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U.S. President Donald Trump turns away in the rain after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider as he attends a Veterans Day observance in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., November 11, 2020.

CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

Let’s be clear: U.S. President Donald Trump is not simply refusing to admit defeat to his opponent, president-elect Joe Biden. He’s not just filing Hail Mary lawsuits to overturn voting results, or sticking to character by spreading fictions about stolen votes.

Those are just the mechanics of a more dangerous game, one in which Mr. Trump is attempting to delegitimize an election. In doing so, he is inflicting lasting damage on American democracy.

It’s not enough to hope that Mr. Trump is just being Mr. Trump, and that in a few days he will give up this typically self-serving charade. His outrageous claim that he won the election needs to be clearly rejected now, especially by his own party, before it gathers too much strength to be stopped.

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And it is indeed picking up momentum. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, declined on Tuesday to acknowledge Mr. Biden’s win and said that, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration."

If that was a joke, it was a very bad one. Those words, from the cabinet secretary responsible for foreign affairs, must have been a shock to the many world leaders who have congratulated Mr. Biden on his victory.

Mr. Trump’s Attorney-General, William Barr, is also refusing to dismiss the President’s claims. And Senator Mitch McConnell, the leading Republican in Congress, this week said that Mr. Trump is under no obligation to “immediately, cheerfully” accept the election results.

They argue that allegations of voter fraud must be investigated. But Mr. Trump hasn’t offered any credible evidence of fraud, because none exists.

The election went off without major hitches, let alone fraud, and produced a winner. Despite the constraints of COVID-19, the level of voter turnout was higher than it’s been in decades. One state, Georgia, is close enough that there will be a recount, but even if that somehow overturns Mr. Biden’s current 14,000-vote margin of victory, he will still have won the presidency. Mr. Trump lost, fair and square.

But Mr. Trump and his enablers are conditioning supporters to believe that the election was rigged, a cancerous lie many Americans may never stop believing. Recounts and unfounded claims of fraud won’t change the election’s outcome, but a steady drip of doubt from Republican leaders and Trump allies will delegitimize it in other ways.

The President has done this before. After the 2016 election, he made up a story that illegal voters in California were the reason Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. He set up a commission to investigate that fairy tale, only to shut it down in 2018 when it was clear it was looking for something that didn’t exist.

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He is a proven fabulist about elections in America, and now he is further poisoning the well.

In Georgia, Republican Senators David Purdue and Kelly Loeffler, facing runoff elections in January that will decide which party controls the Senate, have picked up Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. They’re now claiming, without evidence, that the Nov. 3 election was an “embarrassment” marked by widespread “failures,” and are demanding the resignation of Georgia’s chief election official.

The potential for lasting damage is immense. Mr. Trump has spent his presidency loosening the bolts on the conventions, principles and public faith that support American democracy. Even if he eventually slinks off into history, he will leave behind a weakened system that another populist could exploit and undermine.

That is not an overblown fear. So-called “managed democracies” such as Russia, Turkey and Hungary would love to see the U.S. slide into their camp.

Such a fall from grace would be fed to their people as proof of the failings of unfettered democratic freedom, and used to vindicate the suppression of dissent that keeps them in line. That’s why there are countries that hope Mr. Trump’s attack on the election outcome will succeed.

The calamity that would ensue if a legitimate American election was overturned by a mendacious demagogue who refused to hand over power is simply too enormous to contemplate. And yet Mr. Trump is forcing the world to imagine it.

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American democracy is likely to survive Mr. Trump’s last sabotage attempt. But the wounds he’s inflicting on the way out, and the scars they will leave, will not be quick to heal.

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