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U.S. President Donald Trump dances after speaking during a Make America Great Again rally at Richard B. Russell Airport in Rome, Ga., on Nov. 01, 2020.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

American politics have become so hopelessly fractured that in the last three weeks of the Donald Trump years, the purely ceremonial and bland have become confrontational and inflammatory.

Days from the routine tallying of the electoral votes to select the next president, a formality that for almost a century and a half has attracted virtually no attention, this ritual is being transformed into a fraught flashpoint.

“This is supposed to be a moment celebrating democracy and the peaceful transfer of power,” said Amy Fried, a University of Maine political scientist. “It is an American tradition. And it has been especially poignant when the losing candidate certifies his rival as the victor.”

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That was the case in 1961, when vice-president Richard Nixon, citing a “striking and eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system,” certified the victory of his rival, John F. Kennedy, from the House lectern. It occurred again in 1969, when vice-president Hubert Humphrey did the same for the victorious Mr. Nixon, and when vice-president Al Gore certified the triumph of George W. Bush in 2001.

But today, even the most perfunctory rite has become a partisan muddle, threatening what the journalist Frank G. Carpenter (1855-1924), a sort of cultural anthropologist of the American capital, called a rhythm where “every four years … the old order gives place to the new.”

This week’s spectacle amounts to a portentous signal that for all of Joe Biden’s hopes of being a unifying force in the country, the U.S. is not close to even surface consensus. Over the weekend, the homes of both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were vandalized. Recently re-elected Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire cancelled an outdoor inaugural event after armed protesters descended on his home.

The effort to cast doubt on Mr. Biden’s White House victory took new form over the weekend, with Republican lawmakers girding to challenge several state vote counts and, in a stunning new development, to press for an audit of the results. A sterile procedure that has been a forgone conclusion in every election since 1877 has been transmuted into a bitter party dispute – and a process that ordinarily is completed with dispatch if not utter impatience will likely take hours, perhaps spilling over from Wednesday to Thursday.

Regardless of how much time the process takes, Democrats and most political experts believe the result will be the same, with Mr. Biden defeating Mr. Trump just as the President defeated Hillary Clinton four years ago. Then, the vote count in the Capitol, with a handful of objections that Mr. Biden as vice-president dismissed with a crisp bang of his gavel (“It is over”), required 35 minutes and 33 seconds.

The new, likely futile, effort on Mr. Trump’s behalf is a rare raw example of brutal power politics in the Capitol, where ordinarily the word “comity” has a special reverence and where the pace and procedures of the Senate were set out by Thomas Jefferson in 1801, when lawmakers wore knee breeches and the snuff boxes and spittoons distributed throughout the chamber weren’t simply evocative symbols of a colourful American past.

In their new demand – cheered Saturday night by Vice-President Mike Pence, who is to announce those results – the Republican rebels, acting against the preference of Mr. McConnell and facing a process that virtually guarantees a Biden victory, have proposed an alternative route that, if taken to its logical conclusion, would almost surely assure a Trump victory.

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In calling for a 10-day voter audit, a procedure for which there is no precedent, the votes in the four critical swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia would be evaluated by the respective state legislatures. It is not a coincidence that all eight chambers – the lower House and the upper Senate – of those states are controlled by the Republicans. All four states were won by Mr. Biden and certified by the appropriate election officials.

The likelihood of this manoeuvre prevailing is slim; Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Mr. Trump’s most ardent Capitol Hill supporters, rated the chances at “zero” Sunday morning. But on the surface, the proposal almost surely will be portrayed as merely a good-government effort to assure an accurate vote count.

The House is controlled by Democrats, who are all but certain to reject this effort, and it likely will fall short of winning support in the Senate, where the GOP has a 50-48 margin and where Mr. Pence has the power to break a tie.

Several Republicans, including Senators Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney, have signalled they would join Mr. McConnell and the second-ranking Senate Republican, John Thune, in deploring any effort to deprive Mr. Biden of the presidency. Mr. Thune said the challenge to the Biden victory would be defeated “like a shot dog,” a remark that provoked Mr. Trump to call for a primary challenge against the South Dakota lawmaker three years from now.

Mr. Trump spent the weekend lobbying lawmakers and badgering election officials such as Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia Secretary of State who responded, “Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.” This week, Mr. Trump’s options run out.

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