Letters From an American

Fighting for Democracy Itself

Fighting for Democracy Itself

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump delivers his acceptance speech on July 21, the last night of the Republican National Convention, in Cleveland. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

January 4, 2021

There is a frantic feeling in the political air as stories fly around: the leader of the Proud Boys has been arrested in Washington, D.C.; senators will contest the counting of electoral votes; Georgia election officials destroy Trump’s accusations of a fraudulent election.

In the storm of news it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, but here’s the bottom line: we are right now fighting over whether or not America will be a democracy. On the one hand are Americans, Republicans as well as Democrats, who might agree on virtually nothing else, standing on the reality that Democrat Joe Biden won the 2020 election fair and square, and by a significant amount, and are recognizing that he is the president-elect. On the other hand are Trump and his supporters, who are arguing without any evidence that the president has somehow been cheated of reelection, and who are using the uncertainty their own words have created to argue that the election now must be reexamined.

Those recognizing that Biden won and demanding an end to the Republican assault on the election are a broad and growing group. Today, Republican Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling held a press conference outlining, again, how the president’s accusations of fraud in the election are lies. “This is all easily, provably false,” Sterling said. Sterling was visibly angry and frustrated at having to explain what really happened, yet again.

Sterling felt obliged to hold the press conference after yesterday’s release of the recording of an extraordinary phone call Trump placed to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Saturday, in which the president urged Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes to swing the state—which Biden won by 11,779 votes– into Trump’s column. Today we learned that Trump tried 18 times to reach Raffensperger before finally getting him on the phone. Representatives Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Kathleen Rice (D-NY) wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray today to ask him to “open an immediate criminal investigation into the President” for committing election crimes.

Democratic lawmakers, of course, are defending Biden’s election, but so are a number of Republicans. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), for example, oppose the attempt to overturn the election through congressional action because they note that the whole point of the twentieth-century conservative movement was to reduce the power of the federal government and give it back to the states. To take from the states the power to choose a president, the most fundamental power in our democracy, would be an unprecedented assumption of power by the federal government, and could not be easily reversed.

Other Republicans are standing on the principle of democracy. Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) called Trump’s phone call a “new low in this whole futile and sorry episode.” Cheney called the call “deeply troubling” and said people should listen to the full recording. Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) called the call “absolutely appalling” and tweeted, “To every member of Congress considering objecting to the election results, you cannot—in light of this—do so with a clean conscience.”

Today former Senator John C. Danforth (R-MO), who has supported the political career of Josh Hawley, the first senator to back Trump’s challenge, rejected the effort to challenge the electoral college votes. “Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen is a highly destructive attack on our constitutional government. It is the opposite of conservative; it is radical….”

These lawmakers were joined today by a group of about 200 business and legal leaders from JetBlue, Goldman Sachs, Lyft, the NBA, and so on. They signed a letter condemning attempts to “thwart or delay” the process of counting the electoral votes as a threat “to the essential tenets of our democracy.” Biden and Harris won the election, the letter notes, and courts have rejected challenges to that election. “The incoming Biden administration faces the urgent tasks of defeating COVID-19 and restoring the livelihoods of millions of Americans who have lost jobs and businesses during the pandemic. Our duly elected leaders deserve the respect and bipartisan support of all Americans at a moment when we are dealing with the worst health and economic crises in modern history. There should be no further delay in the orderly transfer of power.”

But a group of Republican lawmakers has signed on to Trump’s attempt to overturn the election and stay in power, and Trump’s phone call has not changed their minds. More than 100 members of the House of Representatives will challenge the acceptance of electoral votes for Biden and, when asked their position on the phone call in which Trump tried to strong-arm an election official into cheating, dismissed it as “frustration” or attacked the stories about the recording as “one-sided.” (The recording and the transcript were released in full.)

At least 14 senators, led by Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) will also reject the electoral votes for Biden from states Trump claims, without evidence, to have won. The two Republican Senators in Georgia, in a fight for reelection, have now signed onto the effort, although it means they are saying that the voters in their own state should be overruled in their choice for president.

The situation in Georgia today got even more chaotic as the U.S. Attorney in Atlanta, Byung Pak, abruptly announced his departure today, instead of January 20, as he had previously announced. Tierney Sneed of Talking Points Memo broke the story. She noted that Pak cited only “unforeseen circumstances” for his sudden decision, and that neither the Department of Justice nor the White House would comment.

Trump has rallied his supporters to go to Washington, D.C., to protest on Wednesday, January 6, as Congress counts the electoral college votes to make Biden’s win official. Today, the leader of the far-right Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, arrived in Washington, D.C., where he was promptly arrested for destruction of property during his last visit to the city when he burned a Black Lives Matter banner protestors pulled down from the historic Asbury United Methodist Church. After his arrest, law enforcement officers found he was carrying two high-capacity firearms magazines.

As his supporters dwindle, the president is defending his performance in office. Today, he gave the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to one of his staunchest allies, Devin Nunes (R-CA). Trump accompanied the award with a self-serving statement rehashing his own version of the Russia scandal, which has been debunked by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee. Nunes, Trump said, “had the fortitude to take on the media, the FBI, the Intelligence Community, the Democrat [sic] Party, foreign spies, and the full power of the Deep State.”

As Trump has focused on stealing the election and justifying his conduct in office, his administration officials have been trying to hamstring the incoming Biden administration. Today, for example, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule limiting the scientific research that can go into public health regulations.

The chaos in our government is having serious real-world repercussions. The rollout for the coronavirus vaccine has been deeply flawed, even as our infection and death numbers are spiking so badly that, in Los Angeles County, for example, there is a shortage of oxygen and ambulance crews have been instructed not to transport to hospitals patients whose hearts have stopped and cannot be restarted by the crews. The chaos also means that other countries are exploiting our weakness: today Iran began to enrich its stock of uranium to 20% purity, levels that had been prohibited under the 2015 nuclear agreement Trump ended. It also seized a tanker operating under the flag of U.S. ally South Korea.

Writing on Twitter about tomorrow’s runoff elections in Georgia, which will determine which party controls the Senate, former President Barack Obama warned that Trump and his supporters are threatening “the fundamental principles of our democracy.” Obama went on to identify what at stake in Trump’s effort to stay in office despite his election loss: “Our democracy isn’t about any individual,” he wrote, “even a president.”

Our democracy, he wrote, is “about you.”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.