Three days before Christmas in 2001, Richard Reid took off from Paris on a flight to Miami. He did not intend on arriving. Instead, he attempted to ignite explosives packed into one of his shoes to destroy the plane, killing everyone aboard for the cause of violent jihad.
He did not succeed. Other passengers noticed his odd behavior-most notably lighting numerous matches while wires were dangling from his pant leg. He was subdued; the flight landed safely.
The plot had failed. But that did not mean that the system which let him get onto a plane with explosives \”worked.\”
This is the exact position America's democratic system finds itself in because the Trump era comes to a close. Like Richard Reid, Donald Trump is a cartoon figure and the attempt to overturn a free and fair election is nearly comical in its stupidity.
A wise observer would view the Trump experience as a near-catastrophe which became a wake-up call for just how vulnerable our democracy is.
Instead, we have a conservative establishment which-when it isn't outright advancing Trump's make an effort to overturn the election, or averting its eyes-says the fact that Donald Trump will leave office on January 20 is proof the system worked and there's no reason for concern.
Consider Holman Jenkins who, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, claims that \”U.S. democracy is really a faith machine that continues to reward your faith.\”
Allow yourself to relax a little, and enjoy the latest chapter from the Trump show, which will continue to enrich us with ironies and absurdities and insights to light our way in coming decades as we decode the wild and wonderful experiment referred to as America.
It would be hard to come up with a clearer statement of elite, late republic decadence than \”enjoy the most recent chapter of the Trump show.\” Why burden yourself using the moral responsibilities of citizenship when you can be like Blanche DuBois and depend on the kindness of strangers performing their civic duties?
In a staff editorial, National Review musters the courage to at least call Trump's attempt to overturn the election what it is:
Trump's most reprehensible tactic has been to attempt, somewhat shamefacedly, to obtain local Republican officials to block the certification of votes assuring legislatures to appoint Trump electors in clear violation of the public will. This has gone nowhere, because of the honesty and sense of duty on most of the Republicans involved, but it's a profoundly undemocratic move that people hope no losing presidential candidate ever even thinks about again.
There is dark vindication for Trump's principled critics across the political landscape in these words. But consider that it took a president promoting election fraud conspiracy theories targeting his own party-thereby jeopardizing Republican control of the Senate-to make it happen.
And what remedy do the National Review editors propose? Wouldso would they keep this from happening again? All they can muster is to \”hope [that] no losing presidential candidate ever even thinks of [it] again.\”
Hope is not a plan.
A healthy republic should have a strong, even a visceral response to those who would endanger its future. And it should remember the treacherous who conspire against it.
The phrase \”enemy of democracy\” includes a sinister bearing. Saying it aloud may elicit a frisson of discomfort. That kind of language is for grubby radicals, not for all of us educated citizens of a consolidated and modern republic.
But how else to describe those who would use raw political power in Republican-controlled legislatures to overturn a national election? Public officials swear an oath to \”defend the Constitution of the us against all enemies, foreign and domestic.\” It's a mandate that responsible citizens must take seriously.
No one should try to hide behind the legalistic argument that such an outcome might be technically constitutional. Every dictator claims his hold on power is constitutional. Vladimir Putin controls Russia behind a veneer of constitutionality. Mubarak ruled Egypt for 3 decades under a constitutional state of emergency.
There is certainly not magical about the U.S. Constitution. Unmoored from our founding principles, it can become an instrument of tyranny. For parts of our history-specifically for Americans of color-it was.
It is important, therefore, to keep score on who, exactly, democracy's enemies are.
Our list should start with Donald Trump himself.
We've become numb to his relentless claims that the 2021 election was \”RIGGED.\” Yet it's important to remember that there is nothing new about his conspiratorial and toxic rhetoric.
Trump complained about fixed Republican and Democratic primaries in 2021, and attributed his popular vote defeat in the general election to widespread fraud. As well as before that. On Election Day 2012, Trump previewed the same voting machine conspiracy theory his supporters use now.
Later that night, after the networks announced that Obama had been re-elected, Trump tweeted:
And now in the aftermath of his clear defeat in 2021, the lame duck president openly lobbies state legislators to make use of their authority to designate slates of pro-Trump electors. He promotes conspiracy theories about manipulated voting machines, organized fraud concentrated in a few majority black cities, and supposed statistical proofs that he actually won. He fires a senior civil servant for publicly debunking his allegations.
Donald Trump is definitely an enemy of democracy. Full stop.
In this, he has been aided and abetted by a number of lawyers, who have explicitly advocated that Republican legislators overturn the desire of the people. Before her formal separation in the legal team, Sidney Powell told Lou Dobbs that \”the entire election, frankly, in all the swing states should be overturned. And the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for Trump.\”
Rudy Giuliani encouraged pressure, even intimidation, against state legislators in Michigan to disregard the certified popular vote and award the state's electors to Mr . trump. \”Sometimes it even requires being threatened,\” he explained.
Jenna Ellis similarly argued that Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania could get rid of the results in favor of Donald Trump: \”You the legislature, without judicial oversight, can direct and take back that power.\”
Donald Trump's lawyers are enemies of democracy.
Elected Republicans also have lent their support for this scheme to overturn the election. Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama tweeted that \”Congress should reject any Georgia submission of 16 electoral college votes for Joe Biden.\” Brooks also announced his intention to formally challenge the outcomes in Congress because \”this election was stolen through the socialists\” and \”it's the United States Congress that is the final judge and jury of whether or not to accept or reject Electoral College submissions by states.\”
Pennsylvania state senator Doug Mastriano introduced a resolution to \”exercise our obligation and authority to appoint delegates to the Electoral College.\”
When that failed, 60 members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly requested their congressional delegation \”object, and vote to sustain such objection, to the Electoral College votes received from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.\”
Twenty-eight members and members-elect of the Arizona legislature called for decertifying Joe Biden's victory within the state.
On Twitter, Congressman Paul Gosar commented approvingly \”this is 28 bitch slaps to [Arizona Governor] Doug Ducey and 28 requires justice.\”
These elected Republicans are enemies of democracy.
Far-right conservative activists have been similarly explicit about their intention to turn back election outcome through extra-legal means.
The Claremont Institute's Matthew Peterson tweeted that \”Republicans in the disputed states now need to tell their state legislators to solve the problem by choosing their own electors for Trump, which is a fully constitutional option that would lead to a rightful Trump victory.\”
Former Trump aide Seb Gorka has demanded a \”political solution\” towards the election, arguing that \”no GOP statehouse must certify this election that is clearly fraudulent and cannot send any electors to DC . . . And if nobody gets 270, this is the beauty of the Founding Fathers, we obtain a contingent election and it goes to the House of Representatives.\”
Michael Anton, who served as National Security Council spokesman under Trump, \”urged GOP officials in close states to expose shenanigans and, if necessary, refuse to seat Biden electors.\”
The Federalist's Margot Cleveland, in an article headlined \”State Legislatures Must Investigate Fraud And Choose Electors Accordingly,\” observed that \”the Constitution doesn't provide for the appointment of elector by popular vote\” and that \”following an investigation of [election fraud] concerns, the state legislatures should vote to directly appoint electors as they see fit . . . Then when those legislators are up for reelection, we will have a feel for the true will of the people.\”
This is but a small sample of the anti-democratic agitation endemic on the pro-Trump right. These women and men have declared themselves enemies of democracy.
Most disturbing are pleas from disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, retired General Tom McInerney, and Georgia lawyer Lin Wood for Trump to invoke martial law, suspend both the U.S. Constitution and habeas corpus, and order the military to administer another election. These guys have advanced beyond \”enemy of democracy\” status, and entered the realm of outright sedition.
It's difficult to imagine that the American public would react peacefully to a declaration of martial law, and maybe that's the point. On November 21, a psychological Trump supporter called in to Rush Limbaugh to say \”I love my president- I would die in my president.\”
While you might find the caller's words dismaying or disturbing, Michael Flynn celebrated \”this man's passionate plea, not of fear but of strength & resolve for his faith, family & our country.\”
How the hell did we obtain here?
Part of the answer is the American right has failed to advance a conservative agenda that appeals to majorities, and has instead chosen to focus on mobilizing its largely white, increasingly rural political base with appeals to grievance and resentment. This retreat from even trying to secure a popular majority in support of using the geographic leverage created by the Electoral College has led to a growing suspicion of majoritarianism itself.
Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah was blunt in his criticism:
While it's true that illiberal or \”rank\” democracy can result in \”tyranny of the majority,\” it's also true that democratic processes-tempered by liberal and countermajoritarian institutions-are still the best way for a republic to discern the common good. It's a short step from denigrating democracy to replacing \”We the People\” having a magisterium.
Another part of the answer is that our politics happen to be corrupted by a celebration of a \”will to power\” that is heedless of basic principles. There will always be hypocrites, but at least the hypocrite desires to be seen as virtuous. Some Americans have gone from trying to conceal their vices to wearing them as badges of honor.
Using raw political capacity to overturn a democratic election is the ultimate triumph of political vice, along with a logical consequence of win-at-all-costs \”wartime conservatism.\”
We also do not get here without the assent of the vast majority of elected Republicans and their conservative enablers. These putative leaders have given fuel towards the president's antidemocratic effort by either refusing to acknowledge Joe Biden as president-elect or promoting the baseless declare that fraud changed the outcome of the election.
We aren't just talking about the typical lunatic fringe.
The senior House Republican, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, suggested that Donald Trump could only have lost re-election due to widespread fraud, telling Fox News \”what's quite interesting here and shows more of the fraud: Not one Republican incumbent lost. . . . How would President Trump lose in an atmosphere like this?\”
Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson criticized Attorney General Bill Barr for concluding that the election outcome was unaffected by widespread fraud.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul tweeted a \”just asking questions\” connect to a statistical analysis supposedly indicating that just fraud could explain \”data dumps\” favoring Joe Biden's election victory.
These Republican leaders may not be full-fledged enemies of democracy, but by giving aid and comfort to those who seek to overturn the result, they're no friends of the republic either.
It's also worth going for a moment to make clear that there is no modern precedent for overturning a clearly decided American election. The much whatabouted \”Hamilton Electors\” effort in 2021 was a na\”ive appeal to individual conscience, not an attempt to forcibly replace Trump-committed electors altogether. And either way, it was not endorsed or promoted through the losing candidate.
Yes, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Stephanie Tubbs-Jones objected to seating George W. Bush-pledged electors from the state of Ohio in the 2004 election, but as Rep. Jones explained, \”this objection doesn't have at its root anticipation or even the hint of overturning the victory of the president; but it is a necessary, timely, and appropriate opportunity to review and remedy the most precious process in our democracy.\”
Consider also the impact of a defeated party advocating using political force to overturn a clearly decided election on our bodies politic.
If no political price is paid through the president and his cadres, what then? There's moral hazard for a republic that imposes no meaningful consequence on those who would destroy it from inside.
Even if the president fails to overturn his election defeat, the mere attempt presents a Rubicon-like test for the republic. A line has been crossed, and it is important that those who wish for the country to long endure break the rules.
The saboteurs who have struck at the heart in our democracy should be considered politically-if not morally-irredeemable. They should be pariahs, marked forever, as though they had sworn allegiance to an adversarial regime.
A republic that respects itself should remember where people stood in this moment, and keep those who would threaten it far from the instruments of political power.
We must never forget.