There was never any good reason to think that the results of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin were tainted by fraud. Donald Trump won the state narrowly in 2016 and lost it narrowly four years later. His deafening insistences that something weird happened as the votes were counted was easily explained. In county after county — ones he won in 2020 and ones he lost — there was a slight shift in vote margin to his opponent. And that was that.
But, as you know, Trump was not content with that being that. Recognizing that his popularity with the Republican base gave him leverage over his party’s elected officials, he began pressure campaigns across the country aimed at deploying legislative power to undermine the 2020 results. In Wisconsin, that meant pressuring Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R).
In June 2021, shortly after Trump had called him out by name, Vos announced a probe aimed at uncovering this purported fraud. To lead the effort, he selected Michael Gableman, a retired member of the state Supreme Court. The intent, it seemed, was to demonstrate that this was not a partisan fishing expedition but, instead, a probe guided by an experienced jurist.
That is not how it turned out. A bit over a year later, Gableman’s probe was shuttered by Vos and the former judge cited for contempt. The investigation turned up nothing of consequence. And Gableman, it seems, has transitioned from retired judge to anti-establishment revolutionary.
On Monday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on comments Gableman made this month at a Republican Party event in Outagamie County, Wis. In his speech, a recording of which was filmed by liberal activist Lauren Windsor, Gableman explicitly advocates for “revolution.”
“I feel like I’ve been working in the Twilight Zone,” Gableman says. “And the papers have painted me out as if I’m the bad guy. So it’s a good thing I’m not doing it for the papers, I’m doing it for you.”
“For the first time in my life, I am beginning to wonder if America’s best days aren’t behind us,” he added a bit later. “I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what. Our comfort, our comfort is holding us back from taking the action that’s necessary.” After a riff on how the frequency of obesity is a mark of the country’s abundance, he continued. “It’s that very comfort that is keeping us from what our Founders knew to be the only way to keep an honest government, which is revolution.”
“Thomas Jefferson said that the tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of revolution every generation,” Gableman said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. And our president has gone out of his way to say, ‘Don’t even think about a revolution. We have F-14s.’ Who talks like that?”
People who recognize the downside of an armed conflict, certainly. Presidents of nations. People like that.
Gableman did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.
He misquotes Jefferson here. In a letter written in 1787, Jefferson praised Shays’ Rebellion, an uprising that emerged among Revolutionary War veterans in Massachusetts as the Constitution was being drafted. He derided British claims about the new nation having collapsed into anarchy and suggested that seeing such rebellions every few decades — ones rooted in misconceptions but demonstrating interest in governance — was healthy. In another letter that same year, he described rebellion as “a medecine necessary for the sound health of government.”
This is not what Gableman is describing. Jefferson, expressing his own opinion in a time before the First Amendment’s protections for the right to assemble and to petition the government, embraces rebellion, uprising. He did not endorse revolution — an overthrow of the government — or suggest that revolution should be a feature of government.
It’s fairly easy to trace Gableman’s path to this point. Even when Vos nominated him, there were obvious questions about his impartiality. He had attended a pro-Trump protest in Wisconsin on Nov. 7, 2020, soon after the election was called for President Biden. While Wisconsin’s Supreme Court elections are technically nonpartisan, there is often little question about partisan allegiances. Gableman, for example, served for a time as a county Republican Party chairman. The review itself was plagued with problems. At one point, Gableman admitted that he lacked “a comprehensive understanding or even any understanding of how elections work.”
In March, Gableman appeared before a committee of the State Assembly to present the findings of his probe. A report offered to the chamber was clear that the intent of the investigation was “not to challenge certification of the Presidential election.” But in presenting the findings, Gableman encouraged them to decertify the election results anyway.
Why? Not for any good reason. The probe made two central claims in its effort to cast suspicion on the election results. The first was that a nonprofit group had provided funding to expand voting access in the state, something that Gableman’s team suggested was a violation of law — despite courts having repeatedly upheld the grants. The second was a claim about suspicious vote totals in nursing homes, a claim that was soon debunked. No evidence was presented to suggest that the victor in the state was anyone other than Biden.
Despite turning up no evidence of any significant fraud, Gableman became a star in Trumpworld. Trump praised him personally at an event held at Mar-a-Lago in April. There’s a reason he was asked to speak at that dinner in Outagamie County, after all.
Vos’s refusal to entertain overturning the election results — something Trump continued to demand even into this summer — made him a target of the former president in the state’s primary elections. Gableman joined the fight, endorsing Vos’s opponent. Soon after Vos won renomination, he ended Gableman’s probe, withdrawing subpoenas from Gableman’s effort. Gableman, meanwhile, was facing a contempt-of-court citation for failing to preserve documents from the election review.
That Gableman is now advocating for some sort of “revolution” is telling. He is a figure who was at the center of the Republican establishment in a swing state for years — a literal component of the state’s justice system. Asked to expend that legacy in a review of the 2020 election, Gableman then collapsed into Trumpism. He embraced Trump’s theory of the case, and Trump embraced him back. He moved to the right of the state’s staunchly conservative establishment and came into conflict with it. And now he sees no path forward but to perhaps challenge those F-14s.
Contriving reasons to challenge elections is to democracy what dividing by zero is in math: Once you do it, anything can follow. In Wisconsin what followed was an elected jurist telling supporters that revolution is a viable, natural next step.