Donald Trump pulled out all the stops attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election, from bullying legislatures to filing bogus lawsuits to encouraging a violent insurrection on Jan. 6. In Trump’s funhouse-mirror world, election tampering is permissible because the other side is doing it already, thus his actions, no matter how brazen or unethical, are justified. And loyalty to Trump’s “Big Lie,” the idea that Democrats stole the election, has become a central pillar of GOP politics.
Why have so many conservatives stood by Trump over the past year as he has actively attempted to overturn an election? The answer is because engineering elections is part of their political heritage.
Conservatives have spent generations attempting to exploit arcane and anti-democratic electoral structures to carve a pathway for minoritarian rule. This history can be traced back to voter disenfranchisement during the Reconstruction era, or even further, to the property-based requirements of the early republic. But we can find the roots of our bout with illiberalism, the one on display in the modern GOP, in the conservative backlash to the civil rights movement.
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, White Southern Democrats violently manipulated the electoral process to suppress Black voting and gain control of state legislatures, courthouses and police forces to implement Jim Crow segregation. The mid-20th-century civil rights movement aimed, in part, to curb these anti-democratic legacies.
In 1948, Democratic liberals championed a robust civil rights platform at their party’s national convention. Then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey demanded that Democrats “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” White Southerners smoldered with rage and, after the Democratic Party adopted the plank over their protests, they responded by plotting to abuse the nation’s political structure and engineer a conservative outcome.
After storming out of the convention, Southern Democrats formed their own far-right splinter faction, the States’ Rights Democratic Party, better known as the Dixiecrats, which became a third-party vehicle for opposing President Harry S. Truman, integration and modern liberalism in general.
Exploiting the electoral college formed the crux of the Dixiecrats’ strategy. The party created its own ticket, headlined by South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond, which supplanted Truman’s national Democratic ticket on the ballot in four Southern states. In other states, Thurmond ran as a third-party candidate.
Dixiecrats hoped to cause chaos by preventing any candidate from receiving a majority of electoral college votes, which would throw the election to the House of Representatives, where members would choose the next president. The Dixiecrats theorized that, if they could pilfer Truman votes in the South, win some critical states and exert enough pressure in the House, their electoral sleight of hand would produce a right-wing presidency.
Thurmond fell short, however, winning only the four states where he was listed as the Democratic candidate. Nevertheless, the Dixiecrats created a legacy that future illiberal groups looking to implement minority rule would follow.
In 1956, another states’ rights party tapped T. Coleman Andrews, a former Democrat who had previously served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s IRS commissioner, to serve as its candidate against Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson, both of whom conservatives found far too moderate. The new party implemented the Dixiecrat strategy with a few new wrinkles. Clarence Manion, a well-known right-wing broadcaster, proposed putting “independent electors” on individual state ballots — electors who could have voted for Andrews if no other candidate won a majority. And Andrews gave conservatives a reason to vote for him, telling his party’s convention attendees, “Time’s a wasting, and the enemies of the way of life that we cherish rejoice as we are obligingly led closer and closer to national suicide.”
The party hoped to sow uncertainty by siphoning conservative votes and leaving states with no clear majority winner, a scenario that would empower the “independent” electors to install a right-wing president by obviating democracy. William F. Buckley Jr., editor and founder of the National Review, supported this gambit, emphasizing that the independent elector strategy might enable conservatives to “defeat [the] international Socialism which has captured both political parties.”
However, the new party fared far worse than the Dixiecrats, winning only 100,000 votes across the nation. Yet this humbling defeat did not diminish right-wing ambitions. As Andrews defiantly proclaimed following the loss, “We are here to stay.”
One decade later, another Southern firebrand picked up the mantle of illiberalism. George Wallace, a lifelong Democrat, claimed he was tired of the perceived liberal stranglehold on national politics. In 1968, Wallace was the presidential nominee of the American Independent Party, a far-right vehicle intended to give people a choice between the two parties he derided as “Tweedledee and Tweedledum.” Capitalizing on his outsider status and the racial strife dividing the nation, Wallace tapped into the familiar vein of White grievance and states’ rights conservatism.
Despite being an extreme long shot, Wallace believed he could throw the election to the House of Representatives by carrying the entire South and picking up a couple of industrial Midwestern states. To Wallace’s mind, this scenario would empower his movement — either the House would elect him outright (a notion even Wallace knew was exceedingly unlikely), or other potential candidates would have to negotiate for his support, meaning a probable abandonment of civil rights platforms and a boost to states’ rights philosophies. The ultimate goal: to sunder what the right wing saw as a liberal two-party duopoly, carve out a far-right party and end up with a truly conservative president.
From the vantage point of Wallace supporters, it appeared their movement might finally bring the Dixiecrats’ strategy to fruition. Polls showed Wallace cruising near 20 percent one month out from Election Day. Ultimately, 10 million Americans cast a ballot for the Alabamian and the American Independent Party. It was the strongest third-party result since Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party run in 1912, good enough to win five Southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi), but not enough to kick the election to the House, much less topple the two-party system.
These third-party schemes dissipated as conservatives gradually took over the Republican Party. Thurmond made the high-profile switch from Democrat to Republican in 1964, and by the 1980s, the GOP was firmly under the control of an ascendant conservatism. And yet, the roots of minoritarian politics remained. All of the attempts to game presidential elections, from the Dixiecrats through Wallace’s American Independent Party, failed, but they solidified a right-wing culture that found undermining democracy through electoral subterfuge permissible if it meant conservative victories.
The right’s hostility to democracy is enabled not only by liberal apathy toward mass politics, but by the very structure of our political system. Historically, conservatives have seized upon America’s arcane political structures in an effort to stymie progress and curtail voting power. In particular, the electoral college is a relic of a bygone era that hangs over every presidential election like the sword of Damocles. As Jamelle Bouie concluded, the electoral college is “the greatest threat to our democracy” because it creates a broad avenue for undermining the popular will.
And indeed, this was the plan following Trump’s defeat, when John Eastman, a lawyer working for his campaign, devised a method for reinstalling Trump despite his loss. He conjured the exact strategy used by his mid-century predecessors. On Jan. 6, Eastman proposed, Vice President Mike Pence should throw out electoral votes based on questionable technicalities and then, assuming Democratic caterwauling, punt the election to the House of Representatives, where Republicans, who controlled a majority of state delegations despite overall Democratic control of the chamber, would crown Trump the victor.
Anti-democratic ideologies — previously the domain of Southern segregationists and dissident conservatives — now fuel the Republican machine. The party that once housed a sizable moderate wing, including figures like Eisenhower, is now dominated by a far-right faction, one composed of politicians who are willing to engineer elections to secure minoritarian outcomes. The fact that their attempts have failed should not blind us to the clear and present dangers of American illiberalism.