How the Loser Becomes the Winner
Facing a nihilistic, anti-democratic opponent that's plotting the next coup, America's one governing party faces a real emergency
Stories and essays about the dangers facing our democracy have been piling up. Maybe you’ve grown weary of them. Maybe you wish there was less doom and gloom. Maybe it seems to you we should stay focused on the myriad accomplishments of the Biden Administration rather than get dragged down by grim tales of villainy and violence.
This perspective is easy to understand—and I believe it’s critical that we not lose sight of the life-altering spending bills that have passed so far, the best one-year jobs record in US history, a vaccination program that has saved countless lives, and a US President who leads with empathy, humanity, respect for human life and a desire to improve the lives of everyday Americans struggling to get by.
But in the split-screen reality that defines present-day America, it’s not hard to see that there is a methodical effort underway to bring democracy and the will of the people to an end. In the 11 months since the January 6 insurrection and coup attempt, anti-democratic forces have not been slowed by the violence, criminality and death of that horrific day.
Rather, they’ve taken their proximity to victory in overturning the will of the people and overthrowing the government as a green light to plot the next coup attempt. This has been aided by the ability to gum up and slow down the courts, the apparent reluctance of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice to aggressively confront and prosecute the coup’s plotters and inciters, and the failure of Democrats to fully recognize the democratic emergency and meet fire with fire.
As staff writer Barton Gellman soberly, incisively details in his latest cover story for The Atlantic, “If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the desired effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect.”
Backed by national leadership—and successfully convincing a majority of Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen by tyrannical, corrupt Democrats—elected state operatives are determined to win by any means necessary. Gellman writes:
“Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.'“
And it’s not just the destruction of an election apparatus dependent on non-partisan participants committed to free and fair elections, a foundational principle of democracy. As Gellman explains in painfully vivid terms, the former occupant of the White House has succeeded in inciting tens of millions of Americans, riddled with grievance, convinced of their righteousness and unwilling to listen to facts or reason.
“Trump has reconquered his party by setting its base on fire. Tens of millions of Americans perceive their world through black clouds of his smoke. His deepest source of strength is the bitter grievance of Republican voters that they lost the White House, and are losing their country, to alien forces with no legitimate claim to power. This is not some transient or loosely committed population. Trump has built the first American mass political movement in the past century that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause.”
I encourage you to give a read to Gellman’s full piece. After all, he’s the journalist who presciently published a cover story six weeks before the 2020 vote entitled “The Election that Could Break America,” subtitled thusly: “If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?”
But before I turn to President Biden and his two-day international Summit for Democracy that concludes today, consider two alarming snapshots proffered by Gellman that surely have heightened my sense that we are running out of time to confront this growing danger. One concerns the deepening acceptance of—or attraction to—violence as a legitimate response. The other concerns the forces that are being marshaled to make the will of the people a quaint concept in a faded experiment.
Gellman describes research conducted after the January 6 attack by the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST), directed by Robert Pape, a scholar who studies the intersection of warfare and politics. In March, the researchers identified 4 percent of Americans, roughly 10 million adults, who said they “don’t trust the election results” and would join a protest “even if I thought the protest might turn violent.”
Several months later in June, the CPOST researchers identified a hardening population of American adults who distrusted the election outcome, agreed that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president”—and more, agreed that “the use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.”
And while the researchers assumed this more violent rhetoric would shrink the support, they found the opposite. As Gellman explains, “the more extreme the sentiments, the greater the number of respondents who endorsed them.” Now over 8 percent agreed violence was justified to install the cheated Trump, representing some 21 million American adults. Pape’s description of this dangerous crowd: “committed insurrectionists.”
Pape offered one more crucial insight. Of those 21 million, there was one other statement that evoked their overwhelming support: “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.” Those who feared that people of color would replace the white population—the so-called Great Replacement Theory—were nearly four times more likely to support the violent removal of the legitimately elected President Biden.
As alarming as the notion of these millions ready for violent overthrow is (even though they represent an angry, aggrieved minority), the institutional disruptions may represent the deeper danger. Trumpists are provoking Republican election officials who stood up to the demand to commit criminal fraud on behalf of their hero to quit their posts. States like Georgia have already passed laws enabling their legislatures to overrule and deny the popular vote. And, with the apparent backing of the Supreme Court, Gellman explains,
“Republicans are promoting an “independent state legislature” doctrine, which holds that statehouses have “plenary,” or exclusive, control of the rules for choosing presidential electors. Taken to its logical conclusion, it could provide a legal basis for any state legislature to throw out an election result it dislikes and appoint its preferred electors instead.”
And what of the increasingly partisan Supreme Court, backed by the Federalist Society? “Four justices—Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas—have already signaled support for a doctrine that disallows any such deviation from the election rules passed by a state legislature.”
With about 80 world leaders attending the virtual summit on democracy hosted by the US, Biden said yesterday that "in the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy and universal human rights all around the world, democracy needs champions.”
He talked about the need to stand up for justice, free speech, free assembly, free press, freedom of religion and the rule of law. Referencing pending federal voting rights legislation in the US—the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act—he asserted that the responsibility is to make it “easy for people to vote, not harder. And that's going to remain a priority for my administration until we get it done.”
In a nod to January 6, Biden said: "Here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort." Solid words, but lacking a reference to the need to end the filibuster if there’s going to be a fighting chance to fend off the GOP plot intended to toss aside democracy once and for all. Butter knives will not defeat a nihilistic opponent armed to the teeth with a variety of weapons built for destruction.
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Addendum: The American Civil Liberties Union, founded a century ago in 1920, is one of the nation’s most important organizations fighting against voter suppression with advocacy and litigation. This involvement in the fundamental right to cast a ballot follows the ACLU’s long-held commitment to advocating for Black people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities.