January 6, 2021, will surely live in infamy—the day the United States Capitol was stormed by a mob, forcing legislators to evacuate in a rush and leaving five dead, including a police officer.
The most dangerous part of that day for the country as a whole, however, was not what happened when the insurrectionists fought their way into the Capitol in the afternoon, but what happened just a few hours later on the floor. After all that mayhem, the legislators were escorted back to the chamber under heavily armed escort, and a stunning 139 representatives—66 percent of the House GOP caucus—along with eight GOP senators, promptly voted to overturn the election, just as the mob and the president had demanded.
Unlike the insurrectionists, they were polite and proper about it. But the danger they pose to our democracy is much greater than that posed by the members of the mob, who can be identified and caught, and who will face serious legal consequences for their acts. Donald Trump’s ignominious departure from office—whether he is impeached and removed, resigns, or simply sulks away in disrepute—will leave us to solve the problem of the politicians who worked hard to convince millions that the election had been stolen, and then voted to steal it themselves.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, many of his critics have conflated the ridiculous and the incompetent with the unserious. Too many are now repeating the same pattern, this time conflating the procedural and the polite with the legitimate and the responsible—and worse, with the harmless.
Those who raised the alarm before were treated as hysterical; dismissing their warnings allowed the attempt to proceed with more ease. Many Americans did not take Trump’s attempts to steal the election in the months leading up to January 6 seriously enough―probably because many of those attempts were, indeed, ridiculous and incompetent: the press conference on alleged fraud at Four Seasons Total Landscaping; lawsuits so sloppy that judges couldn’t throw them out fast enough; and tweets with enough punctuation and grammar mistakes to try the patience of even the kindest elementary-school teacher.
That mix of the serious and the absurd has characterized every step of Trump’s response to his defeat, the clownishness often hiding the gravity of the underlying reality. In the months leading up to January 6, the president attempted to coerce and threaten many elected officials and politicians into supporting his effort to overturn the election—including his own vice president, Republican senators, state election officials, and governors. His close allies openly voiced options such as staging a military takeover, suspending the Constitution, firing civil servants who wouldn’t go along, and executing the supposed traitors who refused to help the president steal the election.
But the most important, most dangerous part of all this was Trump’s successful attempt to convince millions of his supporters that he’d won and was being cheated out of his win—and the fact that many leaders of the Republican Party, at all levels, went along. That claim is somewhat akin to a charge of child abuse—the very accusation is also a demand for immediate action to stop it. The mob that gathered last Wednesday took that accusation seriously, and acted to “stop the steal.”
The storming of the Capitol also included many ridiculous elements—silly costumes worn together with tactical gear, a grinning man making off with a stolen lectern. But like the effort preceding it in the months before, it was also deadly serious: The mob was beaten back with lethal force, when some of its members were just steps away from legislators. The president, meanwhile, watched it all unfold on television, resisting calls to bring in the National Guard.
But the polite facade of what happened just a little later on the floor of the House, as it considered throwing out the results of an election, should not mask the seriousness of the threat this whole effort poses to our democracy. There is a great desire to blame Trump—who is certainly very much to blame—and move on, without recognizing and responding to the dire reality: that much of the GOP enlisted in his attempt to steal an election.
The 139 representatives and eight senators who voted to reject the results of a democratic election, were certainly well mannered—speakers wore formal clothes such as ties and suits rather than the outlandish outfits of the mob. The legislators adhered to time limits rather than putting their feet on desks while hamming it up for photos. But this veneer of respectability makes what happened on the floor more dangerous, by making it harder to recognize as a violation of democracy.
The legislators were there to count the votes certified by the states—after months of review by election officials, and after endless court challenges were rebuffed—and, instead, they voted to throw them out. They did this after months of lying to the public, saying that the election had been stolen. They crossed every line a democracy should hold dear. To my knowledge, not one of them has yet apologized or recanted for their participation in what even some Republican senators are openly calling the “big lie.”
Some, like Senator Ted Cruz, have tried to cover up their attempt to overturn the election by saying that their constituents (and indeed tens of millions of Americans) believe that the election was stolen, and that they were merely honoring their beliefs. However, it was they, along with the president, who convinced those millions of people that the election was stolen in the first place, and that Joe Biden was not the legitimate president-elect. Convincing people of outright lies does not excuse attempts to pander to those lies later; if anything, it makes the whole act more damning for those who carry it out.
Cruz also invoked the precedent of 1876, and said he merely wanted an electoral commission to investigate a deadlocked election, as happened then. But in 2020, there is no deadlocked election; there is a clear winner. And, as Senator Lindsey Graham explained from the floor, the 1877 commission was not some neutral body looking into electoral fraud, but part and parcel of an effort to overthrow the 1876 election and to disenfranchise Black voters who had just been granted the right to vote. Southern Democrats failed to take the White House, but their efforts helped bring Reconstruction—and thus the effort to extend more freedoms in the South to newly freed people—to a close, paving the way for Jim Crow. If a parallel can be drawn between Cruz’s efforts and 1876, it does not speak in his favor.
Some legislators have since tried to argue that they didn’t mean to “overturn” the election, that their action was more akin to a protest vote. This cannot be taken seriously. That’s like pulling a gun on somebody, walking away with their wallet, and then claiming that you never intended to shoot them if they hadn’t turned over their wallet. A mugging is a mugging, and a mass of legislators claiming that the election was stolen and rejecting the results is an attempt to overturn the election. When the president himself refuses to concede, voting against the recognition of electoral votes cannot simply be a protest, and we don’t have to accept such absurdity at face value.
Others have noted that members of Congress have voted before to suspend the joint session certifying the Electoral College vote—which news accounts referred to as a “formality” because that’s what it’s supposed to be, unless an election is actually stolen. Since 1876, though, there have been exactly two such instances and both were genuine protest votes—they may have been inappropriate, but they aren’t comparable.
The first one, in 1969, was an objection to a faithless elector—a member of the Electoral College did not vote for the candidate to whom he was pledged. A representative and a senator objected to the certification of that vote, which was indeed stolen by the faithless elector, before Congress proceeded to confirm the overall vote.
The second one occurred in 2005, when a Democratic senator and a Democratic representative voted to reject Ohio’s electoral votes to draw attention to their concerns over alleged problems with electronic voting in the state. Not only were they careful to say that they weren’t challenging the result of the presidential election—no “stop the steal,” no claims that the president had actually won in a landslide and had the election stolen from him—but the losing Democratic candidate, John Kerry, had long since conceded to his opponent. (Nor had a mob just stormed the Capitol).
Some Republicans have raised the fact that the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, referred to Trump’s presidency as “illegitimate.” That may well be, but that happened long after the election was over and the transition was complete. She called Trump to concede less than 12 hours after the polls closed, and the Obama administration immediately started the transition process. There was no formal challenge that required suspending the session to debate whether to accept the actual results.
Today, by contrast, many GOP legislators have claimed for months that the election was fraudulent or stolen, and have explicitly and repeatedly called on their supporters to stop this fraud. The president not only refused to concede before they took their vote, but even as the storming of the Capitol was still under way, he once again claimed that he had won in a landslide.
A great misunderstanding about democracy is that it can be stolen or damaged only if formal rules are suspended or ignored. In fact, many authoritarian regimes are sticklers about formal rules, even as they undermine their meaning. Authoritarians may prosecute journalists in court, for example, instead of simply ordering that they be thrown in jail. The courts will go through all the motions, with judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys playing their assigned roles, as the case winds toward its preordained conclusion. The journalists end up in jail just as surely as if a royal decree had been issued, but all the formal pretenses are upheld along the way.
We’ve already witnessed the hollowing out of some of the core tenets of liberal democracy—equal representation of voters, unimpeded access to the ballot—in many aspects of our electoral system. Republicans have pursued a project of minority rule for decades, exploiting structural features of American politics and opportunistically shaping rules in their own favor. The Senate is structurally dominated by a minority—less than 20 percent of the population elects a majority of its members. Through gerrymandering and the uneven distribution of the population, the GOP does about 6 percent better in the median House district than it does in the national popular vote. Republicans have used these advantages to shape the other branches of government, appointing conservative Supreme Court justices and federal judges, and blocking executive-branch appointments by Democratic presidents.
Already, there are signs that many in the GOP intend to respond to their loss in the Senate by doubling down on disenfranchising voters in the name of fighting the “election fraud” they falsely convinced millions is widespread. In Georgia and Minnesota, legislators are preparing to increase voter restrictions, which disproportionately impact minorities, especially Black voters. In Michigan and Wisconsin, legislators are considering allocating electoral votes so as to advantage Republican candidates. Republicans, having won a number of state legislatures in 2020—many with the aid of gerrymandering—are poised to draw new maps that entrench their electoral advantage.
After decades spent hollowing out the processes that are central to a healthy liberal democracy, a good portion of the GOP has now proved that they are willing to take the final step: throwing out election results they didn’t like.
The Republicans who backed Trump’s effort to overturn the election may have known that it didn’t have a high chance of success, but that doesn’t change the nature of the attempt, especially given their lack of remorse or apology. Unless they are convinced that it was a mistake—unless they pay such a high political price for it that neither they nor anyone else thinks of trying again—they are likely to seize the next available opportunity to do the same. If a future election comes down to one state instead of three, if a future presidential candidate uses lawsuits and coercion more competently, or if a few election officials succumb to threats more easily, they’ll be in the game.
A line must be drawn. The increasing entrenchment of minority rule and democratic backsliding in almost every level of government was terrible enough, but now we’ve even moved past that. Throwing out an election isn’t like disagreeing on tax policy or stimulus checks. It’s not something to move on from or forget. If no line is drawn, the attempt will surely be repeated, quite likely without the mob, by the polite legislators in suits and ties insisting that they want fair elections as they vote to gut what remains of our democracy. If anything, the unruly mob on January 6 may have made it a bit harder for them, by exposing the nature of the whole attempt. Republican representatives are already openly lamenting how the mob and the “illegal breach of the Capitol … destroyed two months of debate and work” on “election theft” that was supposed to play out in the House and the Senate. All of this is happening right in front of our eyes, and Trump, now on his way out, is perhaps the least of our problems.
The bad news is that what comes next will not be easy, or pleasant. The great temptation will be to punish Trump, and then move on to the healing phase. One can even interpret the reported sudden new openness of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to convicting Trump in the Senate—something that would until now have been unthinkable—as evidence that McConnell has strategically decided that throwing Trump under the bus might be the best way to obscure the broader nature of what his party is pursuing.
The good news is that although the effort to overturn the election was led by the Republican Party, it wasn’t the whole Republican Party. In the end, many Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, found their limit and refused to participate. Some have started speaking out against their own colleagues’ behavior, and many more likely recognize the danger of what happened. Democrats will soon control the House, the Senate, and the presidency, making it possible for them to undertake crucial reforms on voting rights and electoral integrity. Perhaps some Republicans will decide to join them; if there ever were a time for putting country over party, this is surely it.
The work will not stop there. The millions who have been lied to will need to be convinced of the truth. Reforms can bolster confidence in elections, without disenfranchising voters or pandering to lies. Voting-rights legislation can include provisions such as risk-limiting audits to reassure the public that the voting process is secure and that election results are worthy of their confidence. It’s not enough to say “You’ve been lied to” and leave it at that. Tens of millions of people have indeed been lied to, but reaching out to them is not just the right thing to do; it’s the only way to try to restore a healthier democracy.
Last Wednesday, one of the legislators who had been most vocal in her false claims of a stolen election, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, tweeted, “Today is 1776.” Boebert intended to compare the “Stop the Steal” rally to the Revolutionary War against England, and those who gathered on the Ellipse to the patriots who fought the redcoats in defense of their liberty. But just like Ted Cruz, Boebert stood on the wrong side of the precedent she chose to cite. This is indeed a fight in defense of democracy—and we can’t afford to lose it.