Could the US president be at last about to concede election defeat to Joe Biden or will he continue to stall and make trouble to America’s great cost? Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the dangerous lingering legacy of the US leader

“We respect the choice of the American people.” These were the words of a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson on Friday as the “People’s Republic” did what President Donald Trump still finds it seemingly impossible to contemplate and recognise Joe Biden as president-elect of the United States.

Like many of us watching the US elections unfold these past weeks, I’ve constantly been reminded of how at odds with our understanding of the American Democratic process so much of this battle for the White House has been.

Admittedly, in the end, the American people did make their choice and admittedly again democracy was ultimately served. But what a hammering it has taken along the way and still the bludgeoning goes on at the hands of a president unwilling to concede and allow a transition of power to take place and his country begin to heal.

When China respects the choice of the American people – albeit belatedly – but still the sitting US president doesn’t, then that is a thought worth pondering.

The telltale signs of Trump preparing the ground to sabotage any Biden win have, of course, been evident ever since the president started undermining popular confidence in the polls.

But when Donald Trump Jr, the son of the so-called “leader of the free world” calls for “total war” in opposing the outcome of the election, it’s clear America is in uncharted and potentially lethal political waters.

While we might not be talking classic coup d’état stuff here with tanks and troops on the streets, the possibility of violence still cannot be discounted, even if fortunately to date there have been precious few signs of confrontation on America’s streets sparked by the election outcome.

So where might America be heading in the coming days during this dangerous last stand by Trump, and what night we expect from the Republican who has become a pariah to many both in the US and beyond?

It was Sean Wilentz, the US historian and professor of the American Revolutionary era at Princeton University, who a few days ago sketched a colourful though not implausible picture of how things might play out for Trump.

Trump’s actions, Wilentz said, could result in an act of disloyalty unsurpassed in American history except by the southern secession in 1860-61, the ultimate example of Americans refusing to respect the outcome of a presidential election.

Wilentz detailed how it was possible to envisage Trump trying to establish “a centre of power distinct from and antagonistic to the legitimately elected national government, not formally a separate government like the Confederacy but a virtual one”.

This, Wilentz continued, might be “administered by tweets, propped up by Fox News or whatever alternative outlet Trump might construct for himself ... a kind of Trumpian government in exile, run from Mar-a-Lago or maybe from wherever else Trump selects to reside in, in order to avoid prosecution by the State of New York”.

On the face of it this might seem like a bizarre way for such a chapter to play out but then Trump and the outlandish have never been mutually exclusive.

This weekend there was still uncertainty as to the next act in this dramatic presidential standoff even as Trump’s campaign to contest the result was dealt a series of body blows over the past few days.

The first came on Thursday when state and federal officials, and election technology companies that run US elections, declared that the November 3 ballot was the “most secure in American history”.

“There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes or was in any way compromised,” said the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, according to the Associated Press (AP).

In a barely veiled shot at Trump and his supporters, the agency said Americans should have confidence in the results although “we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our elections”.

Then came the second body blow to Trump with the news that president-elect Biden had consolidated his electoral college vote margin by winning in Arizona, placing any hopes of Trump reversing the outcome through the courts or recounts even further out of reach.

A third blow then followed with reports that Trump’s legal arsenal was further depleted after the law firm leading the president’s campaign post-election litigation in Pennsylvania had withdrawn from the federal lawsuit it filed earlier last week.

All of these dents to Trump’s case are a far cry from the overwhelming majority of Republican officials who still refuse to publicly accept Biden’s victory.

Their resistance, say political observers, is impeding Biden’s effort to lead a smooth transition to the January inauguration and keeping the president-elect from the funding and agency resources typically afforded to an incoming administration.

But that said, the full extent of Republican support for Trump still remains open to conjecture. A few days ago, those Republicans willing to break publicly with Trump, remained an extremely small minority. As of Thursday, just a handful of the Senate’s 53 and five of the 28 Republican governors had publicly recognised Biden as the president-elect. But as of yesterday there were suggestions that the GOP’s “wall of support”, as broadcaster CNN dubbed it, was beginning to fracture.

According to The Washington Post, some Republicans – in private – say they’re just going through the motions to appease Trump.

“What is the downside for humouring him for this little bit of time? No-one seriously thinks the results will change,” one senior Republican official told the newspaper speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on January 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave,” the official added.

There may also be some tactical political expediency in the moves of certain Republicans. Given the record numbers of votes cast for the GOP, some 72 million in all, it would make sense for leaders of the party to keep these voters sweet and onside ahead of two upcoming Georgia runoff elections that will determine the Senate majority.

For some within the Republican leadership’s ranks, though, there’s no doubt that they still fear Trump and for their jobs – a significant sign, say observers.

“This tells us quite a bit about the sad state of our politics across the board,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Centre for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“We used to assume that politicians were more concerned with their own careers than the fate of the nation, now we have verifiable proof,” Engel added, speaking to the Financial Times.

While there was palpable relief in many European capitals at the news of Biden’s victory, there were some overseas political leaders who betrayed a very different response.

In a sign of the malign and dangerous impact Trump’s last stand and refusal to concede can have, some “Biden deniers” across the world have held back in endorsing his election and have even supported the president’s claim of ballot fraud.

Among Trump’s staunchest allies, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro – one of the few prominent world leaders still not to have congratulated Biden on his election win – asked on Thursday whether the vote in the US was really over.

Talking to supporters outside his official residence, Bolsonaro was asked what he thought of the American election result.

“But has it finished, have the elections already finished?” he asked one supporter, breaking into a smile before posing for selfies.

Bolsonaro’s posture signals a rocky start in relations with Biden, whose agenda with Brazil would likely include addressing Amazon deforestation and human rights.

In faraway France, meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party and the probable main challenger to president Emmanuel Macron’s 2022 re-election bid, said she would “absolutely not” recognise Biden’s victory until all legal challenges to it were exhausted.

In Hungary, right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban, whose consolidation of power has unnerved many in Europe, made clear his preference for Trump, while in Slovenia, which will take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in July next year, populist premier Janez Jansa also hailed Trump as the victor the morning after the election.

Speaking to the FT, Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs and adviser to Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said that “what this election demonstrates is that in the same way Trumpism is alive and kicking in the US, our own little Trumps are still alive and kicking”.

While some right-wing leaders across the world have refused to remain quiet and instead openly supported Trump, there has been criticism of the silence within some of the world’s leading pro-democracy organisations and for not speaking out vociferously endorsing Joe Biden.

“Most of the world’s leading pro-democratic bodies, from the European Union to the United Nations, have been silent,” observed Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and author of How To Rig An Election.

Writing in the US-based Foreign Policy magazine on Friday, Cheeseman noted that the one exception has been the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which deployed observers ahead of the US poll and concluded that the “baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions”.

Whether Trump continues to tough it out, however, remains to be seen.

On Friday, Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera, in a post on Twitter and in an interview with the network, said Trump had called him earlier that day and told him he was a “realist” who would follow the US Constitution after all legitimate votes were counted, but was waiting to see how US states proceeded in certifying their final election results.

According to Rivera, Trump told him he would “do the right thing” when all the legitimate votes are counted. But, never one to be predictable, reports also surfaced that the president was due to announce a fresh presidential run in 2024.

Given Trump’s track record on bending the truth or backtracking on what he says, such conflicting reports will offer little reassurance to those many Americans who now want to get on with their lives as yet another massive surge in coronavirus cases engulfs their country.

On Friday, as the counts in the two final states of Georgia and North Carolina came in, they showed a win for Biden and Trump respectively. It means that Biden now has 306 Electoral College votes and Trump 232. By any standards this further cements the president-elect’s victory and it will be curious to see if it hastens any shift in Trump’s stance.

Most American observers and others around the world are wary, knowing full well the only predictable thing about Trump is his unpredictability.

Speaking a few days on the American flagship news television programme 60 Minutes, Barack Obama, whose memoir A Promised Land is due to be published this week, warned that those Republicans continuing to support Trump are contributing one more step in “delegitimising not just the incoming Biden administration, but democracy generally. And that’s a dangerous path”.

It’s now hard to see how Trump can continue denying Biden’s win and not openly concede. If concerns remain they perhaps now focus on the president going out while leaving political “booby traps” behind for the Biden team or even going out with once “last hurrah”.

What shape or form these could take is anyone’s guess, but some weeks ago in these very pages I warned that this might be enacted not on American soil but overseas, Afghanistan or Iran maybe.

While questions remain about how far Trump might still be prepared to go, some observers are now convinced that the American political system has largely contained his worst impulses and excesses. Here’s hoping so.