The Threat to Democracy Is Still in Congress

One hundred forty-seven Republicans voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Almost all of them are still in office.

An illustration of a green snake climbing over the U.S. Capitol
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

The defeat of prominent election deniers around the country in last month’s midterm elections is cause for relief and maybe even tempered celebration, but not complacency about the dangers to democracy.

Unexpectedly bad results for Republican candidates were, I have written, the result of an anti-MAGA majority that has turned out in three consecutive elections to rebuke Donald Trump and his coalition. But far too many prominent members of the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election remain in office for anyone to rest easy.

On January 6, 2021, 147 Republicans, including eight senators, voted against certifying Joe Biden’s victory. All eight senators remain in office. Of the 139 representatives who objected, 124 ran for reelection, and 118 of those won. Each of their votes is inexcusable, but not all objectors are equally egregious; some were more actively involved in the paperwork coup than others. A series of stories at Talking Points Memo, based on former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’s text messages, spotlights how many of the worst plotters are still in office. The threat to democracy is coming from inside the House—and Senate.

The text messages include exchanges with 34 members of Congress about the election. Of those, some are relatively minor (talk of raising funds for legal challenges), and some of the participants ended up voting to certify the election. Another six will not be in the next Congress, most because they tried for other offices and lost primaries, including Representatives Billy Long, Louie Gohmert, Mo Brooks, and Jody Hice, who unsuccessfully challenged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who’d stood up to Trump’s attempts to subvert the vote count in the Peach State.

Yet that leaves a formidable dishonor roll. There’s Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who as late as January 17 wanted Trump to effect a military coup. “Our LAST HOPE is invoking Marshall Law!! PLEASE URGE TO PRESIDENT TO DO SO!!” he wrote Meadows, demonstrating a lack of understanding of both the Constitution and proper spelling. Norman is one of the Republicans currently trying to find a way to torpedo Kevin McCarthy’s speaker bid because he finds the Californian insufficiently conservative.

Another member of the anti-McCarthy faction who shows up in the texts is Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona. The messages record how Biggs sought ways to get the state legislature to refuse to certify Biden’s election in Arizona.

Elsewhere, there’s Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who was a ringleader of the attempt to steal the election in Congress, remains unapologetic, and is set to take on still more power and prominence when Republicans take over the House in January.

There’s Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, who wrote to Meadows frequently and pursued bizarre schemes to obtain election-machine data. In August, the Justice Department seized his cellphone as part of an investigation into DOJ officials’ involvement in the election-subversion effort.

There’s Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who won his reelection bid last month and who has been a prime source and conduit for conspiracy theories about the election as well as public health. And there’s Ted Budd of North Carolina, who was and is a representative but will join Johnson in the Senate next month.

There’s Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, a repeat bad actor who recently tweeted (and then deleted) his support for Trump’s call to “terminate” elements of the U.S. Constitution over his bogus election-fraud claims.

And of course there’s Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whom my colleague Elaina Plott Calabro recently profiled. Greene has gone from the black sheep of her caucus to a crucial ally to McCarthy, likely to wield lots of power in the new GOP majority, thanks in part to her close connection to Trump, who reportedly sees her as a potential 2024 running mate.

All in all, the text messages do more to add texture to the picture of Trump’s election subversion than add major new revelations. But they helpfully demonstrate the long duration of the paperwork coup. The crisis of winter 2020–21 was not simply the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and that was not an isolated event but rather the culmination of a continuous process involving the White House, members of Congress, rogue officials at DOJ, outside lawyers, and activists.

And it’s arguably not finished. I argued in October that an attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, showed how January 6 had never really ended. New evidence for that keeps surfacing. At a speech in New York this week, Greene said of January 6, “I want to tell you something. If Steve Bannon and I had organized that, we would have won. Not to mention, we would’ve been armed.”

When the comments touched off an uproar, as she surely knew they would, she claimed she was just being sarcastic. This is a flimsy excuse, and besides, sarcasm is a powerful rhetorical tool for conveying reality under cover of humor. Her words are no mere throwaway comment but a sign of what she will try—if she’s given the opportunity.