Wake Up, Democrats, You're Fighting the Last War

The biggest threat to American democracy is what happens after elections, not before

Let’s face some difficult facts:

Trump tried to steal the election, which culminated in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. It may have been a crazy long shot, but it wasn’t a joke. And it wasn’t just a means to solicit donations (though it was that too). Recent reports that Chair of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley worried enough about a coup that he planned with other generals to refuse to go along with one is the latest in a mountain of evidence that Trump probably would have clung to power if he could have figured out how.

Central to Trump’s effort was a firehose of lies, distortions, and conspiracy theories attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and the U.S. electoral system in general. Those attacks began well before November 2020, and accelerated after. Since leaving office, he’s doubled down.

The Republican Party has rallied around Trump’s lies, rather than reject them. In an Ipsos/Reuters poll from May, over half of Republicans said the election was “the result of illegal voting or election rigging,” despite no evidence. A subset is probably signaling partisan loyalty rather than expressing true belief, but there’s no effective difference. It’s not even much of a fight, as most Republican officials and right-wing media figures either push the “Big Lie” or keep quiet about it.

And it’s not just words. In January, ten House Republicans voted to impeach Trump for incitement to insurrection. In June, just two House Republicans voted for a committee to investigate the Capitol attack.

One of them was Liz Cheney, whom Republicans removed from House leadership because she wouldn’t stop speaking truthfully about January 6 and Trump’s role in it. This reduced her influence in GOP circles and created a litmus test Republicans have been loathe to fail.

Perhaps most concerningly, the right-wing narrative about January 6 has shifted from downplaying it as a peaceful protest that got a little out of hand, falsely blaming any violence on Antifa agitators, and trying to whatabout it away with comparisons to riots in U.S. cities last summer, to celebrating the attackers. In particular, they’ve turned insurrectionist and QAnon believer Ashli Babbitt — killed by an officer in the Capitol when she climbed through the window of a barricaded door near where elected officials were hiding — into a martyr.

“Who shot Ashli Babbitt?” has become a Trumpist slogan. Speakers at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) portrayed people in jail for crimes conducted on January 6 as political prisoners. Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose large fundraising from small donors show she’s in tune with the party base, compared Babbitt to George Floyd and demanded justice. “Who was the person who shot an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman?” Trump asked on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox Business show, before lying that it was a Democrat’s security detail. (It wasn’t)

All of this — denying 2020 results, attacking the legitimacy of American elections, celebrating people who attacked the Capitol to thwart the peaceful transfer of power — adds up to a significant threat to U.S. Constitutional democracy. As David Frum noted in the Atlantic: “What the United States did not have before 2020 was a large national movement willing to justify mob violence to claim political power. Now it does.”

History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, But it Often Rhymes

Nazi comparisons are considered bad form, but it’s hard not to see parallels. Germany’s right-wing nationalist populist movement gained some power electorally, then suffered an electoral setback and attempted a haphazard attempt to seize power in the “Beer Hall Putsch,” where Nazis marched in central Munich and fought police, leading to multiple deaths. Afterwards, Hitler was unapologetic, arguing that his actions were justified because the elected leaders were illegitimate. The Nazis later turned a previously unknown brownshirt named Horst Wessel into a martyr after he was killed by two members of the Communist Party.

This doesn’t mean Trump is Hitler. (He definitely isn’t. Hitler wrote a book calling for genocide; Trump put his name on ghostwritten books about deals. Hitler never won executive power electorally; Trump did and then lost it.) It means the power dynamics show enough similarities that it’s prudent to think about how to avoid the next stage, an American version of the Nazis winning a plurality in parliamentary elections nine years after their failed putsch, and seizing power six months later.

Concerning historical analogies abound. Gen. Milley also made Nazi comparisons, fearing in January that Trump was inciting violence in an echo of the Reichstag fire (an attack on the German legislature that Hitler used as a pretext). David Frum sees some similarities in Peron’s Argentina. In the comparison closest to home, The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie finds parallels in the post-Civil War South, as many Confederate leaders, who mostly went unpunished, “moved smoothly from open rebellion to opposition to Reconstruction to serving as propagandists for what would become the ‘Lost Cause.’”

None of these analogies are exact. 21st century America is in better shape than 20th century Germany or Argentina, or the 19th century South. (Though none of them had the internet.) But the U.S. is experiencing something closer to these slides into authoritarianism than a supporter of American democracy should find comfortable. 

This is an unusual time in U.S. history — when has a large American political movement had a martyr, let alone one killed by a police officer while participating in a violent attack on the U.S. government? — and pro-democracy Americans would be wise to act like it. The Trumpist movement, which dominates the Republican Party, has shown it does not respect, and if anything disdains, the basic principles of Constitutional democracy. Their words and actions indicate they are willing, even eager, to discard norms, and to manipulate — or, if they can get away with it, ignore — laws to get power. We’ve seen losing candidates complain about election results before, but modern America hasn’t seen anything close to this.

Taking it seriously means we should work to reduce the probability that these anti-democracy forces gain power. Draw lessons from historical comparisons and use this moment when a pro-democracy coalition has institutional power to strengthen the system against attack. And that means thinking about what the attackers are trying to do.

Understanding the Threat

Democrats have focused on what happens before elections, making voter suppression their top concern. As Big Lie-pushing Republicans pass bills that change election rules at the state level — nominally to fight mass voter fraud, an imaginary problem — Democrats have highlighted measures that make voting less convenient and disproportionately burden urban areas (which tend to have more minorities). Biden called Georgia’s new law “Jim Crow on steroids.”

That’s a gross exaggeration. The law makes voting less convenient than in 2020, especially in cities, but it’s no less convenient, or in some aspects more, than in 2018. New restrictions, such as Georgia curtailing the number of ballot drop boxes and Texas trying to ban drive-through voting, are driven by lies about these methods, which have proven as secure as others. That’s wrong on principle — voting should be convenient for everyone — but it’s unlikely to impact outcomes, especially without a pandemic.

When Georgia passed the law in March, Democrats fixated on rules restricting the ability to hand out water bottles within 150 feet of a polling place. Proponents claim that counters last-ditch attempts to buy votes; opponents claim it burdens voters stuck on long lines in densely populated areas (which are disproportionately black). However, even assuming the worst, it’s obnoxious, but not a major threat to democracy. How many people go to the polls and leave because the line is long, but would have stayed and voted if someone gave them a water bottle?

Democrats are right to oppose burdens on voting, especially when those burdens fall disproportionately. As Adam Serwer explains, political parties are power-seeking organizations, and disenfranchising a wide swath of black citizens after Reconstruction made it so neither party valued them.

Opposition isn’t futile. Public pressure got Republicans in Georgia and Texas to drop restrictions on Sunday early voting, which seemed targeted at black churches’ “souls to the polls” events.

And yet, voter suppression is not the main danger of Republicans’ anti-democracy strategy. That’s the last war. Still ongoing, still worth fighting, but sometimes overstated, and not what makes this moment uniquely concerning. The big danger is what happens after the election.

We know how to counter disproportionate burdens on voting. Educate people and get out the vote, including with door-to-door volunteers. “They’re trying to take away your rights, don’t let them” is a good motivator.

But election officials throwing out enough votes to swing their state, legislatures overruling their voters and supporting a different presidential candidate at the Electoral College, and Congress refusing to recognize the results would be uncharted territory. In 2020, Trump and his allies tried all three.

Defending Democracy

The Republican Party has rallied around the idea that Trump’s effort to overturn the election was justified. That it is entitled to power, even if it cannot win electoral majorities. That its opponents are inherently illegitimate. That incessant lies about observable facts, even violence against the government, are acceptable. And that means they’ll probably try again.

The other potential avenues to overthrow democracy are the military and the courts, and both held in 2020. Trump’s lawsuits lost badly, and talk of martial law went nowhere. It is important to shore up these institutions —as Greg Sargent argues in the Washington Post, it’s too risky for democracy to “depend on the individual virtue of key actors” —and we should push back against attempts to politicize the military by dragging it into domestic concerns, whether civil unrest or culture war squabbles. But these aren’t the weak points.

The main vulnerability is state governments. Red and purple state Republicans have worked to sideline officials who thwarted Trump’s theft, and have passed measures that make a similar steal attempt more likely to succeed. As I wrote previously, the worst part of Georgia’s new law is the gerrymandered, Republican-controlled legislature giving itself more power over elections at the expense of both statewide and county-level officials, including more power to decide what counts as fraud. Sponsors openly state that they would have used this power to throw out votes from Atlanta-area counties in 2020.

The other vulnerability is Congress, as bloodily revealed on January 6. To address that, reform the Electoral Count Act. As Mona Charen argues in The Bulwark, it’s a poorly written law, giving one representative and one senator the power to object to counting a state’s electoral votes, and simple majorities the power to reject them. That’s way too easy to abuse. Reform the law to clarify that the vice president’s role is ceremonial — he reads what the Electoral College gives him, and he can’t stop the process by refusing — and raise the threshold for objections and rejection.

President Biden gave a speech this week about voting rights and democracy, and to his credit he discussed the threat of election subversion after the vote, in addition to suppression beforehand. But Biden’s proposed solution was to pass HR1, a grab bag of liberal election reforms that looks dead in the Senate, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which addresses things before elections, not after.

As Perry Bacon Jr. notes, forcing reluctant Democrats to vote on the bill has some political value, even if the bill fails. But advocates who saw HR1 as the way to “get money out of politics” should recognize that American democracy has more immediate concerns. It’s important to use this time to address vulnerabilities, even if it’s partial.

For example, Congress could pass a law saying that states’ Electoral College votes have to match the state’s popular vote. Unlike more contentious parts of HR1, this wouldn’t transform U.S. elections; it merely codifies existing practice. (But it would likely face challenge in court. As Sargent recommends, giving judges, rather than local officials, the job of certifying election results would be an indirect path to a similar goal).

Another to consider: Instead of opposing voter ID rules — which progressives call racist because older black and indigenous people are disproportionately less likely to have one—push to get everyone a government ID. That would reduce racial inequality, and remove a potent source of Republican attacks.

A June 21 Monmouth poll found that 80 percent of Americans support requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot, including 62 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of independents. Voting is a right — not a privilege like, say, driving a car — but most Americans have ID, and have to show it for less important things than voting. Democrats opposing this popular provision provides fuel for conspiracy theories. Taking it off the table won’t mollify hardcore partisans, and true believers will adjust, but it would make their arguments resonate less with the persuasive parts of the public.

An election bill that reforms the Electoral Count Act, matches electoral vote to state-level popular vote, implements ID requirements, and funds programs to get everyone an ID might get bipartisan support. While Republicans logically oppose DC statehood or ending partisan gerrymandering because those would reduce their power within American democracy, the only reason they’d oppose this election reform is to maintain ambiguities to abuse.

Ten or more Republican Senators might get on board, since the voter ID provisions will be popular, and reforming the Electoral Count Act would reduce the likelihood an angry mob threatens their lives in January 2025. If the GOP unites against such common sense, pro-democracy reforms, that would be a good argument for changing filibuster rules so a simple majority can pass it.

But as long as Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, or any other Democratic Senator continues to stand against using Democrats’ single-vote Senate majority to reform the filibuster, the best thing the party can do is buck historical trends and gain seats in the midterms.

Either way, pro-democracy Americans should focus on the biggest threat to U.S. democracy: overturning results after elections.