Leading up to the US election day on November 3, a popular Twitter thread sought to portray the presidential race using the language normally reserved by Western journalists for events in the third world. The point of this narrative device is to use the language normally reserved for politics in African or Asian nations – full of ‘strongmen leaders’, ‘tribal divisions’ and ‘ethnic tensions’ – to better describe the unprecedented events playing out in American politics right now.

On Wednesday morning, as votes were still being counted in an election that is likely to go down to the wire, US President Donald J Trump delivered a statement from the White House that doesn’t even need this alternate framing to be seen for what it is – an authoritarian power grab.

“This is a fraud on the American public,” Trump said, referring to the fact that votes were still being counted late into the night, as they are in every US election. “We want all voting to stop... as far as I am concerned we already have won it.”

Even more significant, for the health of US democracy, was the reaction to this from the media and election analysts: Anguish, rebuttals and fact checks, but little surprise.

That is because Trump has been telegraphing this outcome for weeks, sowing the seeds for claims that mail-in ballots that are expected to favour Democratic candidate Joe Biden are fraudulent – they’re not – and that the result should be declared on election day itself, falsely insisting that it would be illegal to count votes afterwards.

Jonathan Swan of Axios even reported this on November 1, two days before the counting began, writing “President Trump has told confidants he’ll declare victory on Tuesday night if it looks like he’s “ahead,” according to three sources familiar with his private comments. That’s even if the Electoral College outcome still hinges on large numbers of uncounted votes in key states like Pennsylvania.”

To be clear, Trump’s claims of fraud are false and his demand for votes to not be counted would be illegal under American law. At the time he spoke, a number of crucial states were still counting votes, including ones that Trump insisted, from the White House podium, that he had already won.

The real surprise

In one case, Arizona, the US president even contradicted himself – not an unusual position for Trump – by insisting that votes still had to be counted there, since he was expecting to win a race that some networks, including Fox News, had already called for his opponent.

The real surprise of the evening, in fact, may have been the fact that Trump stuck to the script that had been talked about for days and weeks, even though actual results on election night have been much more favourable to him than the polls predicted.

Until Tuesday, national polls had suggested a 9 point lead for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, suggesting a number of different pathways to the presidency. By early Wednesday morning, those paths had significantly narrowed, leaving Biden hoping that mail-in and absentee ballots – counted after in-person votes in some states – would put him ahead in crucial swing states, like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin.

The actual counts in those states, however, all had Trump ahead, by a considerable amount in some cases. State officials had made it clear that counting all the ballots could take days, but election night results themselves were a sign that the national polls suggesting a big wave for Democrats were inaccurate.

Why would Trump seek to ‘stop’ all votes, if the race looked to be tilting in his direction?

American institutions

The bigger question may be how Trump’s Republican party and other American institutions react to his inaccurate claims about fraud and illegal voting. It has been clear for weeks now that this situation might become a reality. The US media, mindful of this, sought to fact-check and contextualise Trump’s false claims.

But, as Trump indicated, matters might go to the US Supreme Court. Trump appointed a conservative judge to the highly politicised court just days before counting began, breaking a precedent insisted upon by his party to not nominate a judge in an election year, and ensuring that Justice Amy Coney Barret was confirmed without a single vote from the Democrats.

There is also the question of how others in the Republican party will react to Trump delegitimising the fundamentals of American democracy. Polling has made it clear that the American public is so polarised that they are likely to see even these comments as partisan issues, rather than being objectively illegal and wrong. Republicans have broadly turned a blind eye to comments like this from Trump, including his claims that millions of votes were cast illegally against him in 2016. But in this case, the outcome of the election may actually be contested, which will make any Republican stances even more important.

All of this is aside from the fact that Trump may still legitimately win the election. Considering his statement – and Trump’s behaviour over the last four years – legitimacy does not seem high up on the list of his priorities so much as staying in power at all costs.