The results of a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation, released this past week, offer both hope and a dire warning for the future of elections in the U.S. While much of what was in the Senate report had previously been reported by the media, it provided confirmation through official channels of the extraordinary efforts that former President Donald Trump undertook in the wake of the 2020 election to overturn the results and keep his job in the White House.
This was despite the fact that President Trump and his supporters had virtually no credible evidence of improprieties of a nature that could have swayed the election in Mr. Biden’s favor.
Mr. Trump’s actions reflected a desire, untethered from reality, to retain power, without the slightest allegiance to his oath of office to uphold and protect the U.S. Constitution.
Mr. Trump clearly does not believe that voters should decide elections in America, unless they decide them in his favor.
Fortunately, in the fall of 2020, we still had enough people of good character in positions of authority to block Trump’s attempts to overturn the will of the people. As the Senate report highlights, top officials in the Justice Department refused Trump’s increasingly aggressive demands to file a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn the election. And when Trump threatened to appoint a lower-level lackey who had expressed a willingness to take that action as the interim attorney general, the department’s top staff threatened to resign en masse.
This was all a hopeful sign. Just as election officials in states like Georgia resisted Trump’s demands that they “find more votes” in his favor, we had top officials in Washington who stood up to a would-be authoritarian.
The system worked, although it was thanks to what turned out to be a tiny handful of individuals with sufficient courage, independence, and integrity to tell an enraged president “No.”
Yet, we know that these are exactly the kind of people now on the outs in a Republican Party that seems more than content to follow Trump into a very dark place. Those same political leaders, many longtime Republicans themselves, who stood up for our Constitution, are now facing political extinction. Trump and his allies have already targeted those elected leaders who resisted him, for defeat in upcoming elections, in favor of individuals whose fealty is to Trump rather than the rule of law.
At the same time, state GOP politicians across the country, backed by wealthy rightwing funders, are conducting highly biased, sham audits of the 2020 results in the hopes of continuing to feed false narratives about supposed fraud. It’s all kabuki theater to be sure, that continues to confirm the legitimacy of the 2020 vote. Yet, it is undertaken with the intent of undermining faith in our elections and political institutions. And, based on polls, it appears to be working among the Republican base, overwhelming majorities of whom indicate they believe the 2020 vote was illegitimate.
These efforts, combined with the GOP’s longstanding voter suppression efforts, potentially set the stage for an undemocratic takeover, led by Trump, beginning next fall. If Trump is successful in getting his operatives elected as secretaries of state or to legislatures in key battlegrounds, it could put Trump back into office in 2024, regardless of what the voters say. Several GOP-dominated legislatures, including in battleground states, have since given themselves the authority to set aside the votes of the citizens of their state if they don’t vote the way the Trump allies want, and determine their own slate of electors.
Telling their supporters that the other side is winning through fraud is all part of the strategy, because it serves to justify whatever anti-democratic efforts, including violence, the Trump acolytes have planned themselves. Trump has already laid out the road map, and he’s done so publicly, which may be one reason that the American people have yet to fully grasp the audacity of his efforts and the fundamental risk it poses to the future nature of America’s governance and our Constitution.
Coups, or other efforts to overturn constitutional governments, are generally plotted in secret. Trump is plotting in clear sight and he has the support of large majorities of his own party, which makes it possible for him to succeed.
This is a dangerous moment in our history. While Trump’s defeat in 2020 was a reprieve, he has made it clear he isn’t going away. He’s continuing to lie to the American people about the election, and he and his allies are working behind the scenes to put people in place who will back his anti-democratic efforts when the time comes. Trump was unsuccessful in his illegal attempts to hold onto power in 2020. He and his allies may not make the same mistakes the next time around.