Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 4 January 2021

 

Trump’s Authoritarian Moment Is Here

Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
Far too many Republicans are complicit in Donald Trump’s continuing efforts to overturn the election results.Photograph by Oliver Contreras / Sipa / Bloomberg

If there were any doubt remaining that Donald Trump still represents a dire threat to American democracy, the events of this weekend dispelled it. As a new Congress gathers to confirm that the voters chose Joe Biden to be the next President, a proceeding that should be a mere formality, Trump is desperately trying to overturn the result and stay in office. Even more disturbing, large numbers of elected Republicans are joining in this unprecedented effort to reject the popular will. If the Republic gets through the next two weeks without a catastrophe, we must surely take steps to protect ourselves against the next would-be authoritarian, which could well be Trump himself in 2024.

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported the contents of a lengthy phone call that took place on Saturday between Trump and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state. Raffensperger is one of the honorable Republicans at the state and local level who have stood up against the President’s efforts to bully them into calling the election for the loser: him. The conversation was a long one—it lasted almost an hour—but the transcript shows that this wasn’t the Trump of the campaign trail or the White House press room, endlessly going off on tangents. Throughout the conversation, he remained focussed on his counterfactual narrative—that he carried Georgia easily—and a specific set of demands for Raffensperger.

“So look, all I want to do is this,” the President said at one point. “I just want to find eleven thousand seven hundred and eighty votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.” At numerous points, Trump repeated incendiary allegations about voter fraud in Georgia that some of his supporters have been putting forward. Among other things, he claimed that five thousand dead people voted, three hundred thousand fake ballots were submitted, and that Fulton County, an area the former Vice-President won big, shredded three thousand pounds of ballots and covertly removed voting machines. Raffensperger and his general counsel, who was also on the call, calmly pointed out that his office had investigated all of these claims and found them to be false. (Georgia’s state supreme court and a federal judge appointed by George W. Bush rejected the Trump campaign’s claims as well.) Trump wasn’t to be put off. “So what are we going to do here, folks? I only need eleven thousand votes,” he repeated. “Fellas, I need eleven thousand votes. Give me a break.”

Since the election, some commentators have downplayed Trump’s refusal to accept the result, saying that he was merely exercising the inviolate American right to sue. But this wasn’t Rudy Giuliani standing outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping, in a Philadelphia strip mall. It was the President of the United States speaking from the Oval Office and leaning on a local election official, with the backing of his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who was also on the call, and a number of other Trump lawyers, including Cleta Mitchell, a partner at the corporate law firm Foley & Lardner. “The entire call is astonishing,” Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general at the Justice Department, commented on Twitter, after the Post report was published. “The bullying, the threats, the insults, the credulous embrace of discredited conspiracy theories. Like a crime boss, Trump occasionally says that all he wants is the truth. But he doesn’t—he wants the win.”

More specifically, the aim of the call was to get Raffensperger to reverse himself before Wednesday, or, at least, to state publicly that there were some outstanding questions about the Georgia vote tallies. If Raffensperger had acceded to these requests, it would have provided some ammunition for the Republicans in Congress who have sided with Trump, and some more fat to throw on the fire that the President has set by summoning his supporters to Washington on Wednesday. Thankfully, these pressure tactics didn’t work: Raffensperger resisted all of Trump’s demands and pointed out that the President had his facts wrong. But, even after the contents of the call have been revealed, there is little prospect that Trump’s supporters or his G.O.P. quislings will back away from him. Things have gone too far for that.

On Saturday, eleven more G.O.P. senators announced their intention to join more than a hundred and forty House Republicans and vote against the Electoral College electors from Georgia and five other states where Trump claims there was voter fraud. Seeking to delay or derail the congressional certification of Biden’s victory, they also demanded the appointment of a bipartisan commission to audit the election results in these states. Soon after this news emerged, Vice-President Mike Pence, a politician who gives invertebrates a bad name, issued a statement saying that he “welcomes the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections and bring forward evidence before the Congress and the American people on January 6th.”

After four years of watching experienced Republican politicians prostrating themselves before Trump, it is easy to become inured to the sight, pitiful as it is. But rejecting the duly certified results of a Presidential election goes far beyond everyday bowing and scraping. “The egregious ploy to reject electors may enhance the political ambition of some, but dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic,” Mitt Romney, a Republican who himself flirted with working for Trump before turning against him, noted in a statement, on Sunday. “The congressional power to reject electors is reserved for the most extreme and unusual circumstances. These are far from it. . . . I could never have imagined seeing these things in the greatest democracy in the world. Has ambition so eclipsed principle?”

The question answers itself, and the consequences of the enabling attitude shown by many Republicans are far-reaching. In the short term, it makes it more likely that Trump will escalate his antidemocratic campaign and perhaps even try to involve the military—a possibility that all ten living former Defense Secretaries warned against in an op-ed piece published on Sunday. But, even if Trump is safely ushered out of office on January 20th, the consequences of his behavior over the past few weeks will be long-lasting, particularly for the Republican Party.

Surely, the main motivation of some of the Republicans who have aligned themselves with Trump—Pence, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley—is to bolster their own Presidential hopes in the post-Trump era. However, in giving credence to the President’s baseless claims that he is being cheated out of office, these prominent Republicans are just making it even more likely that, at least as far as the G.O.P. is concerned, there won’t be a post-Trump future but, instead, another lengthy period in which he and his grievance continue to dominate all else.

This is the fate of a Party that has embraced a populist personality cult—Trumpism—which has recently outed itself as what Steve Schmidt, the campaign strategist who advised John McCain in 2008, called over the weekend “an American autocratic movement with Fascistic markers.” Using plainer English, Stuart Stevens, another Never Trump Republican strategist, who advised Mitt Romney in 2012, summed things up on Twitter: “The bottom line is that the @GOP has become a threat to democracy. I spent decades helping elect members of the party and it’s painful to admit. But it’s a clear and present danger and should be treated as such.” This is primarily Trump’s work, but it’s not just Trump’s work. Not by a long shot.

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