Civil war or the will of the people?
The events on two days in the next two weeks will determine a superpower’s fate. And the world is watching with nervous anticipation.
The first test will be January 6. This is when Congress proclaims the US Electoral College vote – a body of representatives tasked with relaying their state’s electoral outcome.
The final test will fall upon January 20: That’s the date the US Presidency officially changes hands, with the traditional inauguration ceremony held in front of Washington DC’s Capitol Building.
Historically, neither formality has been particularly dramatic.
But little has been normal about the 45th Presidency of the United States.
And Donald Trump has made it clear he does not want to accept his electoral loss.
High-profile public figures are calling for mass protests, firing squads, martial law and civil war. Legal institutions are being bombarded with emotive, politicised claims.
Now politicians, judges, civil servants, military commanders and the general public are being forced to choose between their loyalty to the constitutional position of US President – or Mr Trump.
January 6 and 20 will be when they must display the courage of their convictions.
It’s supposed to be a day of pomp and ceremony. The Vice President (Mike Pence) is supposed to lead a joint sitting of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote’s validity and formally anoint the next President of the United States.
But, this January 6, there’s a problem.
Mr Trump insists President-elect Biden “stole” the election.
Dozens of judges, governors, electoral commissions, the Electoral College itself, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the US Supreme Court have assessed the Trump camp’s claims. All have been judged to lack evidence.
Some Republicans have called upon Mr Pence to refuse to ratify the Electoral College vote and declare Mr Trump the winner. So far, Mr Pence has remained silent, although his lawyers requested a legal bid to force him to take such action be thrown out of court.
Despite this mass of resounding failures, Republican Senator Ted Cruz and 11 of his colleagues have announced their intention to rechallenge the election.
Mr Cruz is demanding yet another audit of poll results – but only in states where Mr Biden won.
“We intend to vote on January 6 to reject the electors from disputed states as not ‘regularly given’ and ‘lawfully certified’,” Mr Cruz said, “unless and until that emergency 10-day audit is completed.”
This declaration has evoked an outpouring of support on the far-right social media service Parler.
“Yes we want civil war!! The dems chose not to play by any rules then why should we?!” one post declared. “Hell yeah we want to go in with lethal force and clean the house!! Of course we want a bloodbath if Trump is cheated with a fraudulent election!” another wrote.
But not all Republican-elected officials back the long-shot challenge.
Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said they would support the Electoral College certification.
“I will vote to affirm the 2020 presidential election,” Ms Murkowski said. “The courts and state legislatures have all honoured their duty to hear legal allegations and have found nothing to warrant overturning the results. I urge my colleagues from both parties to recognise this and to join me in maintaining confidence in the Electoral College and our elections.”
This is the day the President of the United States takes his oath of office and vows to uphold and protect the constitution. The solemn ceremony has been held in public on the National Mall in Washington DC’s heart since Ronald Reagan inaugurated the spectacle in 1981.
But the 2021 event threatens to be the focal point of protest and counter-protest movements – with police, the Secret Service and the National Guard in the middle.
Almost 30 states have pledged troops in what would usually be considered an honour for their part-time warriors.
Some 7800 Guard troops lined the streets for Mr Trump’s ceremony in 2017. The 2021 number is expected to be smaller – with COVID-19 restrictions given as the reason.
“We do street blockings, entry control points for certain areas … a lot of it is just crowd control,” says District of Columbia National Guard spokesman Craig Clapper.
This year, chances are they may be called upon to help maintain the peace.
But the role of such military units has become a controversial one.
In June, Chief of Staff General Mark Milley appeared alongside Mr Trump for a photo opportunity as his federal troops allegedly assisted in the dispersal of protesters. He has since insisted federal forces have no part to play in the electoral process.
But disgraced former National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has called on the outgoing Commander-in-Chief to suspend the constitution and declare martial law. “Freedom never kneels except for God,” he tweeted.
Military action, however, is not the only possible outcome.
One prospect the Secret Service and Capitol Hill have been reluctant to address is Mr Trump merely refusing to hand over the keys to the White House.
This could result in an “Avignon” Presidency – a reference to a 14th-century schism of the Catholic Church where one pope set himself up in the French city of Avignon as another attempted to rule from Rome.
The resulting crisis lasted almost 70 years.
Whatever the outcome of the next fortnight, Mr Trump’s supporters are unlikely to back down any time soon. There’s the legitimacy of the Biden Presidency to attack. There’s the 2024 presidential campaign to contest.
But, for the moment, their eyes are focused on January 6 and January 20.
“Be there, will be wild!” Trump declared.
Proud Boys “chairman” Enrique Tarrio has responded to the call, saying he would lead his far-right followers into Washington DC.
“We might dress in all BLACK for the occasion,” Mr Tarrio pronounced in a Parler post. “The night calls for a BLACK tie event.”
A social media frenzy has produced promises to smuggle guns into the centre of Washington DC and establish armed camps on Capitol Hill.
Republican campaigners and officials are embracing hashtags such as #TheStormIsComing to call for the kidnapping of Democrat leaders and seizing public positions.
Others urge Mr Trump to #crosstherubicon – a reference to the moment Julius Caesar marched his army on Rome to overthrow the Senate.
Lin Woods, a pro-Trump attorney, tweeted that Vice President Mike Pence should be seized and executed for treason for failing to overturn the Electoral College result.
Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward urged Trump followers to resist Mr Biden’s “coup”.
“We are with you in #Arizona. Patriots are united. Those who are against us are exposing themselves.”
Then there’s QAnon. These conspiracy believers are convinced satanic paedophile-cannibals run the Democrats. They see Mr Trump as their messianic leader in a secret war.
Outgoing Republican House Representative Denver Riggleman says he fears QAnon has “metastasised into a cult based on some arcane type of religious fervour”.
His successor, Republican Bob Good, added: “I’m losing friends and family over a straight-up cult based on anti-Semitism, fantasy and just bizarre made-up tripe. It’s an idiocracy based on a digital prophet.”
It’s a recipe for disaster.
Notably, any violence in DC could give Mr Trump an excuse to activate the Insurrection Act. This allows the President to use troops against “any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy”. Once activated, the power doesn’t have a time limit.
All 10 living former US Defense Secretaries have joined in an unprecedented move to declare the US presidential election is over, valid, uncontestable and wholly constitutional.
Dick Cheney, James Mattis, Mark Esper, Donald Rumsfeld and William Cohen have put their name to the statement declaring: “Our elections have occurred. Recounts and audits have been conducted. The courts have addressed appropriate challenges. Governors have certified the results. And the electoral college has voted. The time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the constitution and statute, has arrived.”
Ominously, they also directly address the massive military they once oversaw about interfering in the process: “Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”
That they had to make such a statement is telling in itself.
General Flynn’s November call for military rule evoked a quick and determined response from the US Army: “There is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election,” its leadership declared.
Mr Trump’s latest senior legal adviser, Jenna Ellis, even indicated hesitancy within the White House to take Flynn’s advice, when she tweeted “It doesn’t work like that”.
But General Flynn’s public profile is considerable, and US national security commentators fear his voice may have real appeal among the rank-and-file.
“Flynn used his own rank and military status to lend credibility to ideas that are manifestly illegal and harmful to the Republic,” a MilitaryTimes editorial reads.
It went on to call for unified and vocal opposition of Flynn’s authoritarian intentions: “If military leaders do not speak out, they risk some in the public interpreting their silence as tacit approval”.