The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Say it clearly: Republicans just nominated a pro-Trump insurrectionist

Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

For the love of democracy, please stop using the phrase “election denier.”

Now that Doug Mastriano has won the GOP nomination for governor in Pennsylvania, countless news accounts are describing him with that phrase. This is meant to convey the idea that Mastriano won’t accept Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential reelection loss.

That’s true, but it’s insufficient. Let’s state this plainly: Pennsylvania Republicans just nominated a full-blown insurrectionist who intends to use the power of the office to ensure that, as long as he is governor, no Democratic presidential candidate wins his state again.

Mastriano’s victory also highlights another story that’s bigger than this one contest: The role of Christian nationalism in fueling the growing insurrectionist streak on the right. This nexus underscores the danger this movement poses in a way that also demands more clarity about the worldview of candidates like Mastriano.

After Mastriano prevailed by double digits on Tuesday night, news accounts noted Mastriano’s key role in trying to overturn Trump’s loss. He helped bus in Trump supporters and attended the rally on Jan. 6, 2021; as state senator he argued for the invalidation of Joe Biden’s electors; and he’s continued falsely claiming election fraud ever since.

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In light of these facts, the story everywhere is, “election denier won nomination,” or in another iteration, “election conspiracist won.” But Mastriano is not just an “election denier” or an “election conspiracist.”

These phrases create the impression that Mastriano is merely delusional in some backward-looking sense. The suggestion is that he’s obsessing over already-settled matters that won’t be reopened, or that he actually believes the election was stolen and can’t let go of that myth out of personal loyalty to Trump.

The situation is worse than this. Mastriano may be delusional or given to conspiracy theorizing, but this is largely beside the point. What’s important is that Mastriano is making a statement about his forward-looking intentions as governor.

Mastriano is running on what is functionally an open vow to use the power of the governor’s office to nullify future election losses, even if they are procedurally legitimate, and even if he knows this to be the case.

This becomes unavoidable once you look closely at Mastriano’s own conduct. And his Christian nationalist sympathies underscore the point.

When Mastriano tried to help Trump in 2020, he adopted the radical argument that the Pennsylvania legislature had the “sole authority” to reappoint new electors for Trump, because Biden’s win was “compromised.”

Mastriano’s claim of a “compromised” Biden win, of course, wasn’t tethered to actual facts. But here’s the crucial point: It didn’t have to be. The aim of overturning the election was itself such a righteous goal that the creation of a pretext for accomplishing it was justified on that basis.

Whether Mastriano “believed” that widespread fraud happened doesn’t matter. Either way, the creation of the pretext itself becomes a righteous act.

As governor, Mastriano would likely handpick a secretary of state who would resist certifying a razor-thin legitimate Democratic victory. And Mastriano would likely try to certify sham electors for Trump or another GOP candidate.

The 2024 election in Pennsylvania might not be close; either the Republican or the Democrat might win easily. Alternatively, such an effort by Mastriano might fail. But let’s be clear: He’s telegraphing a willingness to attempt such a thing, and that he’d likely see it as a righteous act as well, even if there’s little actual voter fraud, and even if he knows this.

This may seem like a leap, but to experts in Christian nationalism, it makes perfect sense. Sarah Posner, a scholar of the religious right, has extensively demonstrated that Mastriano’s efforts for Trump were infused with Christian nationalist fervor, which holds that Trump was installed in the White House by God as “restorer of America’s white Christian heritage.”

Mastriano hinted at this in his victory speech Tuesday night. “God is good,” Mastriano said. “He uses people like you and me to change history.”

The idea that Mastriano’s victory shows God using him to “change history” is a textbook Christian nationalist trope, notes Posner. As she says, this worldview holds that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that this is being subverted by satanic and secular forces that Christian nationalists are duty-bound to resist.

“It’s their patriotic duty as believers to fight for that Christian nation,” Posner told me. That’s been “orthodoxy” for a long time, Posner says, but the new ingredient is the eagerness to overturn elections in service of that higher end.

Mastriano is saying he’s “empowered as a believer to overturn election results to achieve God’s will,” Posner said. To prevent the subversion of the “Christian nation,” Posner added, he hopes to take “the God-given power to change election results” to the governor’s mansion.

In this telling, liberal democratic proceduralism is inherently nonbinding. Even procedurally legitimate electoral outcomes can be deemed out of step with God’s plan and subject to nullification. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp describes these tendencies as “American Orbanism,” after Hungarian leader Viktor Orban: It relies on religiously inspired culture-warring to energize and justify the curtailment or abandonment of democracy.

It should be obvious that phrases like “election denialist” and “election conspiracist” don’t do justice to what we’re really seeing here. Getting it right on what’s at stake in places like Pennsylvania is truly urgent.