Has Trump destroyed America's two-party system?

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The refusal of President Donald Trump and almost all senior Republicans to concede that he lost the November 3 election is easily the most degraded spectacle in modern US political history. It can't go on much longer, but the damage to democracy the world over could be profound.

For over a week it has been clear that Joe Biden soundly defeated Mr Trump.

In 2016, Mr Trump won the presidency with 306 electoral college votes, though he lost the popular tally to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million. Mr Biden has also secured 306 electoral college votes, but won the popular vote by over 5 million.

Despite this decisive outcome, for the first time in US history a losing candidate is stubbornly refusing to concede. Mr Trump insists he actually won, but the election is being "stolen" through some massive fraud.

There is no evidence for this whatsoever.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 10, 2020 US President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware. After Donald Trump in his first week as president spoke to Australia's prime minister, leaks of  the call left many dumbfounded, with the new US leader haranguing and hanging up on the close ally. When Joe Biden spoke by phone Thursday with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the president-elect's office said Biden hoped to work with him on "many common challenges" and the Australian leader said he would forward a study on how his country fought Covid-19 through contact tracing. Following four years of presidential pique and chronic chaos in dealing with foreign leaders, Biden has already signaled a reversal -- he is making US diplomacy predictable, even dull, again. / AFP / Angela Weiss

To the contrary, no state election officials report significant irregularities. Although Mr Trump is championing a bizarre conspiracy theory about massive electronic vote tampering, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is tasked with protecting elections, announced there’s no evidence any votes were changed or compromised and that this election was "the most secure in American history".

The public overwhelmingly accepts the result. Polls show 80 per cent of Americans understand that Mr Biden won, compared to a mere 3 per cent who think Mr Trump did, with the rest being unsure.

By refusing to acknowledge this clear outcome, Mr Trump and his allies have launched a massive rhetorical attack on the American democratic system, and the very notion of truth itself.

It’s often almost comical. "There will be a smooth transition… to a second Trump term," a chuckling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared.

Mr Trump is blocking any start to transitioning the administrative leadership of the US government, which is the world's largest organisation, thereby endangering US national security including the coronavirus pandemic response as every day sees new record numbers of infections.

So, it’s virtually certain that Mr Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be inaugurated on January 20.

In theory, there are four ways of stopping this, but none are remotely plausible.

The first is to get state officials to change the outcome by retroactively invalidating huge numbers of Biden ballots, or at least delaying certification of the results past the required deadlines. If the voters don't choose you, perhaps you should choose the voters?

The second path is to get courts to intervene on spurious technicalities. Numerous lawsuits are pending, but all are meritless, and none would change the overall outcome. Not even the now thoroughly Republican-appointed Supreme Court is going to reverse a free and fair election based on no evidence. And lower courts, tossing such frivolous cases out immediately, aren't even going to give them the chance.

A third path is, as Mr Trump has reportedly discussed, getting Republican-dominated state legislatures to appoint pro-Trump electors despite the vote. None seem interested, and in many states it would be unlawful.

The following timetable is delineated by law and not optional. December 8 marks the practical end of any chance to change the outcome of state elections. On December 14, electors vote in each state and the results are certified. On January 6, Congress holds a joint session, overseen by the vice president, at which votes are formally tabulated and, if anyone receives 270 or more, a winner is declared.

It's simple, but not always painless. In 2001, then vice president Al Gore had to declare George W Bush the winner against himself although their election was effectively tied and the Supreme Court decided the outcome on a partisan basis. Mike Pence must now do the same for Mr Biden and Ms Harris.

Deviating from this strict timeline would effectively jettison the entire US political system. Mr Trump may believe his continued grip on power is worth that, but very few others will.

If all else fails, a fourth option could see Mr Trump invoking his authority as commander-in-chief to stage a military "autogolpe", or a "self-coup". Despite the sudden installation in the past few days of several unqualified Trump loyalists to lead the Pentagon, military leaders will never agree, especially since he reportedly called slain American soldiers "suckers" and "losers" and the generals "cowards" and "babies".

The President needs someone to save him from an election he lost. But if state officials won't cook the books, courts won't rewrite the rules, Congress won't ignore the laws, and the military won’t keep him in office by force of arms, then the election wins.

Mr Trump slowly seems to be getting the message. He almost blurted out "the coming Biden administration" during his Friday coronavirus press briefing, but caught himself. And his new blood-feud with Fox News suggests he's planning a competing right-wing channel, where he can pose as the "shadow, legitimate president" who "really won", and continue dominating the Republican Party.

Mr Trump is behaving true to form and exactly as he warned he might, but the complicity of many Republican leaders in this extremely dangerous charade is genuinely shocking.

Together they are communicating to Americans and the world that the US political system is fraudulent, rigged and corrupt, even though it plainly isn’t. And their boasting about how many Republicans won congressional seats in the same election, often on the same ballots, renders their narrative ridiculous as well as patently false.

The clear message to international strongmen is, never accept the outcome of a lost election. Instead stonewall and try to throw out the results.

American presidential election losers have invariably conceded because both parties accepted the basic democratic trade-off: potential wins and losses, with the prospect of future victories.

Yet what are the long-term prospects of a two-party representative democracy in which only one party remains fully committed to respecting elections and is willing to accept defeat without unprincipled chicanery?

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National