nice letter and a generous speech, to show America how it should be done.
But they misunderstand the inner core of what Trump represents – namely that, in the eyes of many voters, he is a visceral disruptor of political norms that had actually provided them little in the way of progress. With that in mind, can the end of Trump be anything other than turbulent?
Certainly, many of those who know Donald Trump think things could turn unpleasant. Steve Bannon – Trump’s former campaign chief – suggested years ago to the author Michael Wolff that while Nixon went quietly in the end, with Trump it would be ‘ugly’. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, was blunter: ‘There will never be a peaceful transition of power.’
Well here we are – with guns on the streets, protesters attacking police and the potential for nationwide violence getting likelier by the hour. I spent ten years, the best of my life, in the USA. My youngest daughter was born there and is a citizen. It has so much going for it: the energy, the optimism; the wonderful fact that it can reinvent itself just at the moment when it looks to be finished.
So I would never bet against it. But it has not, for many years, perhaps since the Civil War, seen a more perilous time.