That is an important truth. But Lamb’s speech also captured something even more essential about this perilous moment, something that explains why the movement that Trump has unleashed may continue to pose a serious threat to self rule and civil order going forward.
Lamb blamed these Republicans’ ideas for inciting mob violence.
“That attack today — it didn’t materialize out of nowhere,” Lamb said. “It was inspired by lies — the same lies that you’re hearing in this room tonight. And the members who are repeating those lies should be ashamed of themselves. Their constituents should be ashamed of them.”
This is correct: Many of the lies Republicans told during the debate — poll watchers didn’t observe vote-counting; there was mass fraud — are ones Trump has recycled to claim the election was stolen from him, which drove the mob assault.
But Lamb said something else that should nag at us as well.
“I came here tonight to talk about the place I represent, and how well the Democratic and Republican county officials ran our election,” Lamb said. In Allegheny County, he noted, “there were 31 video cameras — 31! — in the same place, just showing people counting votes, every single one of them on paper, with representatives from both campaigns watching.”
Lamb also noted that the election in Pennsylvania had unfolded under a system that the state’s Republican legislators had set up.
Underlying these simple declarations is a disturbing notion: No matter how hard the countless ordinary men and women of all political persuasions running our elections worked in good faith to ensure its fairness and legitimacy, it was inevitably never going to be deemed enough.
The Trump movement’s ethos
The movement that has formed around the lie that the election was fraudulent imposes on itself no binding obligation of any kind to recognize the reality of what actually happened. We need to understand this as a foundational principle: This movement does not view itself as bound by an election’s legitimate outcome.
That’s why this debate, I think, often has an air of people talking past one another. When Democrats, principled Republicans and journalists point out the facts about the election’s legitimacy, it ricochets off the bubble this movement has constructed around itself.
The lies this movement tells about the election aren’t meant as real arguments. They are that bubble, the outer rhetorical fortress inside which the movement’s genuine convictions sit protected and undisturbed.
Those convictions are as follows: The election should be overturned because Trump and his coalition are supposed to have won and supposed to remain in power, because their voters are entitled to legitimate political representation and the opposition’s are not.
Where the dozens of Republicans who voted for objections to Biden’s electors sit in relation to this foundational idea is hard to say. Politicians inevitably must resort to artifice in one way or another about their actual beliefs.
But here’s what we do know: They did not take this opportunity to reaffirm the truth about this election’s outcome, thus allowing this movement’s extremism to go unrebutted by them at the most critical moment of all. They indulged and validated these seditious tendencies, even after they incited insurrectionist mob violence.
This will stay with us. Going forward, Lamb predicted, those claiming the election was illegitimate “will make the same arguments.” And Lamb added that his rebuttals were not intended for those people, but rather for those watching at home.
That’s an important statement that this movement is unpersuadable precisely because it is operating in impenetrable bad faith. And it will continue to do so.
It’s important to understand this as a breakdown of relations among citizens. In a forthcoming essay, the Niskanen Center’s Brink Lindsey will argue that a restoration of “democratic civic virtue” is in order after Trump.
This has one principle as its hallmark: “Treat all your fellow citizens, regardless of their political views, as your civic and political equals.“
This means you don’t get to say that an election’s outcome is illegitimate simply because you lost it — not just because it’s a lie that imperils democracy and civil peace, but also because it constitutes an act of very deep contempt for your fellow citizens.
In a sense, as David French suggests, when public officials adopt this stance, they are even showing contempt for their own voters. They are telling them they have no obligation to the truth or to treat their fellow citizens as equals, instead of showing them the respect of leveling with them in the expectation that they have the capacity and desire to remain faithful to higher democratic ideals.
The way forward is unclear. John Ganz raises the prospect of a “permanent anti-democratic radical right” that will continue to “precipitate serious crises.” Accountability is required, starting with the removal of Trump and some form of censure for public officials enabling his sedition.
“The people have made this country work by not giving in,” Lamb told Congress, meaning not giving in to enemies of democracy. “We want this government to work more than they want it to fail.”
Lamb’s answer, then, is that pro-democracy forces have deeper convictions and are more numerous than the anti-democracy forces are. But is that really enough? And how much damage will be done by those anti-democracy forces going forward?
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