The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s desperate antics expose a big hole in our discussion of democracy

President Trump speaks in Valdosta, Ga., on Saturday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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As President Trump engages in one final push to overturn the election results, an unhelpful way of making sense of what’s happening has emerged. Let’s call it the “Republican voters really believe the election was stolen from Trump!” discourse.

In furtherance of this, reporters regularly canvass the views of GOP voters who say they simply do not believe President-elect Joe Biden really won. Pundits hand-wring over polls showing they are unshakably convinced Trump is the rightful winner.

But in an important sense, it doesn’t matter what Republican voters say they believe. What matters is that many of them are entirely willing to support specific concrete actions to steal the election on Trump’s behalf.

What Republican voters think, or say they think, about who really won matters less than the fact that, as a consequence, they actively want their elected representatives to subvert our democracy and keep Trump in power illegitimately.

The Post has an extraordinary report on Trump’s last-ditch effort to persuade Pennsylvania state legislators to appoint a pro-Trump slate of electors, in direct defiance of the state’s clear popular vote outcome.

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Of course, what Trump is doing doesn’t matter much. The “safe harbor” deadline is Tuesday, which obliges Congress to recognize the electors that states have certified by now, essentially locking in Biden’s victory in the electoral college.

But what does matter is what many Republican voters want to see happen now.

The MAGA march on D.C. showed Trump supporters are not a monolith, but their dedication to the president is singular. (Video: The Washington Post)

For instance, The Post reports, protesters have descended on the houses of the GOP state House speaker in Pennsylvania and the Democratic secretary of state in Michigan, chanting, “Stop the steal.” Some have been armed.

That Pennsylvania official has received thousands and thousands of voice mails, prompting his office to describe the pressure on him as “intense.” And the Michigan secretary of state has said her 4-year-old child felt threatened.

More broadly, as Reuters reports, “Elections officials across the United States” have described a “tide of intimidation, harassment and outright threats.”

Meanwhile, dozens of low-level state legislators in Pennsylvania — apparently reflecting the will of their voters — have called on Congress to object to the pro-Biden electors when Congress counts the electoral college votes.

These actions do not reflect a mere belief about who won the election. They constitute a series of demands for active moves of one sort or another.

Their general thrust is that Republican legislators should appoint pro-Trump electors — in direct defiance of their own state laws stipulating that electors are chosen by popular vote. Or that Congress should reject legitimate electors. Or that Democratic officials should not certify the popular vote outcomes in their states.

It doesn’t matter if these demands are bound to fail, though that’s a relief. What matters is that they are demands that elected officials act outside the law to overturn the election’s true and legitimate outcome, to keep Trump in power extralegally.

Whatever those calling for such actions really “believe,” the more important point is that they are explicitly declaring that the rules governing how election results are determined under fraught conditions are entirely disposable when they produce unwanted outcomes.

To be fair, it’s not clear how many Republican voters really think it would be acceptable for the results to be actively nullified. To my knowledge, that question has not been polled. Only what they believe about who won has been polled. Let’s poll both questions.

And there is a place for discussing what Republican voters believe about the election, since it sets up the prospect of a kind of Lost Cause of Trumpism betrayal myth taking hold for years. I’ve been guilty of this focus myself.

But I’ve come to believe this focus is insufficient. The neglect of the active demands for a nullified election these Republican voters are making — granting, again, that it’s unclear how many really want this — is confusing the public discussion about what’s happening.

First, as Jonathan Chait points out, “responsible” conservative voices are seeking to mitigate the importance of what we’re seeing by claiming that there have been conspiracy theories on the left about electoral outcomes they don’t like.

While that’s true about the left, a clearer focus on the GOP base’s calls for active nullification should show even more starkly how asymmetrical the two parties’ attitudes toward hated electoral outcomes have truly grown.

Press critic Jay Rosen has called for more media coverage of what he calls “Frankenstein base” stories, in which Trump’s deceiving of his base into believing him the rightful winner is depicted unflinchingly. I’d argue the focus also needs to be on the apparent willingness to overturn undesirable electoral outcomes.

Second, the public discussion has distorted how hideously irresponsible it is for GOP elected officials to feed these impulses.

It’s often said that Republicans are merely validating Trump’s lies about the election to humor him or create a bridge to acceptance. But in Georgia, Sen. Kelly Loeffler is not just propping up those lies; she’s also suggesting that Trump’s effort to get state legislators to subvert the voting is absolutely legitimate. And very few elected Republicans have condemned that effort. That’s far worse.

And as Brian Beutler points out, those lies will all but certainly be employed to justify ever more stringent voter suppression efforts going forward. Being clearer about the nullification impulses we’re now seeing should help dispel any illusions about what’s coming on that front.

Finally, we’ll have to debate reforms that limit the possibility of anything like this happening again. This is no simple matter — it’s not clear how to prevent rogue state legislatures from doing this in the future if they do want to.

But to start this discussion, we need to be clearer on what it is that Republican voters are really demanding here. Let’s start now.

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