Nearly a year after Jan. 6, US democracy remains perilously fragile

AP Photo/John Minchillo

On Jan. 20, 2021, most Americans breathed a sigh of relief. President Biden’s inauguration went off without a hitch. Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the election had failed. Even conservative states attorneys, election officials and judges had rejected his spurious allegations of voter fraud. The FBI had arrested many of the terrorists who had stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and was aggressively pursuing the rest.

Democracy itself seemed to be the big winner, and many of us believed politics was returning to normal.

That hope proved forlorn. During the past year, Trump has doubled down on the “Big Lie,” the unfounded claim that he won the election. The myth that it was stolen from him through widespread voter fraud has become Republican orthodoxy, accepted by 56 percent of the party faithful. He has made accepting it a loyalty test in what is now his party. In May, Trump supporters formed the America Strong political action committee to target 10 house Republicans who voted to impeach the former president. 

Rhetoric alone, however, is no cause for concern. A lie does not become truth by endlessly repeating it, but a lie can become the basis for action. Using unfounded claims of voter fraud as a pretext, Republicans have been making it harder for Democrats to vote. Under the guise of election security, 19 states have passed more restrictive voting laws. These laws restrict voting by mail, tighten (already more than adequate) identification requirements, reduce the number of polling places, shorten the time for early voting, and/or increase the number of voters per precinct (which leads to longer wait times). Many of these laws, such as Georgia’s highly restrictive measure, unduly impact minorities, who tend to vote Democratic.

Restricting access to the ballot box is just one part of the strategy. Across the country, Republicans are replacing nonpartisan election officials with party loyalists, and Trump has endorsed candidates for secretary of state who accept the big lie. These partisan officials could refuse to certify elections results, as two did in Michigan after the 2020 election. 

Even more pernicious are laws passed by 14 states giving legislatures power to interfere in elections. These statutes make it easier to challenge and even invalidate results. Conservative jurists have been arguing that state legislatures have the power to appoint electors. In such a scenario a state legislature could invalidate a Democratic victory and appoint Republican electors, thus negating the will of its own people. These efforts by Trump supporters led journalist Barton Gellman to conclude that the effort to subvert the 2024 presidential election has already begun.

The strategy may not work. Restrictive voting laws still face numerous legal challenges. Democrats control 17 state Houses, and nine states with Republican-controlled legislatures have Democratic governors. Even if they do not change the outcome, however, these measures increase the likelihood of contentious elections, including confrontations at polling places.

If legal efforts to subvert the 2024 election fail, the threat of violence remains. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that 18 percent of all Americans and 30 percent of Republicans agree with the statement: “True American patriots might have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, extremist groups may have gone underground, but they have not gone away. A March report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and militia violent extremists present the most lethal” domestic extremist threat. Most racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists are white supremacists.

Three retired generals have called on the military to prepare for another insurrection in 2024 and warn that politically-motivated members of the armed forces might take sides. This would be a worst-case scenario that seems unlikely given the Pentagon’s unwillingness to use force against Black Lives Matter protesters as Trump demanded. In December, the Department of Defense issued “guidance on plans to counter extremist activity in the force.” Though probably not extensive, the presence of extremists in the military, some of whom participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection, is worrisome.

During the almost 40 years that I have taught Western and World Civilizations, I have often told students what a remarkable thing the orderly transfer of power that occurs at a U.S. presidential inauguration is. Over the course of history, people with power have often refused to give it up, even in ostensibly democratic countries. The rigged presidential election in Nicaragua, which gave Daniel Ortega a fourth term in November, is a case in point. 

The political system we have long taken for granted is now in jeopardy. American democracy rests on a consensus that elections are free and fair. Before 2020, the integrity of a U.S. presidential election had not been seriously questioned since 1876. In that election, unlike 2020, there were legitimate grounds for challenging the outcome. Despite the controversy, the parties resolved the issue through compromise. 

No president before Trump has refused to concede an election since the tradition of formally doing so began in 1896. Even after exhausting every avenue of appeal, failing to replace the attorney general with a loyalist who would validate his claims of election fraud, and unable to get Vice President Mike Pence to reject the electoral college vote, Trump clung to the myth that he won the election. Mounting evidence suggests he was plotting a coup to stay in power. 

Neither Trump’s behavior nor acceptance of the “Big Lie” by his supporters is surprising. The unwillingness of all but a handful of congressional Republicans to call him out on it is. Even those who privately admit the election was fair refuse to say so in public. The party has made a devil’s bargain for which the rest of us may have to pay. 

If an election result can be invalidated, either by legal chicanery or force of arms, the United States will no longer be a democracy. To prevent that from happening we must be vigilant and proactive.

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”

Tags big lie Donald Trump Early voting Elections in the United States Electoral fraud Joe Biden Mike Pence QAnon Republican Party Right-wing populism in the United States Trump trumpism Voting in the United States

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