Updated at 1:52 p.m. ET on December 10, 2020.
Armed protesters gathered outside the home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson Saturday night, demanding that she overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in her state.
“We will not stand down, we will not stop, we will continue to rise up, we will continue to take this election back for the president that actually won it by a landslide,” one protester at the scene declared, NPR reported. Benson told the outlet that “their threats and their attacks are aimed at the heart of democracy itself, trying to erode the public’s confidence in the democratic process, trying to sow seeds of doubt among everyone that their votes counted, that their voices were heard, that the results of the election are accurate.”
Armed protesters showing up at the homes of elected officials to force them to overturn the outcome of the presidential election, especially in a state where Trump-supporting militants were caught plotting to kidnap the governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is obviously disturbing. Protesting government officials, even for grievances you or I might find absurd, is a fundamental constitutional right. The presence of firearms among the protesters, however, as well as the decision to protest at her residence instead of her workplace, add elements of coercion.
But what’s really surprising is not that some people who believe that the will of the people has been subverted, and that the election results are fraudulent, have resorted to armed protests and intimidation—it’s that so few have.
After all, President Donald Trump has been contesting the election results ever since it became clear that he would not be inaugurated again in January. Ignoring the backdrop of the daily death tolls that now exceed the lives lost in the September 11 attacks, the president concentrates his efforts not on containing the coronavirus pandemic but on a buffoonish but sincere scheme to annihilate American democracy, as most Republican elected officials cower quietly or cheer him on, while a vital few incur the wrath of the conservative faithful by doing their duty.
Trump has claimed that the outcome reflects a “rigged election,” publicly indulging nonsense conspiracy theories. He has pressured officials in Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victories in those states. His attorneys have filed baseless, tendentious lawsuits in those three states as well as in Arizona, Nevada, and Wisconsin, only to be rebuffed in every case but one. From the beginning, the only acceptable or legitimate outcome for Trump and his hard-core supporters was a victory—with the description landslide appended no matter how narrow or wide it happened to be.
“Judges ruled decisively that Trump’s side has not proved the election was fraudulent,” The Washington Post reported, “with some offering painstaking analyses of why such claims lack merit and pointed opinions about the risks the legal claims pose to American democracy.”
Yet the rubbish claims of fraud continue. Trumpism demands the profession of beliefs that are neither strictly literal nor exactly figurative, but instead statements of ideological values that don’t fit neatly in either category. These statements are not amenable to journalistic fact-checking, because they are not factual claims; they are assertions of identity and political legitimacy that are incontestable on their own terms. To announce loudly that you accept the proclamations of the Church of Trump, no matter how false, contradictory, or exaggerated, is to identify yourself as a member of that faith community; to deny them is to risk excommunication. As long as devotion to the Trumpian creed remains a central tenet of membership in the Republican Party, precious few elected officials will risk the brand of the heretic.
The Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania Senate, Kim Ward, told The New York Times that if she had not signed a letter urging the state’s congressional delegation to toss out Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.” Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state for Georgia, and his wife have both faced violent threats since the state certified Biden’s victory and Raffensperger reiterated that there was no evidence of fraud. Among the Trump faithful, acknowledging the actual outcome of the presidential election is apostasy.
Questioning election results is a staple of partisan rhetoric, of course. Democratic voters and pundits, and occasionally elected officials, have advanced their own baseless conspiracy theories to explain political losses. The distinction is that the Democratic Party’s leadership, understanding that the peaceful transfer of power is crucial to a functional democracy—or fearing the political cost of failing to honor it—has typically dismissed those conspiracy theories rather than embracing them, denying them needed oxygen. Some Democrats fumed about voting machines in Ohio in 2004, but that did not stop John Kerry from quickly conceding; furious liberals indulged fantasies that Russian interference in 2016 included manipulation of vote tallies, but Hillary Clinton conceded the morning after the election.
That is not the case today. Insisting that the election was stolen by fraud, or that the outcome is somehow in doubt, remains the majority position among Republican elected officials. Only 27 of the 249 Republicans in Congress are willing to publicly acknowledge Biden’s victory. Several House Republicans have urged the Supreme Court to toss out the results in Pennsylvania, with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, an experienced litigator, offering his services should the justices take the case. (The Court turned down one appeal from Pennsylvania, 9–0, on Tuesday.)
The attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton—who is under federal investigation for securities fraud—filed a lawsuit Tuesday demanding that the Supreme Court invalidate the election results in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia.* It’s fair to wonder what standing or jurisdiction the attorney general of Texas has in these matters. But Paxton has a strong incentive to flatter a president with a proclivity for handing out pardons to his political allies. Seventeen other Republican state attorneys general have joined the suit, calculating not only that GOP voters won’t penalize them for attempting to subvert American democracy, but that they would punish them if they failed to try.
The refusal to acknowledge Trump’s loss would seem to complicate the Republicans’ pitch in Georgia, where control of the Senate hangs on the results of two runoff elections set for January. They can’t run on the need to hold those seats in order to block Biden’s agenda if they can’t acknowledge Biden’s victory. Why should Republicans vote in an election if, as Trump and his toadies claim, the vote is rigged? But Democrats hoping that the irreconcilable logic of such assertions will prevent Republicans from swarming the ballot box in January are mistaken.
The Trump era began with one such assertion: birtherism. Trump’s emergence as a Republican champion coincided with his embrace, in 2011, of the slander that the first Black president, Barack Obama, was not born in America. This was not a belief that could be disproved by Obama showing his papers, because it was an expression of the ideological conviction that neither Obama nor the coalition that elected him was politically legitimate, and that the categories assigned to him by the conspiracy theory—African, Muslim, immigrant, foreigner—were at the root of his illegitimacy.
Similarly, when Trump told the four Democratic lawmakers of the “Squad”—Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—to “go back” to the countries “from which they came,” he was not literally questioning their American citizenship. He was expressing the ideological conviction, shared by his base, that their identity as Americans is made contingent by the combination of their racial backgrounds, national origins, and political beliefs, in ways that those of conservative white Republicans are not.
The Michigan protester’s declaration that Trump won the election (by a landslide, no less) falls into the same category. The majority of people who make such declarations understand that in fact, Trump did not win, that he received fewer votes than his opponent, and that the Electoral College result reflects that loss. But they support Trump’s claims that the vote was fraudulent, and his efforts to pressure Republican officials in key states to overturn the result. To Trump’s strongest supporters, Biden’s win is a fraud because his voters should not count to begin with, and because the Democratic Party is not a legitimate political institution that should be allowed to wield power even if they did.
This is why the authoritarian remedies festering in the Trump fever swamps—martial law, the usurpation of state electors, Supreme Court fiat—are so openly contemplated. Because the true will of the people is that Trump remain president, forcing that outcome, even in the face of defeat, is a fulfillment of democracy rather than its betrayal.
The Republican base’s fundamental belief, the one that Trump used to win them over in the first place, the one that ties the election conspiracy theory to birtherism and to Trump’s sneering attack on the Squad’s citizenship, is that Democratic victories do not count, because Democratic voters are not truly American. It’s no accident that the Trump campaign’s claims have focused almost entirely on jurisdictions with high Black populations.
“Detroit and Philadelphia—known as two of the most corrupt political places anywhere in our country, easily—cannot be responsible for engineering the outcome of a presidential race,” Trump said on November 5. Since then, Trump’s legal challenges have targeted cities with large Black populations—not just Philadelphia and Detroit, but also Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. Trump improved his vote margin slightly in these places, while getting destroyed in nearby suburbs. But because the outdated popular perception of suburbs is that they are white, they lack the assumption of illegitimacy that Trumpists attach to cities.
The absence of not only evidence of any systemic fraud, but even compelling anecdotes that might be misleadingly trumpeted throughout right-wing media, has not deterred the president or his supporters. Republican legislators are already scheming to put new restrictions on the franchise, justified by claims of fraud so baseless that not even their handpicked judges can find a foothold to sustain them. The necessary ingredient is not actual voter fraud, but Democratic victory at the ballot box, real or potential.
According to a 2020 survey by the political scientist Larry Bartels, three-quarters of Republican voters believe that “it is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.” Because Republicans believe, as Mitt Romney put it after his defeat in 2012, that Black people vote for Democrats only because they are offered “free stuff,” Black votes are considered illegitimate even if they are legally cast. Those votes could be legitimate if more of them were cast for Republicans, the party of true Americans, but as long as they are cast for Democrats, they can be dismissed as the result of Democratic brainwashing. Demanding that Black votes be tossed out is not antidemocratic, because they should not have counted in the first place.
That this racist belief has a partisan valence makes it no less racist. If one’s fundamental rights are contingent on adhering to the political beliefs of the ruling clique, they are not rights at all.
In the early days of Reconstruction, Democrats hoped that Black men, if enfranchised, would vote for those who had fought to keep them enslaved, understanding that their subordinate position in southern society was in the best interests of both races. Some northern Republicans similarly feared that Black men would vote as their former masters demanded. But when the emancipated chose their own path based on their own interests, Democrats concluded that they had to be excised from the polity, by force.
In that era, Democrats and their paramilitary allies used their claims of fraud and conviction that Black participation had fatally corrupted democracy to justify a campaign of murder and terrorism. They overthrew their local governments on behalf of white men, who were the only ones capable of granting a government legitimacy. The fact that armed crowds menacing elected officials in swing states today are thankfully rare indicates that Republicans professing their belief that the election was stolen are aware, on some level, that Trump simply lost.
The conviction that the rival political constituency cannot, under any circumstances, legitimately hold power has not yet resulted in widespread violence. But it remains incompatible with democracy, which requires the assent of its losers and the peaceful transfer of power between factions. Enough local Republican officials in 2020 have recognized that their civic obligations outweigh their partisan identities. But if Republicans continue to believe, and assert as a matter of their partisan identity, that the rival party’s victories are fraudulent, their claim to power illegitimate, and their holding office an existential threat, at some point, the tension between partisan identity and democratic function will become irreconcilable. Next time a president seeks to stay in power after losing an election, there may not be enough Republicans who place duty above party to make a difference.
When they say the 2020 election was stolen, Trumpists are expressing their view that the votes of rival constituencies should not count, even though they understand, on some level, that they do. They are declaring that the nation belongs to them and them alone, whether or not they actually comprise a majority, because they are the only real Americans to begin with.
*A previous version of this article misstated that Ken Paxton is under federal indictment for securities fraud. In fact, he is under federal investigation.