mitch mcconnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

After President Trump openly admitted his plans to scuttle a free and fair election and refuse to accept a peaceful transfer of power, Republican leaders received some positive press for supposedly pushing back against him. Reuters claimed that Republicans were pledging a peaceful transition; Politico announced that Republicans had broken with Trump over it.

But did they, really? Republicans have gotten away with looking like they’re rejecting Trump’s authoritarian putsch without actually rejecting the elements that would actually make it possible. They’re getting to have their cake and eat it, too.

Certainly, GOP leaders were concerned that Trump had squandered yet another precious news cycle by saying unpopular things about basic principles of democracy. They knew they needed to repair the optics damage without directly offending their leader, which is why they made generic statements of support for a peaceful transition without directly condemning Trump for the most part. For his part, Trump himself was reportedly tickled silly by the fact that he had made liberal heads explode by threatening to plunge the country into chaos and political violence. As for liberals, the incident spurred endless discussion about whether Democrats and the press weren’t taking Trump’s authoritarian threats seriously enough, or whether by taking them seriously they were giving him undue agency and potentially demoralizing anti-Trump voters.

Lost in most of the discourse over the incident was whether any Republicans had, in fact, repudiated the core mechanism of Trump’s most recent threat to democracy. Let’s take the elements of the actual threat in turn. First, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he by definition cannot lose a “free and fair election.” His statement that “we would have to see” about a peaceful transition was predicated on “getting rid of the ballots”–the implication being the false claim that mail ballots are inherently fraudulent. His incendiary statements came at the same time as a bombshell story in The Atlantic stating that Trump officials and state Republican leaders had been in discussions about states with Republican leadership simply sending their state’s electors for Trump regardless of who had actually won the state. Finally, both Trump and Republican Senators have been claiming not only that the Supreme Court would decide the election, but that ramming through a new Justice loyal to Trump before the election is also essential in order for the Supreme Court to make the ruling rather than allowing a 4-4 tie to confirm a lower court ruling.

Any of these strategies would inherently amount to a coup against democracy, and a rejection of the peaceful transfer of power. That would remain true regardless of whether they were technically legal or rubberstamped by a court order. A state sending electors for Trump against the actual will of that state’s voters might be technically legal according to some readings of the Constitution, but it would be an unprecedented flat rejection of democracy itself. The offense would be redoubled on considering that the state delegations taking said action would themselves be the product of anti-democratic gerrymandering. Rejecting or discarding mail ballots in the middle of a pandemic, after partisanizing the response to the pandemic itself and pushing conservative voters against mail-in voting, would be an outrageous offense against decency and democracy that functionally amounts to an authoritarian coup. If a High Court hand-picked by the President ruled in favor of the President in an election dispute of this nature in any other country, we would consider that country to be an authoritarian banana republic and the result to be illegitimate.

Yet in all of these cases, be it using unearned electors or rejecting millions of mail ballots or accepting a flagrantly unjust Bush v Gore SCOTUS decision on steroids, Trump and Republicans would claim that they had won a “free and fair election” under the law. They would also claim that the onus of agreeing to a “peaceful transition of power” would be on furious Democrats, rather than on Trump himself.

For these reasons, it is wholly inadequate to be content with letting Republicans speak platitudes about supporting peaceful transitions of power and free and fair elections. What really matters is whether they will condemn the specific mechanisms.

Do Republican leaders countenance states sending electors regardless of the actual popular vote? They need to be put on record about this.

Do Republican leaders believe that all properly signed mail ballots should be counted? They need to answer this question directly.

Do Republican leaders believe that Trump’s hand-picked Supreme Court should be able to decide the election on his behalf, even if the decision goes against every obvious ruling of the lower courts? They need to give a clear response.

Because that is the danger. The looming crisis is not so much that Trump will lose under the law and simply refuse to leave. The danger is that Trump and his allies will pervert the law to such a degree that democracy exists only as a sham on paper. That between gerrymandered legislatures overriding the popular will, wildly unequal suppression of votes, an electoral system rigged at all levels to over-represent rural whites, and a stacked federal judiciary, that it will be impossible for conservatives to lose under the law even when they lose elections by a landslide. That, too, would constitute the dismantling of free and fair elections in a coup that disrupts the peaceful transition of power–and Republican leaders remain silent about it.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.