When the history books are written, they will reflect that Donald Trump did everything he could to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election and the democratic process itself as he headed toward a resounding loss.
It should not be lost in those pages that elected Republican leaders went right along with his lies.
As outrageous as Trump’s behavior has been in the days after the Nov. 3 election, he’s been signaling for months that he would do anything, even lie and cheat, to stay in office. He’s falsely claimed mail-in ballots lead to widespread fraud. His campaign engaged in voter intimidation. He preemptively refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power. He openly encouraged people to carry out political violence on his behalf. He vowed legal challenges to prevent states from counting ballots after Election Day.
What is arguably more alarming is that Trump’s efforts to undermine people’s faith in the democratic process are being echoed by GOP leaders in Congress, longtime politicians who know the president is being dishonest. They simply care more about not upsetting Trump’s base of supporters for their own political purposes.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a longtime ally to Trump, on Thursday refused to dismiss the idea that the Pennsylvania legislature should ignore its election results and appoint pro-Trump electors anyway, based on false conspiracy theories about fraud. His comments came as Democratic nominee Joe Biden pulled ahead in the pivotal state as more ballots were counted.
“Everything should be on the table,” Graham told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “Philadelphia elections are crooked as a snake,” he added, without citing any evidence that “dead people” and people who do not live in Pennsylvania have cast ballots there.
Later in the same program, Graham’s colleague from Texas — and the runner-up in the 2016 presidential primary — joined the GOP delegitimization campaign.
“I am angry. The American people are right to be angry. We need observers. Now,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said while tweeting a clip of himself fuming on Fox News that Democrats are being “lawless” and trying to “steal the election” in Pennsylvania.
But there is no evidence of poll watchers being denied access to ballot counting there. In fact, people on the scene said poll watchers there have had access all along.
“The President and his campaign representatives had falsely claimed throughout the day that their representatives were not allowed in the room. But their counsel admitted at the hearing, after questions from the court, that they had several representatives in the room,” reads a Thursday statement from Philadelphia’s bipartisan Commission on Elections.
“In fact, they had at least 19 party representatives as observers in the Convention Center this afternoon, and more than 15 in the room while the case was being heard this evening.”
The second-ranked Republican in Congress, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), straight-up lied that Trump had already won the election and dangerously urged his supporters to reject the legitimacy of the result if Biden wins.
“President Trump won this election,” McCarthy falsely stated in a Thursday interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. “Everyone who’s listening: Do not be quiet. Do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.”
Even after it became clear that Biden was on the verge of locking up the election by winning Pennsylvania, McCarthy insisted that people keep fighting the result.
“Far from over,” the GOP leader tweeted Friday afternoon. “Republicans will not back down from this battle.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded Friday with laughter and a request that people read his Twitter feed when asked about Trump’s false allegations of voter fraud.
“I sent out a tweet this morning that covers my thoughts about the national situation,” McConnell told Kentucky reporters. “I’ve covered the subject already this morning.”
His tweet didn’t say much, other than “every legal vote should be counted” ― a phrase Republicans like McCarthy are using to suggest that this isn’t already happening, which it is. McConnell also said that all sides should be able to observe the process, which, again, is already happening.
Plenty of other Republican officials are sowing doubts about the integrity of the election, with no evidence to back up their claims. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) suggested illegal votes are being cast, without evidence. Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both headed for runoff races in January and eager to boost GOP turnout for themselves, said they expected Trump to win once all the “lawful” ballots were counted. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) echoed the need to count only lawful votes. Even Vice President Mike Pence chimed in that every “legal” vote should be counted. This is already happening, of course. And they know it is.
Meanwhile, Trump campaign surrogates like former acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell are holding public events in key areas like Las Vegas, where ballots are still being counted, to whip up crowds of die-hard Trump supporters with false claims of voter fraud and a lack of election observers. (Grenell fled in a van on Thursday when reporters asked for evidence of his claims).
Every day that passes with no official result and with Republicans making outlandish claims about the process, more pro-Trump demonstrators appear on the streets outside state capitols and ballot-counting centers. The FBI and Philadelphia police arrested two armed men Thursday night who reportedly had plans to attack the counting center in that city.
On Saturday, after Biden was declared the winner after winning Pennsylvania and surpassing the required 270 electoral votes, Republican leaders were still falsely alleging fraud. Graham and Cruz were leading the charge, urging Trump not to concede. McCarthy was still calling for every “legal” vote to be counted, which is already happening.
Put another way: Only two Republican senators, Mitt Romney (Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), congratulated Biden on his win and said it is time to move forward. And while Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said there is “no evidence” of fraud, all the remaining GOP senators have been silent or continued casting doubts on the democratic process. The situation was the same in the House, where Reps. Don Young (Alaska) and Fred Upton (Mich.) were among just a handful of GOP lawmakers who conceded that Biden had won.
This is both predictable and yet alarming. Dr. Pippa Norris on Republicans lying about voter fraud to help Trump
It’s difficult to gauge how damaging the GOP’s behavior will ultimately be for America’s democratic institutions and people’s faith in them. But there’s reason to be concerned about GOP leaders supporting Trump above all else ― a red flag of creeping authoritarianism, said Dr. Pippa Norris, the Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and director of The Electoral Integrity Project. She said it reflects a growing trend of Republicans trying to manipulate rules to their partisan advantage.
“This is both predictable and yet alarming,” Norris said in an email. “During the last decade, even before Trump, the Republican Party has moved towards authoritarian values, challenging basic democratic norms and principles.”
Valerie Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb professor of international studies and professor of government at Cornell University, said there are clear parallels between this situation and how things work in authoritarian societies. For one, authoritarian rulers cannot build or maintain their power without enablers. Republican members of Congress arguably became co-conspirators, she said, when they voted against Trump’s impeachment.
“Trump is ‘different,’ not dangerous, they rationalize. They conveniently assume that the risks involved in supporting him are lower than the risks involved in opposing him. Of course, they are dead wrong,” said Bunce. “The real issue is whether they hurt themselves, likely at most in the short term, versus eroding democracy, likely in the short and longer term.”
Some Republicans have adopted an “end justifies the means” mentality because their constituencies shrink every year due to changing demographics, she continued. The result is that they see themselves as being engaged in an existential struggle, so anything goes, she said, including support of “an unstable, corrupt, racist, misogynistic authoritarian president.”
“What makes this dynamic all the more entrenched and extreme is that as Republicans engage in more and more morally bankrupt behavior, they become less able to exit, more comfortable with arguments that rationalize what they have been doing,” Bunce added. “The fantasy of Republicans having a revelation, in short, is just that — a fantasy.”
But some experts say the fact that any Republican leaders are pushing back on Trump’s disinformation campaign is a sign that American democracy can withstand this otherwise dangerous situation.
Steven Levitsky, the author of “How Democracies Die,” a modern history of healthy democracies that slid into autocracy, said he worried for months about a scenario involving Republicans supporting Trump’s false claims of fraud in a close election. But he’s not so worried anymore because some Republicans, like Toomey and Romney, are telling the truth.
“Even the behavior of Fox News suggests to me that the Republicans may not be prepared to make this jump,” said Levitsky, referring to Fox News calling Arizona for Biden, even as Trump protests. “Some [Republicans] obviously will, but if the party splits and key players defect, Trump will get nowhere.”
Asked if it is alarming to him nonetheless to see people like McConnell and McCarthy, the top Republicans in the House and Senate, parroting the president’s lies about fraud, Levitsky said he isn’t losing sleep over it.
“I don’t think Trump has the capacity to pull it off,” he added. “So far, his efforts have been pathetic.”