Three days before Christmas in 2001, Richard Reid took off from Paris on a flight to Miami. He did not intend on arriving. Instead, he attempted to ignite explosives packed into one of his shoes to destroy the plane, killing everyone aboard for the cause of violent jihad.
He did not succeed. Other passengers noticed his odd behavior—most notably lighting numerous matches while wires were dangling from his pant leg. He was subdued; the flight landed safely.
The plot had failed. But that did not mean that the system which let him get onto a plane with explosives “worked.”
This is the exact position America’s democratic system finds itself in as the Trump era comes to a close. Like Richard Reid, Donald Trump is a cartoon figure and his attempt to overturn a free and fair election is nearly comical in its stupidity.
A wise observer would view the Trump experience as a near-catastrophe which became a wake-up call for just how vulnerable our democracy is.
Instead, we have a conservative establishment which—when it isn’t outright advancing Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, or averting its eyes—says that the fact that Donald Trump will (probably) leave office on January 20 is proof that the system worked and there’s no reason for concern.
Consider Holman Jenkins who, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, claims that “U.S. democracy is a faith machine that continues to reward your faith.”
Allow yourself to relax a bit, and enjoy the latest chapter of the Trump show, which will continue to enrich us with ironies and absurdities and insights to light our way in coming decades as we decode the wild and wonderful experiment known as America.
It would be hard to come up with a clearer statement of elite, late republic decadence than “enjoy the latest chapter of the Trump show.” Why burden yourself with the moral responsibilities of citizenship when you can be like Blanche DuBois and depend on the kindness of strangers performing their civic duties?
In a staff editorial, National Review musters the courage to at least call Trump’s attempt to overturn the election what it is:
Trump’s most reprehensible tactic has been to attempt, somewhat shamefacedly, to get local Republican officials to block the certification of votes and state legislatures to appoint Trump electors in clear violation of the public will. This has gone nowhere, thanks to the honesty and sense of duty of most of the Republicans involved, but it’s a profoundly undemocratic move that we hope no losing presidential candidate ever even thinks of again.
There is dark vindication for Trump’s principled critics across the political landscape in these words. But consider that it took a president promoting election fraud conspiracy theories targeting his own party—thereby jeopardizing Republican control of the Senate—to get there.
And what remedy do the National Review editors propose? How would they keep this from happening again? All they can muster is to “hope [that] no losing presidential candidate ever even thinks of [it] again.”
Hope is not a plan.
A healthy republic ought to have a strong, even a visceral response to those who would endanger its future. And it should remember the treacherous who conspire against it.
The phrase “enemy of democracy” has a sinister bearing. Saying it aloud may elicit a frisson of discomfort. That sort of language is for grubby radicals, not for us educated citizens of a consolidated and modern republic.
But how else to describe those who would use raw political power in Republican-controlled legislatures to overturn a national election? Public officials swear an oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It is a mandate that responsible citizens should take seriously.
No one should try to hide behind the legalistic argument that such an outcome might be technically constitutional. Every dictator claims his hold on power is constitutional. Vladimir Putin controls Russia behind a veneer of constitutionality. Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years under a constitutional state of emergency.
There is nothing magical about the U.S. Constitution. Unmoored from our founding principles, it can become an instrument of tyranny. For parts of our history—specifically for Americans of color—it was.
It is important, therefore, to keep score on who, exactly, democracy’s enemies are.
Our list should start with Donald Trump himself.
We’ve become numb to his relentless claims that the 2020 election was “RIGGED.” Yet it’s important to remember that there is nothing new about his conspiratorial and toxic rhetoric.
Trump complained about fixed Republican and Democratic primaries in 2016, and attributed his popular vote defeat in the general election to widespread fraud. And even before that. On Election Day 2012, Trump previewed the same voting machine conspiracy theory his supporters use now.
More reports of voting machines switching Romney votes to Obama. Pay close attention to the machines, don't let your vote be stolen
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
Later that night, after the networks announced that Barack Obama had been re-elected, Trump tweeted:
This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012
And now in the aftermath of his clear defeat in 2020, the lame duck president openly lobbies state legislators to use their authority to designate slates of pro-Trump electors. He promotes conspiracy theories about manipulated voting machines, organized fraud concentrated in a few majority black cities, and supposed statistical proofs that he actually won. He fires a senior civil servant for publicly debunking his allegations.
Donald Trump is an enemy of democracy. Full stop.
In this, he has been aided and abetted by several lawyers, who have explicitly advocated that Republican legislators overturn the will of the people. Before her formal separation from the legal team, Sidney Powell told Lou Dobbs that “the entire election, frankly, in all the swing states should be overturned. And the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for Trump.”
Rudy Giuliani encouraged pressure, even intimidation, against state legislators in Michigan to ignore the certified popular vote and award the state’s electors to Donald Trump. “Sometimes it even requires being threatened,” he said.
Jenna Ellis similarly argued that Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania could throw out the results in favor of Donald Trump: “You the legislature, without judicial oversight, can direct and take back that power.”
Donald Trump’s lawyers are enemies of democracy.
Elected Republicans have also lent their support to this scheme to overturn the election. Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama tweeted that “Congress should reject any Georgia submission of 16 electoral college votes for Joe Biden.” Brooks also announced his intention to formally challenge the results in Congress because “this election was stolen by the socialists” and “it’s the United States Congress that is the final judge and jury of whether to accept or reject Electoral College submissions by states.”
Pennsylvania state senator Doug Mastriano introduced a resolution to “exercise our obligation and authority to appoint delegates to the Electoral College.”
When that failed, 60 members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly requested that their congressional delegation “object, and vote to sustain such
Twenty-eight members and members-elect of the Arizona legislature called for decertifying Joe Biden’s victory in the state.
On Twitter, Congressman Paul Gosar commented approvingly “this is 28 bitch slaps to [Arizona Governor] Doug Ducey and 28 calls for justice.”
These elected Republicans are enemies of democracy.
Far-right conservative activists have been similarly explicit about their intention to reverse the election outcome through extra-legal means.
The Claremont Institute’s Matthew Peterson tweeted that “Republicans in the disputed states now need to tell their state legislators to resolve the problem by choosing their own electors for Trump, which is a fully constitutional option that would lead to a rightful Trump victory.”
Former Trump aide Seb Gorka has demanded a “political solution” to the election, arguing that “no GOP statehouse must certify this election which is clearly fraudulent and cannot send any electors to DC . . . And if nobody gets 270, that’s the beauty of the Founding Fathers, we get a contingent election and it goes to the House of Representatives.”
Michael Anton, who served as National Security Council spokesman under Trump, “urged GOP officials in close states to expose shenanigans and, if necessary, refuse to seat Biden electors.”
The Federalist’s Margot Cleveland, in an article headlined “State Legislatures Must Investigate Fraud And Choose Electors Accordingly,” observed that “the Constitution does not provide for the appointment of elector by popular vote” and that “following an investigation of [election fraud] concerns, the state legislatures should vote to directly appoint electors as they see fit . . . Then when those legislators are up for reelection, we will have a feel for the true will of the people.”
This is but a small sample of the anti-democratic agitation endemic on the pro-Trump right. These men and women have declared themselves enemies of democracy.
Most disturbing are pleas from disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, retired General Tom McInerney, and Georgia lawyer Lin Wood for Trump to invoke martial law, suspend both the U.S. Constitution and habeas corpus, and order the military to administer another election. These men have advanced beyond “enemy of democracy” status, and entered the realm of outright sedition.
It’s difficult to imagine that the American public would react peacefully to a declaration of martial law, and maybe that’s the point. On November 21, an emotional Trump supporter called in to Rush Limbaugh to say “I love my president… I would die for my president.”
While you might find the caller’s words dismaying or disturbing, Michael Flynn celebrated “this man’s passionate plea, not of fear but of strength & commitment to his faith, family & our country.”
How the hell did we get here?
Part of the answer is that the American right has failed to advance a conservative agenda that appeals to majorities, and has instead chosen to focus on mobilizing its largely white, increasingly rural political base with appeals to grievance and resentment. This retreat from even attempting to secure a popular majority in favor of using the geographic leverage created by the Electoral College has resulted in a growing suspicion of majoritarianism itself.
Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah was blunt in his criticism:
Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.
— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) October 8, 2020
While it’s true that illiberal or “rank” democracy can lead to “tyranny of the majority,” it’s also true that democratic processes—tempered by liberal and countermajoritarian institutions—are still the best way for a republic to discern the common good. It’s a short step from denigrating democracy to replacing “We the People” with a magisterium.
Another part of the answer is that our politics have been corrupted by a celebration of a “will to power” that is heedless of basic principles. There will always be hypocrites, but at least the hypocrite wishes to be seen as virtuous. Some Americans have gone from trying to conceal their vices to wearing them as badges of honor.
Using raw political power to overturn a democratic election is the ultimate triumph of political vice, and a logical consequence of win-at-all-costs “wartime conservatism.”
We also don’t get here without the assent of the vast majority of elected Republicans and their conservative enablers. These putative leaders have given fuel to the president’s antidemocratic effort by either refusing to acknowledge Joe Biden as president-elect or promoting the baseless claim that fraud changed the outcome of the election.
We aren’t just talking about the usual lunatic fringe.
The senior House Republican, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, suggested that Donald Trump could only have lost re-election because of widespread fraud, telling Fox News “what’s very interesting here and shows more of the fraud: Not one Republican incumbent lost. . . . How would President Trump lose in an atmosphere like that?”
Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson criticized Attorney General Bill Barr for concluding that the election outcome was unaffected by widespread fraud.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul tweeted a “just asking questions” link to a statistical analysis supposedly indicating that only fraud could explain “data dumps” favoring Joe Biden’s election victory.
These Republican leaders may not be full-fledged enemies of democracy, but by giving aid and comfort to those who seek to overturn the result, they’re no friends of the republic either.
It’s also worth taking a moment to make clear that there is no modern precedent for overturning a clearly decided American election. The much whatabouted “Hamilton Electors” effort in 2016 was a naïve appeal to individual conscience, not an attempt to forcibly replace Trump-committed electors altogether. And either way, it was not endorsed or promoted by the losing candidate.
Yes, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Stephanie Tubbs-Jones objected to seating George W. Bush-pledged electors from the state of Ohio in the 2004 election, but as Rep. Jones explained, “this objection does not have at its root the hope or even the hint of overturning the victory of the president; but it is a necessary, timely, and appropriate opportunity to review and remedy the most precious process in our democracy.”
Consider also the impact of a defeated party advocating the use of political force to overturn a clearly decided election on the body politic.
If no political price is paid by the president and his cadres, what then? There is moral hazard for a republic that imposes no meaningful consequence on those who would destroy it from within.
Even if the president fails to overturn his election defeat, the mere attempt presents a Rubicon-like test for our republic. A line has been crossed, and it is important that those who wish for the nation to long endure push back.
The saboteurs who have struck at the heart of our democracy should be considered politically—if not morally—irredeemable. They should be pariahs, marked forever, as if they had sworn allegiance to an adversarial regime.
A republic that respects itself should remember where people stood in this moment, and keep those who would threaten it far from the instruments of political power.
We must never forget.