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He just needs time to grieve. He’s just using the controversy to raise funds. He’s just setting himself up for private life.

It has been a week since the U.S. presidential election, days since the networks called it for Joe Biden, with a healthy majority in both the Electoral College and the popular vote. Still, Donald Trump refuses to concede, claiming without evidence that the election was rigged.

There is, I repeat, no credible evidence for any of this – or none the Republicans have chosen to supply to any of the courts they are currently besieging. Neither is there any logical basis for it: The same rigged election that supposedly defeated Mr. Trump also returned a greater number of Republicans to the House of Representatives and left the Senate under GOP control.

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Opinion: Trump is out and a nerve-racked nation seeks a return to normalcy

Yet, even in the face of this aberrant behaviour, we fall into the same normalizing trap, the same failure of the imagination that, time and again, has proved so conducive to Mr. Trump’s designs. And so we make excuses for him, in spite of ourselves: He can’t mean it. He’s not really trying to overturn the election. He’s just in denial. Or else it’s some kind of dodge.

Because, you see, he can’t win. He has no case. Even if he were somehow to persuade a court to order a recount, and even if some of the ballots were thrown out, there wouldn’t be nearly enough to make up the difference. Bush versus Gore was a fight over 500-odd votes, in one state. The relevant margins in this election are in the tens of thousands, in half a dozen states.

So it’s absurd. Of course it is. No one will buy any of this. He knows it. The party knows it. They’re just humouring him. They’ll break with him eventually. It’s over.

Except … the candidate himself does not seem to know it’s over. If anything, he seems to be picking up steam. Mr. Trump keeps tweeting about the BALLOT COUNTING ABUSE! and how WE WILL WIN! The Trumpian news machine follows his lead, seizing on every trivial glitch or easily explained anomaly as proof of a conspiracy.

The party base, moreover, is buying it. An extraordinary Morning Consult poll shows plummeting faith among Republican voters not just in the fairness of this election but of elections generally, from roughly two-thirds in late October to barely a third this week. Almost half (47 per cent) of Trump voters told another poll, days after most of the votes had been counted and the results were known, that their candidate was winning the election.

The party establishment has obediently fallen into line. Just four Republican senators have to date acknowledged Mr. Biden as the president-elect. And the longer Mr. Trump’s claims go unchallenged, the more opportunity he and his team have to cement their control of the party – and steel it for what is to come.

He would appear to be settling in for a long fight: ordering his officials not to co-operate with the Biden transition team, firing his Secretary of Defence, instructing the Department of Justice, via his attorney-general, to look into allegations of voter fraud.

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And we are still 10 weeks from Inauguration Day.

The campaign did not end on Nov. 3; it has simply entered a new phase. The point is not to win over the courts or even most of the public. It’s strictly about the base. Once you have persuaded tens of millions of Americans that the bedrock institutions of their democracy are corrupt, that everyone is lying to them and nothing is a fact, there’s not much you can’t do.

So what grounds have we to think he doesn’t mean it? We know that Mr. Trump is unbound by any norm, legal or otherwise; that losing the presidency is existential to him – and would be even if it did not mean having to face the numerous criminal charges and countless civil cases pending against him.

We know that his followers will believe anything he tells them. And we know that most of the GOP establishment live in fear of the base. We have no reason to believe they will place any obstacles in his way, any more than he would restrain himself. Why limit our imagination, then, to what a rational person or party would do?

And yet the temptation is irresistible. He wouldn’t go so far, as we have been warned he might, as to order the state legislatures under party control – including all five of the contested states – to send Trumpist delegates to the Electoral College, to replace those elected by “fraud.” That would be crazy. They wouldn’t be so far gone as to obey him, surely. That would be suicidal.

Yes. But.

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