The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’re in danger of losing our democracy. Most Americans are in denial.

President Donald Trump delivers remarks after a lunch with Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Republicans in January 2019. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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It has been stirring to see so many Americans come together to support Ukraine’s fight for freedom. But it is dismaying to see that there is no similar consensus on defending democracy at home. Indeed, much of the country remains in denial about the threat.

A year after the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol, a CNN poll asked whether it’s likely “that, in the next few years, some elected officials will successfully overturn the results of an election.” Fifty-one percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats said it’s not at all likely. Only 46 percent of Democrats and independents said that U.S. democracy is under attack, which helps to explain why Democratic candidates aren’t campaigning on defending democracy.

This reminds me of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denying before Feb. 24 that a Russian invasion was imminent and telling people not to “panic” even as Russian armies were massing in plain sight. Panic is generally a bad idea, but sometimes it is warranted. Now is one of those times for anyone who cares about the fate of U.S. democracy.

Republicans have succeeded in restricting voting rights in 19 states. Democrats have failed to protect voting rights at the national level because they can’t break a Senate filibuster. Meanwhile at least 23 supporters of the "big lie" — which holds that the 2020 election was stolen from former president Donald Trump — are running for secretary of state posts to oversee elections in 19 states. Other election deniers are joining election boards.

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Fealty to the "big lie" has become a litmus test for GOP candidates because it has become gospel for Republican voters. More than 70 percent of Republicans regard Biden’s victory as illegitimate. Despite all the damning details that have emerged about Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, the former president remains the dominant figure within the GOP, which means that most Republicans have tacitly accepted that inciting an insurrection is no big deal.

Look at what just happened in Ohio’s U.S. Senate primary: J.D. Vance, who had been languishing in third place, won the nomination after Trump endorsed him. A fervent, born-again Trumpkin, Vance told a Vanity Fair reporter that Trump supporters “should seize the institutions of the left” and launch a “de-woke-ification program” modeled on de-Baathification in Iraq. (That worked so well, right?) He says that if Trump wins again in 2024, he should “fire … every civil servant” and “replace them with our people.” If the courts try to stand in the way, ignore them. As Vanity Fair noted, “This is a description, essentially, of a coup.”

If Trump wins again, he undoubtedly will be eager to implement such an authoritarian agenda. We continually learn more about his deranged desires, which were only thwarted by the kind of responsible officeholders who will never get appointed in another Trump term.

Mark T. Esper, Trump’s former defense secretary, writes that Trump wanted to shoot peaceful protesters and launch missiles at Mexico. “He is an unprincipled person who, given his self-interest, should not be in the position of public service,” Esper concludes. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, says that having Trump back in the White House would threaten U.S. national security. Trump’s former communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, tweets, “Anyone who worked for Trump knows he is a maniac.”

Yet nearly 70 percent of Republicans want this “maniac” to run again in 2024. If he does run, he will win the nomination — and on the present trajectory (with inflation spiking and Biden’s approval rating plunging) he has a good chance to win the White House.

His “trump card,” so to speak, is the House, which is likely to be under GOP control after the midterms. CNBC founder Tom Rogers and former Democratic senator Timothy E. Wirth point out in Newsweek that controlling the House would allow Trump to steal the presidency if the election is close.

Republican state legislatures in swing states that Biden (or another Democrat) narrowly wins can claim the results are fraudulent and send in competing slates of electors pledged to Trump. The House and Senate would then vote on which electors to accept. Even if the Senate remains Democratic, a GOP-controlled House could prevent Biden from getting the 270 electoral votes needed to win. It would then fall to the House to decide the presidency.

A majority of House Republicans already voted in 2020 to throw out electoral college votes for Biden. Even more are likely to do so in 2024 after four years of Trumpist purges. With the support of the Jan. 6 Republicans, the orange emperor can waltz back into the White House and finish destroying U.S. democracy.

There is no plausible electoral college reform bill that could avert such a catastrophe. The only way to save democracy is to vote for Democrats in the fall. And I say that as an ex-Republican turned independent. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with Democrats on some issues. The overriding issue is the preservation of our democracy.

That might sound hyperbolic to some — but that’s precisely the problem. Like so many Ukrainians before Feb. 24, most Americans remain in denial about the threat to our country.