When we speak about last year’s insurrection on January 6, we tend to refer to it as just a single event. Conservatives minimize it as a minor protest that Democrats have blown out of proportion; liberals (rightly) note that it was the closest our nearly 250-year-old nation has come to a bloody authoritarian coup.
But the physical violence of that day should be seen in a broader context: the first and worst day so far of a slow, ongoing coup against democracy being waged by the Republican Party at all levels, with the goal of turning the American system of government into an authoritarian sham along the lines of Hungary or Russia.
Of course, on the anniversary of that fateful day, it’s appropriate that we focus on the particulars. Congressional Democrats on the investigative committee are seeking answers about the events that led up to the Capitol assaults—and are attempting to hold those responsible for it accountable. As well they should. Shocking new details come to light almost every day, revealing the depth of planning that presaged the onslaught, as well as the breadth of involvement by numerous officials in Donald Trump’s orbit and the GOP.
The Trump adviser Peter Navarro, for instance, admitted to a “Green Bay sweep” plot that coordinated with nearly the entire Republican House Caucus to simply discard the election results and force states to send new electors, presumably for Trump. The Trump attorney John Eastman famously wrote a memo, distributed in PowerPoint form across the heights of Trumpworld, to similarly scuttle the election and keep Trump in office by fiat. These plans were unlikely to work under existing law, particularly since the elections in question had already been certified. Hence the violent insurrection, impelled by Trump with his characteristic mafioso style of indicating his desires somewhat obliquely, with just enough plausible deniability to avoid landing in prison immediately, to stop the counting the votes and possibly carry out lethal violence to Democratic elected officials and the presidential chain of succession in the vice president and the speaker of the House.
The peculiarity of the vice president’s constitutional role in certifying the victor of the presidential election—and the pressure brought to bear on then VP Mike Pence to illegally refuse to certify Biden’s win—has led to some encouraging bipartisan moves to reform the Electoral Count Act to prevent further tampering at that chokepoint.
While that effort is a welcome step forward, such a change would not have prevented the aggressive GOP moves in the past year to overturn democracy at the state and local levels before the vote even reached the certification of electors at the Capitol. In other words, it won’t stop the inevitable Republican attempts to invalidate a future election.
In 2020, Republicans lacked only the people in place and the sheer political will to go through with a slow-rolling legal insurrection against democracy. Those impediments are now mostly gone.
Consider the facts:
- Republicans have enacted 33 bills across 19 states to suppress nonwhite, young, urban, and other Democratic-leaning constituencies to rig elections before they ever reach the counting process.
- Donald Trump (along with Fox News and other conservative outlets) has primed Republican voters to believe the Big Lie that almost any Democratic victory is the result of election fraud, despite no evidence whatsoever of systemic malfeasance. Adherence to the Big Lie has become a litmus test for GOP elected officials: It is almost impossible to win a Republican primary now if you concede that Trump lost the 2020 election fairly. The GOP base is thus primed to believe that any sort of undemocratic action in “response” will be justified—including but not limited to increasing terrorist threats against election officials and even, of course, insurrection attempts at not only the national Capitol but state capitols as well. Republican politicians are increasingly justifying and normalizing that behavior.
- The GOP has already been busy contesting and forcing fake “audits”—and not just in statewide contests but also in majority-Democratic counties. It is no accident that the bungled circus of the Cyber Ninjas Arizona “audit” was not of the statewide tally but of Maricopa County. Republicans in Texas are also selectively “auditing” Democratic counties without any evidence beyond the bigoted conviction in conservative circles that majority-nonwhite and urban populations must be up to no good and couldn’t possibly simply outnumber them. (Never mind that actual voter fraud is basically nonexistent, and that most documented cases of both individual and systemic voter fraud seem to have been committed by Republicans.) Blue counties will certainly be the focus and target again of conspiracy-based accusations in 2022 and 2024.
- Republicans have been busy across the country, especially in swing states, replacing local county officials who certified results for Biden with those who will be more pliable to conservative anti-democracy putsches. In Wayne County, Michigan, a board that only certified the 2020 result after partisan deadlock and considerable drama has had one of its members replaced by a Republican who says he would not have certified Biden’s election and refuses to say if he would certify a Democratic win in the future. The Arkansas GOP legislature just passed one law allowing a newly created state commission, dominated by Republicans, to “institute corrective action” against local election officials for almost any pretext, and another law allowing the legislature to seize control of local elections entirely based on their own judgment about whether the election was fairly conducted.
- Where Republicans cannot change the allegiance of county certification officials, they are removing their power entirely. Georgia’s new voter suppression law gives state officials the authority to “review” and ultimately take over local election boards—including the power to restrict access, alter counting procedures, and certify the results. In North Carolina, Republicans have enacted measures to ensure that Democratic-led election boards can no longer settle lawsuits over election rules.
- Where secretaries of state have not been pliant to one-party authoritarian takeover, Republicans have moved to take power out of their hands. Because Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refused to “find” votes for Donald Trump, as the former president illegally demanded, and honorably certified Georgia’s election results, his fellow Republicans removed his power to certify election results. Arizona Republicans took similarly aggressive action against Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, not only stripping her of her power to certify elections and giving it to the attorney general, but also preventing the state from representing the secretary in any legal actions over the election. In Wisconsin, Republicans are staging an assault on the bipartisan election commission they themselves created. They have threatened to selectively prosecute and jail members of the commission despite no evidence of wrongdoing; several prominent Wisconsin Republicans, including Senator Ron Johnson, have argued that the GOP legislature should have the right to unilaterally control the state’s federal elections—no matter what the current Democratic governor might have to say about it.
- Trump and his allies have been busy promising and waging primaries against anyone not considered sufficiently loyal. In the days leading up to January 6, Trump was threatening primaries against anyone who voted to certify Biden’s victory. That became less tenable after the Capitol assault, but Trump has continued to pledge primaries against, for instance, those who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill or Steve Bannon’s indictment. Anti-Trump Republicans, like Anthony Gonzalez and Adam Kinzinger, have been forced into retirement. Even as staunch a conservative as Wyoming’s Liz Cheney is facing the guarantee of a furious primary challenge. Meanwhile, at least 10 Republicans who were at the January 6 rally at the Capitol just got elected to state and local office.
All of these maneuvers can be contested in the courts, of course. But the courts themselves have been stacked in favor of Federalist Society adherents and conservative movement politics. Besides, a much more liberal Supreme Court already showed its hand the last time similar dispute took place, in wrongly delivering the 2000 election to George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore. There is no reason to believe the Roberts Court would not do likewise in supposed deference to “states’ rights.”
Worse yet, the GOP scheming comes amid anti-majoritarian structures that already unfairly advantage Republicans. Gerrymandering in the House and state legislatures disproportionately favors Republicans, as does the preposterously imbalanced weighting of the Senate and the Electoral College toward rural conservative states. Moreover, the filibuster allows Republicans to advance their priorities, such as confirming conservative judges and passing tax cuts, with 50 votes while requiring 60 votes for key Democratic priorities, with the result that Republicans are consistently able to deliver their constituents’ and donors’ desires while Democrats remain largely stymied, forcing legislation on things like health care, climate change, and infrastructure to be determined by senators from states like Arizona, West Virginia, and Montana.
Anyone who cares about the future of democracy cannot afford to whistle past the graveyard here. Republicans are signaling their intent to suppress enough votes to give them a win outright if they can; refuse to certify county results if they can’t; refuse to certify state Electoral College results if they can’t do that; and permeate every step with increasing threats of violence against those who won’t toe the line.
There are steps that can be taken to try to head off the crisis, including but not limited to voting rights legislation, reforms to state certification processes, and the aforementioned changes to the Electoral Count Act.
Sadly, data shows that persuadable voters mostly don’t care about the insurrection itself anymore. It is seen as a singular event—and why not? Few outside the lowest-level participants have yet been held accountable. Perhaps the House investigations and new revelations can do something to change that.
But everyone should be deeply alarmed about the urgent threat to democracy that has only grown since that day. Democrats and any remaining patriotic Republicans would have to recognize how close we are to the brink and how little time we have left, and act accordingly before it’s too late.