For the first time in American history, a president is refusing to concede an election that he has very obviously lost. Donald Trump has angrily insisted that Joe Biden only won because of massive election rigging, and has filed multiple lawsuits to overturn the result. Trump also recently fired the entire top civilian staff of the Pentagon, and replaced them with his signature brand of deranged loyalist. He is refusing to grant Biden money and access to start the presidential transition, as required by law. And there are still more than two months to go before Biden officially takes power.
It’s exactly what I would have expected Trump to do. But even more troubling than what amounts to a straight-up coup attempt is the behavior of the rest of the Republican Party, which (aside from a handful of exceptions) is backing him to the hilt. Trump’s plot seems unlikely to work, but he is establishing a dire precedent. A democratic system does not work if one party refuses to admit when it is beaten.
Let me first say that there is no doubt whatsoever that Trump lost this election fair and square. All his hysterical accusations, and the various lawsuits his campaign has filed, have presented no evidence whatsoever of a single act of illegal voting, much less the tens of thousands of votes that would be needed to actually change the state results. Indeed, as Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman points out, the only actual instance of unlawful voting in his state uncovered thus far was a Republican man who tried to vote for Trump using an absentee ballot for his dead mother. At time of writing (as the count is not quite done) this fellow was a mere 50,214 votes away from stealing the state for Trump.
Jokes aside, that illustrates an important point — if one digs hard enough, there are usually a couple instances of improper voting in every election, simply because so many tens of millions of people vote, and the rules are ridiculously strict in many states. But multiple studies are clear: in-person voter fraud virtually does not happen, and the most significant recent example of actual attempted election rigging came from a crooked Republican operative in North Carolina, who illegally filled out hundreds of absentee ballots for the GOP in several elections in years past.
Still, The New York Times went to the trouble of contacting the top election authorities in every state. Forty-five state officials responded directly, while reporters confirmed comments from four more states either through sub-officials or public comments. Every single one said the election was clean and there was no evidence of fraud. Only Texas Republicans refused to say anything at the state level, though the Times still got confirmation from the state’s largest county that their election was clean.
In short, Trump is making up a lot of inflammatory nonsense. He said the election that he won in 2016 was full of fraudulent votes — of course he is saying he didn’t really lose this time. Squalling like a spoiled toddler and making a lot of unhinged legal threats whenever he faces a negative consequence is how he has wriggled out of failure and bankruptcy time and time again. His most recent communications have not even bothered to hide his intent: “Democrat-run cities, like Detroit and Philadelphia … cannot be responsible for deciding the outcome of this race,” said a recent campaign email.
The members of his party who are not propaganda-drunk lunatics know he has lost, too. But most of these people are either keeping their heads down, or are loudly backing Trump’s coup attempt. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” one “senior Republican official” told the Washington Post. But in public, Attorney General Barr has approved legal challenges to the election result, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the “president has every right to look into allegations and request recounts under the law,” and both Republican senators in Georgia, who face runoff elections in January, have demanded the Republican secretary of state there resign over supposed election problems (again, there are no credible reports of election problems). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked about the transition, smugly suggested that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
Axios reports that Republicans are considering trying to block the certification of state electors, and pressuring Republicans in state legislatures into straight-up ignoring the election altogether and sending their own Electoral College electors to support Trump. A few state legislators in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, apparently under pressure from the howling conservative base, have begun moving towards this position. It would be baldly illegal in both states, but recent Supreme Court decisions have paved the way with legal Calvinball arguments that legislatures can do this.
In some ways this resembles how Reconstruction governments were toppled in the South, and replaced by the one-party Jim Crow apartheid state. Back in the 1860s and 1870s, ex-Confederates constantly screamed that multi-racial democratic governments were corrupt and only won through fraud, while simultaneously using terrorist violence to intimidate Black Americans away from voting. Constitutional government held so long as the Reconstruction governments had the backing of federal power. But when that was withdrawn as part of the corrupt bargain that ended the disputed election of 1876, white supremacists gradually overturned democracy in the South, creating an authoritarian one-party state system across the entire region.
Again, at this point it seems rather implausible to think that Trump will succeed in overturning the election result (though given the circumstances, I wouldn’t hazard a firm prediction either). But Trump has established a clear formula for a Republican Party that has become unashamedly authoritarian to follow — one that resonates disturbingly with some of the darkest periods of American history. And as most of a century of Jim Crow tyranny shows, it only takes one success for an authoritarian movement to entrench itself in power indefinitely. The Republican Party is a threat to the Constitution and the political liberty of all Americans.
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