Letters From an American

Scorched Earth

Scorched Earth

There was a thundering silence from Republicans about the tax story, while Democrats expressed alarm at the dangers of a president exposed to more than $300 million in debt. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

November 20, 2020

The news today remains Trump’s unprecedented attempt to steal an election in which voters chose his opponents, Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, by close to 6 million votes, so far. A close second to that news is that the leadership of the Republican Party is not standing up to the president, but is instead seemingly willing to let him burn down the country to stay in office.

Never before in our history has a president who has lost by such a convincing amount tried to claw out a win by gaming the system. Biden has not only won the popular vote by more than any challenger of an incumbent since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s win in 1932, but also has won crucial states by large margins. He is ahead by more than 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, almost 160,000 votes in Michigan, and between 11,000 and 34,000 each in Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada.

And yet, only two Senate Republicans—Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Ben Sasse (R-NE)— have called Trump out for refusing to accept the results of the election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has simply said he is willing to let the process play out. In the House, only two Republicans have said they oppose Trump’s attempt to steal the election. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Fred Upton (R-MI) said there is no evidence of fraud and it is time to move on.

State leaders, though, have refused to do Trump’s bidding. Today, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, certified Georgia’s vote for Biden. Also today, two top Republicans in the Michigan legislature, whom Trump had invited to the White House apparently to enlist their help in overturning the vote in their state, issued a statement about what happened in their meeting with the president.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Michigan Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield said they used their time with the president to press him for more money to help Michigan fight the coronavirus, which continues to rage across the country.

As for the election, they said “We have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan and as legislative leaders, we will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors…. Michigan’s certification process should be a deliberate process free from threats and intimidation. Allegations of fraudulent behavior should be taken seriously, thoroughly investigated, and if proven, prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And the candidates who win the most votes win elections and Michigan’s electoral votes.”

Central to Trump’s argument is that Democrats have cheated, even though his own former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Christopher Krebs, said the election was “the most secure in American history,” and “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Krebs was the first director of CISA, an independent agency established within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018, and he worked hard to protect the election from foreign intervention despite the fact the president appeared to be angling for just such intervention.

Krebs’s defense of the security of our elections led to Trump firing him—by tweet—with Trump falsely asserting: “[t]he recent statement by Chris Krebs on the security of the 2020 Election was highly inaccurate, in that there were massive improprieties and fraud – including dead people voting, Poll Watchers not allowed into polling locations, ‘glitches’ in the voting machines which changed votes from Trump to Biden, late voting, and many more.”

Trump’s attempt to throw out Democratic votes and lay claim to victory in an election that he lost by quite a lot is the culmination of a generation of Republican rhetoric claiming that Democratic votes are illegitimate.

Beginning in 1986, Republican operatives began to talk about cutting down Black voting under a “ballot integrity” initiative in hopes that would depress Democratic votes. They bitterly opposed the Democrats’ expansion of voter registration in 1993 under the “Motor Voter” law, which permitted voter registration at certain state offices. By 1994, losing Republican candidates insisted that their Democratic opponents had won only through “voter fraud,” although voter fraud remains so exceedingly rare as to be virtually non-existent. They fought for voter ID laws that tended to disfranchise Democrats, and immediately after the landmark 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision in which the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Republican state officials introduced voter ID laws and bills restricting voter registration.

In addition to suppressing Democratic votes, recent Republican leaders also took the manipulative system of gerrymandering to new extremes in order to make sure Democrats could not win power. In 2010, party operatives raised money from corporate donors to make sure that state legislatures would be controlled by Republicans that year, as states redistricted for the following decade. After 2010, Republican controlled the key states of Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, and Michigan, as well as other, smaller states, and they redrew congressional maps using precise computer models. In the 2012 election, Democrats won the White House decisively, the Senate easily, and won a majority of 1.4 million votes for House candidates. But Republicans came away with a 33-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

Gerrymandering meant that Republicans did not have to attract moderate voters. Instead, Republican candidates had to worry about challenges from further right. Over time, they became more and more extreme. At the same time, without competition, they fielded increasingly weak candidates, who doubled down on inflammatory rhetoric rather than advancing viable policies.

Increasingly, Republicans insisted that Democrats were anti-American “socialists,” a theme Trump picked up and ran with in his 2020 construction of his opponents as “radical left” extremists who would destroy the country. Trump said “I’m not just running against Biden — Sleepy Joe — I’m running against the corrupt media, the big tech giants, the Washington swamp. And the Democrat Party is a part of all of them — every single one of them. They flood your communities with criminal aliens, drugs and crime, while they live behind beautiful gated compounds.” When the Democrats won, Trump promptly insisted that Democrats had cheated.

Aside from the outcome of this particular election, this attempt of Republican leaders to delegitimize the Democratic Party is an assault on our democracy. Here’s why:

Democracy requires at least two healthy political parties, so there is always an organized opposition to the party in power. Having a party that stands in opposition to those in power does two things: it enables people to disagree with current leadership while staying loyal to the nation, and it provides a means for oversight of the people running the government.

Until the early 1700s, in Europe, the monarch was the state. Either you were loyal to the king, or you were a traitor. Gradually, though, the British political thinkers from whom Americans drew their inspiration began to object to the policies of the British monarchy while remaining loyal to the government. They developed the idea of a loyal opposition. This was an important development in political thought, because it meant that a person could be loyal to the country (and keep his head firmly on his shoulders) while criticizing government policies.

It also meant that the people in power would have oversight to keep them on the straight and narrow. There’s nothing like opponents watching you for any potential scandal to keep corruption to a minimum.

During the establishment of the early American republic, the Framers of the Constitution briefly imagined that since the colonists had thrown off the king they would no longer need an opposition. But almost immediately—as early as President George Washington’s administration—men who disagreed with Washington’s policies organized their own party under Thomas Jefferson to oppose those in power. Jeffersonians offered to voters an alternative set of policies, and a way to put them into practice without overthrowing the government itself. This recognition of a loyal opposition was key to more than 200 years of peaceful transfers of power.…

until now.

Trump is rejecting the idea that Democrats can legally win an election. As this crisis drags on, more and more of his followers are echoing his insistence that the Democrats could not possibly win except by cheating. There is no evidence to support this claim. Trump’s lawyers have repeatedly admitted as much in court. It is rather a rejection of the possibility that Democrats can legitimately govern.

Our democracy depends on our ability both to criticize our government and to believe that we can legitimately elect a different set of leaders to advance different policies. If we lose the concept of a loyal opposition, we must all declare allegiance to the king.

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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.

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