By now it’s commonly accepted in even the most mainstream of media that the Republicans are planning a ruthless campaign to win back the House and Senate in 2022 and the White House in 2024. If they can win fairly, fine for them; if not, they plan to use manipulation, voter suppression, threats — and, if necessary, violence. Only GOP apologists deny this. This has implications not only for the Democratic Party, and not only for the survival of constitutional government, but for the broader left/progressive agenda as well.
The irony of the Trumpists’ slogan “Stop the Steal” was that in reality it was Trump and his cronies trying to steal the 2020 election, while Democrats — and a few Republicans — were trying to deliver an honest count of the results. Although Trump et al. ultimately failed in 2020, they began writing a playbook that they can repeat and expand on in the future.
While some see Biden’s eventual taking of office as evidence that the system worked despite the effort to undermine it, analysts not on the payroll of Fox News or the One America Network look at the machinations of Trump and his allies before and after the election and see how they might have worked — and might work next time to undercut and corrupt an election in his favor. One of the earlier and most comprehensive forecasts came in a December article by Barton Gellman for the Atlantic, who wrote:
… The next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the desired effect.
The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.
Manipulating the vote to partisan advantage is nothing new in the United States but rather goes back to the Constitutional Convention. The Electoral College and the Senate, two massively undemocratic institutions, were partly a response to demands from slaveholding states that gave them disproportionate power. In the Jim Crow era, the South’s advantage in those two institutions helped deny full citizenship to Blacks for a century after the Civil War. The Democratic Party was once the principal perpetrator and beneficiary of Jim Crow laws, but the party’s embrace of civil rights in the 1960s made it a champion (if an imperfect one) of voters of color. The Republicans, under Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” rushed in to appeal to racist whites and have built on it ever since.
The Republican campaign to manipulate elections expands on the Jim Crow playbook and has been in operation for some time. The key elements have been voter suppression and gerrymandering.
In GOP-controlled states the age-old practice of voter suppression has gone on steroids, with Republican-led legislatures in at least 19 states having passed laws making it harder to vote, surgically targeting communities that are heavily Democratic and/or populated by people of color. The restrictions include reducing the number of polling places, limiting early and mail voting, and cutting back in-person voting hours. The Biden Justice Department has sued Florida and Texas over their voting restrictions under the Voting Rights Act, but there are many more potential targets for litigation.
Both parties have long been guilty of gerrymandering, the practice of drawing state and congressional voting districts to their advantage — among blue states, Maryland is the champion — but Republicans have embraced the practice more aggressively and are pushing it further in advance of the 2022 vote. This is due partly to Republicans’ grip over more state governments, but also because several mostly blue states have turned over the drawing of boundaries to nonpartisan commissions. This unilateral disarmament by Democrats in the name of good government combined with unabashed Republican partisanship will strengthen GOP control in state legislatures and likely clinch their takeover of the House in the midterms.
By now we know of Trump’s efforts to overturn the verdict of the 2020 election: Trump’s bullying call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger; the move by Republicans on the Wayne County, MI, Board of Canvassers to block certification of the county’s vote until angry voters forced them to back down; the long-running Arizona vote “audit” in which the state GOP looked under every rock for fraud and found none; and, of course, Trump’s incendiary Ellipse speech unleashing his hordes on Congress while they were counting and certifying the electoral vote.
Trump failed to overturn the 2020 election for a number of reasons. One was the size of Biden’s win — 51.3 to 46.9 percent of the popular vote and a 74-vote margin in the Electoral College: not a landslide, but big enough that it would have required somehow flipping the vote in at least three states to change the outcome (not that Trump and his enablers didn’t try). Second, while many Republican officials were willing to abet Trump’s scheme, enough of them recognized reality and were committed enough to constitutional government to refuse to go down that path — and that includes the minority of GOP members of Congress who voted to certify the election results despite Trump’s bullying and threats; Vice President Pence, who chose to preside over the Senate count of the vote as directed by the Constitution and not arbitrarily throw out Democratic votes as Trump and his allies urged; Raffensperger and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who had a stake in demonstrating their competency in administering the election in their state; and even Trump’s usually lickspittle Attorney General William Barr.
Third, Trump no doubt considered imposing martial law, using his lever as commander in chief of the armed forces — supporters and advisors such as his former national security advisor Michael Flynn urged it — but he did not. The military option was surely part of the reason he sacked Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who had refused Trump’s demand to invoke the Insurrection Act during the DC protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, and replaced him with the presumably more pliant Acting Secretary Christopher C. Miller.
A violent clash between his January 6 mob and counter-demonstrators would have been an excuse for Trump to call out troops under the pretense of restoring order. Still mobilized from counter demonstrations which occurred in November and December, DC's local anti-fascist networks were preparing to show up on January 6 but ultimately resolved to stand down. It was the right call: the threat of violence would have given Trump an excuse to involve the military. Another factor was the likelihood that the military brass would refuse to go along. As detailed in Bob Woodward’s book Peril, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt burned by Trump’s manipulating him into joining his June 1, 2020, photo-op at St. John's Church just after protestors had been violently removed from Lafayette Square. After that, Milley became determined not to let the president use him to undermine a democratic transfer of power.
Republicans, goaded by Trump, have not been shy about proclaiming that they intend to erase their failures of 2020 and to manipulate the system if necessary to win in 2022 and 2024 — the latter year when they aim to return Trump to the White House. They frame their efforts in terms of combating nonexistent election fraud. But what the Republicans call “fraud” is what most people not committed to a right-wing coup d’etat would call ensuring that people have the right and ability to vote through expanding voting by mail, availability of drop boxes, expanded time for early voting and more locations for same-day and early voting.
The Trumpists’ campaign to take power by undermining our elections is building on these strategies on several fronts:
Because states oversee the process of elections and the mechanics of voting take place at the local levels, this will be where the GOP will largely carry out its efforts to corrupt elections. Congressional Democrats tried to intervene by enacting voting-rights legislation, and the House recently passed a bill combining the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act. The bill went to the Senate to die by filibuster. The battle, therefore, will be at the state level.
This assault on democracy is entirely a Republican scheme. Democrats have the advantage when elections are open and fair and voting is easy — simply because, nationwide, the Democratic Party is more popular than the GOP. The Democrats’ relative popularity — subject to the normal swings between election cycles — has been growing over recent years and decades. The fact that the United States is expected to become majority non-white by 2045 is not a healthy development for a party built on appealing to white racial grievance. The Democrats have won a plurality of the presidential vote in seven of the last eight elections, with Republicans winning two of those only due to the distortions of the Electoral College.
GOP representation in the House runs ahead of its overall popular vote due to gerrymandered districts — as recently as 2012 Republicans won a majority of House seats even though Democratic candidates won more total votes across the country. Republicans get a boost in the Senate due to lower-population red states such as Wyoming having the same representation as large blue states such as California. Despite these structural advantages favoring Republicans, the party’s demographic disadvantages will only increase over time. Cheating is the only way the party can win presidential elections and congressional majorities without changing their policies, now designed to cater to its shrinking racist/nativist/Christian-nationalist base.
Trump, if he is the GOP nominee in 2024, will lack advantages he had in 2020 as the incumbent president. If there is popular unrest over an election rigged in favor of himself, he can’t invoke the Insurrection Act or declare martial law. He might not need to if his agents in and out of office are effective enough.
Democrats, for all their faults, are the last line of defense for constitutional government. The GOP understands this and intends to “to rewrite the republic’s electoral DNA to their advantage,” in the words of Washington Post reporter Olivier Knox, in order to regain power and stay there indefinitely.
Over the short and long term there is a need for a stronger movement to protect the right to vote and block election-stealing schemes such as the one the Republicans are fomenting. But to avoid catastrophe in 2024, the left needs to make sure neither Trump nor any other Republican is elected president.
That will mean working hard to ensure the Democratic nominee wins the election, be it Biden or someone else. Biden has been a disappointment in many ways, but he could be all that stands between us and a descent into fascism.
The combination of a broad GOP advance in 2022 combined with Trump being elected in 2024 will make Trump’s first term seem mild by comparison. After the abuses, self-dealing, corporate giveaways and authoritarian lurching of his earlier four years of misrule, a re-elected Trump with the backing of a thoroughly Trumpified GOP majority in Congress would recognize no restraints. Worried about climate change and the environment? Trump would actively work to make things worse with favoritism for fossil-fuel companies, support for aggressive extraction and use of oil and coal, and giveaways of public lands. Want to tackle economic inequality? Trump’s 2017 tax cuts for the rich will be just a warmup. End racist policing? For Trump, the police aren’t aggressive enough. More humane immigration policy? You know where that would be headed. And I’m just getting started. With a friendly Congress and Supreme Court and most state legislatures in GOP hands, there would be nothing to prevent the country from sliding into full-bore fascism while the Trumpublicans further reshape the electoral system to their advantage. Our democratic institutions would be damaged, perhaps beyond repair. Any hope of advancing a left agenda could be dashed for generations to come.
In short, the three years to come are no time for political business as usual. The traditional battle lines will be scrambled. The real fight will not be between left vs. right but between those who support constitutional government and those who are trying to subvert the constitution for their own purposes.
Over the next three years, the left must work with liberals and even centrist Democrats to keep the White House in Democratic hands. We must form a modern Popular Front, modeled after the left-center alliances in Europe formed in the 1930s to fight fascism. And we must be more successful than they were. Left organizations need not compromise on principle to be leading members of small-d democratic coalitions in a strategic alliance with the big-D party. We can push progressive-left candidates in the primaries, but in November all must come together to defeat Republicans at all levels, not just at the top. If the Democrats hold the White House, the left can use the credibility gained in the campaign to demand that the president support more progressive policies such as Medicare for All, drastic action on climate change, an end to racist policing, more economic equality, protection of voting rights and eliminating the Senate filibuster. The greater the Democratic victory, the harder it will be for the Republicans to manipulate the results. A close election provides more opportunity for cheating.
Until then, we must join the fight for voting rights at all political levels. Given Congress’s failure to act on voting-rights legislation, the fight must be carried out largely at the state level, and on both offense and defense. In states across the country, voting-rights advocates are waging a defensive battle against Republican voter-suppression bills and attempts to install party partisans as election officials, while many blue states are on offense to expand access to the ballot.
In our region, DC and Maryland have been voter-friendly jurisdictions with broad access to mail voting, early voting and other measures to encourage participation. So lately has been Virginia — but the election of Republican Glenn Youngkin as governor and the partial capture of the state legislature by his party could portend trouble. While Youngkin in the general election tried to distance himself from Trump, he will find himself under intense pressure from his party to constrain the opportunity to vote as well as help sway the 2024 election in the GOP’s favor, by manipulation if necessary. Although Virginia has trended heavily blue in recent cycles, a Republican presidential candidate could be competitive in 2024. Virginia’s 13 electoral votes could prove critical in determining the winner.
The Republicans have long championed voter suppression and gerrymandering, but their new fealty to Trump and his base have turned a conservative party into a nascent fascist one. Their willingness to try to overturn free and fair elections by partisan manipulation is something new and dangerous.
The time has come for supporters of democracy to unite. The threat is real. If the Trump Republican party succeeds in its effort to corrupt the vote and return its leader to office, what remains of democracy in the United States will be on life support. We must work now to make sure it never reaches that point.