In the United States we often comment unfavorably on the failures of democratic rule in other countries, the various insurrections and coups and corrupt elections, or the simple failures to transfer power from a losing administration to the winners of an election. We compare such breaks in the rule of law and citizen consent to the long-term continuity of most western European countries and, of course, to our own success with two centuries of peaceful electoral-driven rule. What we fail to recognize often enough is the inherent fragility of any democratic form of government, even in countries with a long history of successful rule.
That veneer of exceptionalism has been progressively stripped away in the past year as we learned more about the attempts that were made by the administration of President Donald Trump, and by his other minions, to hijack the 2020 presidential election and, after the fact, to reverse the inauguration of his successor. The tales of incompetence and subterfuge are multiplying, released from former Trump associates and journalists, provided in books and media comments by Stephanie Grisham, Michael Wolff, David Cay Johnson, and Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, among others. More will be released as the House Committee on Oversight and Reform expands its hearings on the January 6th capitol riots that attempted to halt the certification of the electoral college results.
The January 6th attempted insurrection was an extraordinary event, the first large-scale destructive attack on the home of our legislative bodies since the British Army burned it in 1814 and the only serious domestic attempt ever made to halt the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. But the riots weren’t the only efforts made to block that certification. In the resumed Congressional procedure following the riots, more than 128 Republican members voted to reject the Biden wins in Arizona and Pennsylvania. We have recently learned that the Trump staff had created a proposal in which Vice President Mike Pence would refuse to accept the electoral results from seven states using a bogus argument that the state electors had been challenged by alternate teams. This would either give Trump the win outright or throw the decision into the hands of the Republican-led House of Representatives. Fortunately, after Pence had consulted several knowledgeable experts (including former Vice President Spiro Agnew), he decided not to go ahead with the Trump plan.
There were also lawsuits intended to reject electoral results. In the months following the November election several pro-Trump legal teams filed challenges in at least nine states. As Biden himself noted on January 7th, “In more than 60 cases, in state after state after state, and then at the Supreme Court, judges, including people considered ‘his judges, Trump judges,’ to use his words, looked at the allegations that Trump was making and determined they were without any merit.” Biden’s summary was correct. There were 63 cases and only one win, a minor ruling that slightly reduced the amount of time that mail-in voters in Pennsylvania were allowed to correct their ballots. In that one win the number of votes affected was only a small fraction of the number Trump would have needed to change the overall state outcome.
There were also audits and recounts in many locations and none of those affected the results. It soon became glaringly obvious to all but the most partisan Trump supporters that the 2020 presidential election was one of the most secure and accurate in history. On December 1st, President Trump’s Attorney General, Bill Barr, noted that, “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” In the book he published a few months later he said, more directly, that Trump’s continuing election story was “all bullshit.” As for the president-reject himself, he finally agreed that there would be an “orderly transition” to a Biden administration, adding a typical denial, “even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out.” That was as close as Trump ever got to a concession. In the meantime, Trump was calling the Secretary of State of the state of Georgia, the man in charge of elections, asking him to find, somehow, somewhere, the exact number of pro-Trump votes to bring Georgia into his win column. We are fortunate that that official, a man named Brad Raffensperger, chose to follow the laws of his state rather than the demands of a powerful man who is still influential with Georgia voters.
For state election officials it wasn’t just pressure from the then-president. Elements within Trump’s Department of Justice were pushing for a broad investigation of charges of election fraud, work that would have included effective harassment of election workers across the country. If they had succeeded we could have seen a series of additional audits similar to the one that was completed in late September, after months of work, in Arizona. We may still see similar “fraudits” in other states as a result of decisions by GOP legislators, even in states that have already run official audits, despite the fact that the Arizona recount managed only to reinforce Biden’s win.
But the continuing threat was more than all of the above. There were Trump associates who were suggesting that the then-president could declare martial law to stop the transfer of power, and those who supported, even incited, the January 6th rioters and “domestic terrorists” may have done so in order to justify the imposition of military rule. Trump loyalists like Anthony Tata and Kash Patel were moved into key positions in the defense department after many previous civilian leaders resigned without explanation. That and Trump’s expressed attitudes led General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to become concerned that the then-president was planning a coup to stop the inauguration of president Biden. He noted that he had to be “on guard” for that possibility, and told journalists Carol Leonnig and Phillip Rucker that “They may try, but they’re not going to succeed. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.” We may be fortunate that the military Chiefs of Staff and the leaders of those intelligence agencies refused to consider the wishes of their outgoing boss, the man who was still the Commander in Chief. The actions of military leadership often makes antidemocratic coups successful in other countries.
The threat is hardly over. Legislatures in Republican-led states are passing new election laws that have two dangerous provisions. Their first set of moves have created restrictions designed to make it more difficult for people who tend to vote for Democrats to register and vote. That is occurring in at least 19 states. Their second strategy in most of the same states is redistricting, or more accurately, gerrymandering. If minorities can get past the new obstacles they’ll find themselves in districts in which they are a political minority. And the third GOP plan is even more anti-democratic. In Arizona and Georgia the legislature has passed laws that would strip their Secretary of State and their county election officials of the ability to oversee procedures and results, allowing them to replace traditionally nonpartisan actors with Republican-directed authorities. Other GOP-led states could soon follow suit. In more than twenty states the legislatures have also introduced bills that would limit the ability of judges to rule on election disputes. The danger there is that the GOP could simply overrule the will of the voters, expanding their power in the 2022 midterm elections and making it possible for Donald Trump to win in 2024. At that point the person rejected by the voters in 2020 would be in a position to use his presidential powers and the support of his political party to achieve his dream of making his presidency permanent.
Coups of this sort have happened in other countries, as they did (with our assistance) in Bolivia and Chile and Haiti and Honduras and Iran, among others. It easily happen in the United States, too. Fortunately the military and FBI came down on the side of the law in support of President Biden (and Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan), so we have been fortunate in that. But we could fail to preserve our democracy if we don’t act now to protect nonpartisan control of elections and to expand voting rights and to reject the widespread lies about fraud.