The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The defense of democracy depends on the power of honorable individuals

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R), Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and Georgia state official Gabriel Sterling (R) are sworn in during a hearing of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Will Oliver/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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It was the personal stories that were the most moving part of Tuesday’s hearing hosted by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol. Fulton County, Ga., election worker Shaye Moss explaining how she and her mother had become afraid to use their real names or to engage with other people after being falsely accused of election fraud. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R) describing how protests at his home had unsettled his daughter in the months before she died.

Their stories were meant to evoke sympathy, but they also served another purpose. Moss and Bowers — a young Black woman from Georgia and an older White man from Arizona — were two of the thousands of individual Americans who, working separately but earnestly at discrete tasks, ensured the results of the 2020 presidential election were upheld. They were two people who contributed their own small individual power to an aggregate that managed to deflect the unchecked anger and the concentrated power of the president of the United States.

Moss and Bowers testified before the House committee in part as a condemnation of Trump’s efforts. But they were also there, the committee made clear, to demonstrate that the collective action of honorable Americans at the state and local level is the only backstop we have against a collapse into authoritarianism.

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Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) set the stage for the day’s hearing by making precisely that point.

“Pressuring public servants into betraying their oath was a fundamental part of the playbook,” he said at the outset of the hearing. “And a handful of election officials in several key states stood between Donald Trump and the upending of American democracy.”

Because the presidency hinges on the results of the electoral college, Trump was able to apply far more specific pressure in a handful of states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania. He could carve out a subset of the informal network of officials who defended the election and pressure them as individuals, something he didn’t hesitate to do.

“When they wouldn’t embrace the ‘big lie’ and substitute the will of the voters with Donald Trump’s will to remain in power,” Thompson said of those unlucky targets, “Donald Trump worked to ensure they faced the consequences: threats to people’s livelihood and lives, threats of violence that Donald Trump knew about and amplified.”

Hence the testimony from Moss and Bowers and others. They didn’t seek out attention but were just doing their jobs. But since they did their jobs in a way that confirmed Trump’s loss, Trump and his allies directed the aggregated fury of his base in their direction. In recorded testimony, officials described floods of angry messages and phone calls. The committee showed footage of angry protests outside of other officials’ houses. Bowers told of he and his neighbors being harassed, at times being moved to tears with the emotion of recalling the attacks — attacks that stemmed, of course, from Trump’s misleading his base about his election loss.

Part of the argument being made by the committee was that Trump bore the blame for they way in which these officials had been targeted. But the committee also used the stories to make one of its first prescriptive suggestions for avoiding a future attempt by a president to illegally retain power, an essential part of its mandate: State-level officials must both be protected and must themselves protect the Constitution.

“The lie hasn’t gone away,” Thompson said. “It’s corrupting our democratic institutions. People who believe that lie are now seeking positions of public trust … their oath to the people they serve will take a back seat to their commitment to the ‘big lie.’ If that happens, who will make sure our institutions don’t break under the pressure? We won’t have close calls. We’ll have a catastrophe.”

He pointed to a recent scenario in Otero County, N.M. There, the county commissioners this month voted not to certify the results of the recent primary election out of unfounded concern over election systems. They eventually did, but only after the state Supreme Court ordered that they do so. Even then, one commissioner, Couy Griffin, refused to join the majority.

In explaining his refusal to certify the vote, Griffin — who last week was sentenced for his role in the riot at the Capitol — unconsciously demonstrated how pernicious dishonest claims about election security could be.

“My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence,” Griffin said. “It’s not based on any facts, it’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need.”

Griffin repeatedly framed his opposition to certifying the election results as his fulfilling his duty to his constituents. He likely believes (if perhaps only because of a sense of grandiosity) that he was doing the right thing. But this is precisely what Trump sought to achieve: get individual officials to believe they should act on their gut feelings and intuitions instead of on their sworn duties to uphold the institutions they were elected or hired to manage. The law limited what Otero County officials could do, and ultimately, it had to weigh in to correct the county’s petulance.

Even that action by “the law,” though, depended on good-faith actions by individuals on the court. So now Trump and his allies are hoping to replace as many good-faith actors as they can throughout the system with people who are more pliant in their understanding of their duties. If viewers missed Thompson’s call for Americans to reject officials — that is, candidates — who were sympathetic to Trump’s view of public service, Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) reinforced the point.

“We’ve been reminded that we’re a nation of laws,” Cheney said after the day’s testimony had concluded, “and we’ve been reminded by [the witnesses] that our institutions don’t defend themselves. Individuals do that.”

In a way, this hearing followed naturally from the warning offered by conservative judge J. Michael Luttig at the committee’s hearing last week.

“Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy,” Luttig said. “That’s not because of what happened on January 6th. It’s because, to this very day, the former president, his allies and supporters pledge that in the presidential election of 2024, if the former president or his anointed successor as the Republican Party presidential candidate were to lose that election, that they would attempt to overturn that 2024 election in the same way that they attempted to overturn the 2020 election, but succeed in 2024 where they failed in 2020.”

Protection of the American election system depends on having a hierarchy of individual actors willing to defend that system. Trump tried hard — cajoling, threatening, condemning — to get enough individuals in enough places to weaken the system so that he could retain power. He failed, but he’s been pointed in his endorsements this year that candidates who pledge to put party (or, ideally, Trump) first are the people he thinks should serve in office.

Most of the questioning at Tuesday’s hearing was conducted by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). He described the focus of the day’s discussion and the committee’s intent more succinctly than anyone.

“That we have lived in a democracy for more than 200 years,” he said, “does not mean we shall do so tomorrow.”