The right-wingers at the core of today’s GOP demonstrated January 6, 2021 that they have no interest in American democracy if it interferes with their goal: political, financial and cultural dominance of this nation. In this deep-diving essay, Maryland progressive leader and analyst Sean Dobson shows how close this frothing minority came – and could come, in the future – to overcoming the democratic processes that we are used to thinking of as normal elections. Donald Trump was the clear perpetrator of the attack on the Capitol and Congress in January but the sentiments and strategies of the Republican right predated him and will be rehabbed by his clumsy failure. A next round could succeed in upending democratic electoral processes by targeting their dangerously fragile 18th-century roots with 21st-century strategies, as Dobson -- board chair of Progressive Maryland -- shows here. In the first of four parts we see how Trump’s and Trumpism’s assaults on the election before, during and after Election Day, imperfect as they were, nearly succeeded in undoing the majority rule on which our process is grounded. A coup has failed, for now; a future one has better chances unless understood and fought against.
This is the first of four parts being published on the PMBlogSpace this week. The complete essay may be read at https://seandobsonprogressive.wordpress.com/category/blog/
/By Sean Dobson/PM BlogSpace Analysis The decades-long Republican
assault on American democracy crossed a line this
past year into an actual coup attempt to overturn the results of a presidential
election. Trump’s putsch failed, but the GOP’s long-durational, ongoing
radicalization portends future such attempts. The next time, Republicans could
learn from Trump’s mistakes, eschew his failed tactics and push harder on the
successful and promising ones, thereby creating an even greater menace to
American democracy than the 2020 putsch attempt. Those same lessons can
show freedom-loving Americans the most likely path of a future, strong,
Republican coup attempt and thus help us thwart it. Above all, we will need to
focus on a grotesque irony: if the putschists succeed, it will stem mostly from the
willingness of a shocking number of key Republican lawmakers, under pressure
from their own base, to exploit weaknesses in our antiquated and byzantine
presidential election process to subvert the same democracy that elected them.
Origins of the Menace
Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once since 1992, by a
very close margin in 2004. Two of their three “victories” were achieved despite
losing the popular vote thanks to the advantage they enjoy in an undemocratic
Electoral College. In congressional races, they rarely crack 50% of the total
national popular vote.
Instead of trying to broaden their appeal beyond their shrinking, white,
rural/exurban base, Republicans enact policies to disenfranchise the Democratic
base – especially of-color Democrats – before they can vote. These include voter
ID laws, underfunding of election administration in Democratic precincts, partisan
purges of voter rolls, more aggressive use of gerrymandering than that
perpetrated by Democrats, among many other tactics. All these policies together 2
help Republicans win control of more State Houses than do Democrats and keep
them competitive in U.S. House races even though the GOP usually garners fewer
aggregate, national votes in those elections.
As a white-supremacist party, the GOP happily accepted and acted on electoral
mandates it used to win on a frequent basis when whites comprised the
overwhelming majority of the population. But now that the U.S. is becoming a
majority-minority society, Republican rejection of democracy grows apace, for
they now see in it the undertaker of the white supremacy that has helped define
the American experiment since its founding.
Fueling Republican racist hysteria further has been the 40-year stagnation in the
median living standard, making this the first generation of whites ever in
American history to live no better and probably worse than their parents. Instead
of blaming the real culprit – globalizing, laissez-faire capitalism – they blame
immigrants, blacks, “liberal elites”, and a democracy that increasingly empowers
Democrats. And thus many if not most Republicans now embrace the slogan of
“white nationalism”: i.e., only whites should vote and govern because only whites
are “real Americans”.
The Menace Metastasizes
Donald Trump represents both symptom and cause of Republicans’ dramatically
intensified anti-democracy efforts in the just concluded 2020 election, in which
they tried to disenfranchise Democrats not only BEFORE the election (as they
have done for decades), but also DURING and AFTER it. Trump’s Postmaster
General tried to lame delivery of mail ballots disproportionately cast by
Democrats; Trump’s lawyers filed dozens of lawsuits asking judges to suppress
votes and nullify Biden’s victory in several states; Trump personally jawboned
state officials to overturn election results; Republicans staged hundreds of rallies,
many of them armed, spuriously demanding “Stop the Steal”; they stormed the
Capitol itself to try to halt Congress’ certification of Biden’s victory; only a few
hours after that unprecedented putsch attempt, fully 2/3 of the House GOP
caucus still refused to certify Biden’s victory; and even after the Trump-incited
attack on the Capitol, a huge majority of Republican lawmakers refused to
impeach him. 3
Luckily, Trump and his minions botched the coup, adhering to their four-year
record of “malevolence tempered only by incompetence”.
Coup d'Etat American Style: What Works and What Does Not
But by trying such a large array of tactics, no matter how ineptly, Trump in effect
conducted an experiment in how to perpetrate a Third-World-style coup in the
United States, inadvertently showing FUTURE Republican putschists what tactics
work, which do not, and which could work if executed more adroitly. As we shall
see below, there is good reason to believe the GOP will attempt another putsch
four or eight years from now.
Effective Coup Tactics
As soon as it became clear Trump had lost and even before Biden’s congressional
certification as President, Republicans already began resuming – and indeed
intensifying – their decades-long practice of enacting laws to disenfranchise
Democrats before they can vote.1
These efforts aim above all to make it more
difficult to vote in Democrat-rich, big cities, especially in swing states; and, as
Democrats in 2018 and especially 2020 proved much more likely than Republicans
to vote by mail, to ban or at least curtail this practice.
Attempting to overturn an election AFTER it happens represents terra incognita in
American politics, so in a perverse way Trump was wise to try a panoply of such
tactics because nobody in advance could have known which might work,
especially considering the multi-level complexity of the U.S. election system. The
thread that runs through the failed tactics of 2020 is this: all of them foundered
on the refusal to participate in the coup on the part of conservative
decisionmakers not fearful of a Republican primary election.
For example, almost all judges, even those appointed by Republicans, ruled
against Trump’s lawsuits to nullify or delay certification of election results.
Pentagon brass, almost all of whom are politically conservative, made it clear they
would not mobilize troops or National Guard to assist Trump’s putsch. The vast 4
majority of election administrators, even those appointed by Republicans, refused
to falsify results.
In swing states, most statewide elected Republicans – Secretaries of State,
Attorneys General, Governors, Senators – need not live in mortal fear of a
Republican primary challenge. True, to win re-election, they must first win a
Republican primary. But as it is impossible to gerrymander an entire state, they
are usually also worried about general elections, especially in swing states, which
tend to be purple at the state level as well. As a result, they know they must win
over at least some moderates in order to beat a Democratic challenger in a
general election and thus they are not as slavish vis-à-vis the GOP voter base as
are Republican legislators who represent gerrymandered legislative and
congressional districts, and who only ever worry about a primary challenge from
the right. For this reason, most statewide elected Republicans in swing states
refused to give Trump’s coup material support. Despite relentless jawboning by
Trump, no Republican Governors or Secretaries of State joined the coup. And in
Congress, only eight Republican Senators voted against Biden’s certification
compared to a whopping 139 GOP House Members.
Promising Tactics and Developments
At first glance, it seems good news that a conservative-dominated Supreme Court
rejected Trump’s demands to overturn results in various states. Alarmingly,
however, it did so with reasoning that bodes ill for the future of American
democracy. For the conservative majority deepened the precedent it had set in its
disgraceful Bush v. Gore decision of 2000 that federal judges may not interfere in
how states administer federal elections.2
Below we will see why this opens the
door to -- and could be construed to legitimize -- a certain kind of future
Republican putsch attempt.
Second, Trump’s bumbling in fact uncovered weaknesses in our democratic
system and surprising strengths on the side of the putschists, both of which
future, more competent Republican leadership could exploit to subvert our
democracy. Most ominously, his machinations garnered the support of a huge
majority of Republican voters. Fully 77% of them believe (or say they believe)
Trump’s claim that Biden stole the election. Fortunately, the outrage of these
approximately 58 million voters was dissipated in online invective as well as 5
pointless demonstrations outside empty State Capitols and well-guarded Boards
of Elections. Even the storming of the U.S. Capitol falls into this category, for it
failed to advance the putsch and indeed marked its demise.
Hardly any base Republicans were organized to apply the kind of pressure that
could have flipped the election: targeted, district-specific, grassroots lobbying of
elected Republicans in swing states Biden won with credible threats of primary
challenges if they refused to back the coup. At its birth in 2009, the Tea Party
employed exactly this tactic in its successful campaign to scare off Republican
lawmakers from supporting Obamacare.
That in 2020 such a large swath of GOP lawmakers – but only those fearful of a
Republican primary challenge – wobbled even under the indirect pressure of
Trump’s tweets and scattershot lobbying from the base shows that targeted,
district-specific threats of primary challenges would be an indispensable
ingredient in any future GOP putsch with a chance of success. In 2020, for
example, a huge majority of Georgia Republican state lawmakers voted to order a
statewide hand recount of an election duly certified by their own, Republican
Secretary of State. Almost all Michigan Republican state lawmakers voted to
require an audit of results, even though Biden won that state by 150,000 votes. In
Arizona, the Republican state legislature voted to do a recount itself of votes cast
in Maricopa County, a process that will take many months to complete. In
Pennsylvania, a significant majority of Republican state lawmakers signed a letter
calling on that state’s congressional delegation to refuse to certify Biden’s victory.
Pennsylvania’s Republican State Senate Majority Leader, Kim Ward, made clear
she signed it only under pressure from the GOP base: “If I would say to you ‘I
don’t want to do it, I’d get my house bombed tonight.’”3
Most egregiously, fully 139 Republican Members of the U.S. House of Representatives
– 2/3 of the GOP caucus -- voted against certification of Biden’s victory, and, incredibly,
did so only hours after the seditious storming of the Capitol. Tellingly, only eight Republican
Senators did so – a mere 16% of that caucus – a discrepancy largely explained by
Senators’ lessened fear of primary challenges for the reasons examined above.
In the second of four parts, Dobson will outline the weaknesses in our ageing constitutional system that could be exploited by right-wing zealots, especially elected Republicans in federal and state office. Existing strategies of voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering (the GOP is much better at the latter) will combine with further attacks on the judicial system, top to bottom, as well as internal party attacks to remove GOP officials who remained loyal to the democratic electoral system. Further, the already-flawed Electoral College system is further open to exploitation by GOP state legislators. Each part of the strategy is well known to be vulnerable to manipulation but, added up, the dangers this poses to democratic process are truly alarming and will need to be addressed.
Sean Dobson, a longtime progressive activist in Maryland, is chair of Progressive Maryland's board. The full essay may be read at https://seandobsonprogressive.wordpress.com/category/blog/ Reference notes for this and subsequent installments can be found at the conclusion of installment IV