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Democracy’s sudden peril was an inside-job

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Not too long ago, anyone who seriously worried about the future of democracy would have been written off as a fringe figure or paranoiac.

Today, however, that list includes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, eminent historians like Michael Beschloss and Sean Wilentz, and prominent establishment lawmakers like North Carolina’s Rep. David Price (D).

Around the world, there is not a lot of good news about democracy: Authoritarianism is on the rise in Eastern Europe, Turkey, Brazil, and the Philippines among other places.

Alarmingly, democracy also is under genuine assault in the United States. This grows out of Donald Trump’s massive attempts to overturn last November’s election outcome. This is based on his claim that he actually won the election. That has been conclusively rejected in every court test and every state recount, including those crafted by Republicans.

Yet it has become sine qua non among many major Republican politicians and most of the party’s rank and file. Egged on by Trump, they are determined to do something about it wherever they control the election machinery: throw out votes they deem flawed and/or replace local election officials. Georgia and more than a dozen other Republican-led states have moved this year to more partisan oversight of elections.

Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, law school warns that the assault on the integrity of elections — specifically the belief they are “rigged” or unfair — “is the greatest political threat this country faces.”

Looking around the globe, Tony Blair says, “if several years ago someone raised the possibility of democracy declining, I would have replied, ‘For God’s sake, don’t worry, it’ll sort itself out.’” Now, he said on the Politics WarRoom podcast, “When people say to me ‘I think Western Democracy could be seriously disrupted and undermined,’ I’m no longer dismissive.”

In America, there is no more sober-minded historian than Beschloss. He told me, pointedly, “American democracy is facing the most dangerous threats from within since the time of the Civil War.”

Princeton University’s Sean Wilentz, in an essay in Liberties Journal, writes of the “unsettling similarities” between the Trump-inspired Jan. 6 mob assault on the Capitol to overturn the presidential election and the events leading to the Southern secession causing the Civil War. He writes, “The secessionists committed treason by repudiating the democratic Union; but the Trump Republicans committed something akin to treason by repudiating democracy itself.” 

Earlier, more than 100 scholars of the American political system signed a statement that “our entire democracy is at risk” unless Congress thwarts these anti-democratic measures. A month ago, Robert Kagan, a leading neo-conservative, wrote that due to Trump’s contempt for the democratic process, there’s “a reasonable chance over the next three or four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the county into red and blue enclaves.”

This isn’t just speculation.

Trump and some of his supporters were plotting what amounted to a coup, setting up a war room, the Washington Post revealed, that “was working day and night with one goal in mind; overturning the results of the 2020 election.” State officials, legislators and the Justice Department were pressured to ignore the reported results and award electors to the president instead. The Trump team worked with right-wing supporters on the Jan. 6 event, which culminated in the violent assault on the Capitol.

Famed Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward, who has published several books on Trump and talked to him extensively, charges there were numerous conspiratorial actions taken by Trump and his forces to overturn last November’s outcome. He draws parallels to Watergate, the 1970s scandal in which he played such a prominent role: “The evidence is so clear for a massive Watergate-style attempt to destroy the process of electing a President.”

Looking ahead, Trump dominates the Republican party. In the House and in top Republican-led state governments, the chief litmus test is loyalty to Trump and his false election fraud claims.

There are apologists who say Republican voter suppression efforts are simply efforts to revert to pre-COVID election rules and that voters usually overcome these impediments. Even some Biden advisers have said the key is just to out-organize the Republicans.

You can’t overcome obstacles or out-organize if those in charge subvert the efforts. In the next close race in Georgia, the state legislators could legally decide to award the state’s presidential electors to their guy — Trump or someone like him — despite the results.

The success of the Trump phony fraud claims is seen in Ann Selzer’s Grinnell College national poll last week. More than three-quarters of Trump supporters say American democracy is under a major threat.

They are right but for the wrong reasons.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election Capitol insurrection David Price Donald Trump Donald Trump Far-right politics in the United States Jan. 6 capitol riot January 6 attack on the Capitol Right-wing populism in the United States Steve Bannon trumpism

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