PRESIDENT TRUMP’S lying about the election has become dangerous — and not just in the sense that it damages democratic norms. It also increasingly threatens to spur physical violence against Americans who have done their duty to oversee a free and fair vote.
Armed “protesters” menaced Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) and her family in their home over the weekend. “Someone’s going to get killed,” said Gabriel Sterling, a senior Georgia election official, as he detailed last week the death threats he and others have received. Yet, Mr. Trump continues to pour gasoline on the fire, tweeting Wednesday that “We will soon be learning about the word ‘courage’, and saving our Country.” Kim Ward, the majority leader of the Pennsylvania state Senate, told the New York Times that if she refused to cooperate with efforts to challenge the election result, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.”
A silver lining in Mr. Trump’s post-election tantrum has been witnessing mostly state-level Republicans stand up for the democratic process against extreme pressure from the president and his supporters. Yet in many of these cases, the officials involved had no legal option to do otherwise. And even some of those who did the right thing when the law demanded it have turned around and attacked others caught between official responsibilities and partisan pressure — in an attempt to pass the buck onto some other official who does not have the luxury of denying the truth.
Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R) has reportedly refused Mr. Trump’s requests to have the state legislature award Pennsylvania’s electors to the president, a move state law barred him from taking. But he sought to placate Trumpers by signing a letter demanding that Pennsylvania’s members of Congress move to reject the state’s pro-Biden electoral votes. The goal is to focus angry base voters on congressional Republicans, forcing them to cast the hard vote to accept the election results.
Passing the buck may feel costless; somewhere along the line, some other poor official who has no other choice will uphold the results. Similarly, national Republicans’ continuing silence about the election may seem to them the most prudent course, allowing passions to dissipate with time — or at least to be targeted at others.
But passions are not dissipating; they are exploding. Republicans across the country, from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) down to county GOP chairs, are inflaming them with their encouragement or their acquiescence. Violence seems ever more possible when President-elect Joe Biden’s victory becomes official — if not before. Short of that, Mr. Trump is creating a new playbook for failed candidates: Rile the base; delegitimize your opponent’s victory; pressure state officials to flip the results. This strategy could be far more potent in a closer election. It threatens the foundations of U.S. democracy.