Republicans’ tolerance, if not active support, for President Donald Trump’s ongoing bid to overturn the 2020 election has crystallized a stark question: Does the GOP still qualify as a small-d democratic party—or is it morphing into something very different?
Even with the Supreme Court still deciding whether to consider a last-ditch legal effort to invalidate the results from the key swing states, there appears little chance that Trump will succeed in subverting Joe Biden’s victory. But Trump’s failure on that front has obscured his success at enlisting a growing swath of his party to join his cause—a dynamic that is already prompting new Republican efforts to make it more difficult to vote and raising concerns about the party’s commitment to the basic tenets of Western democratic rules and conventions, including the peaceful transfer of power.
“Where their hearts are is hard to know, but their behavior is not small-d democratic,” Susan Stokes, a political-science professor and the director of the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago, told me.
Stokes, like other experts, says the Republican Party is on a continuum toward the kind of “democratic erosion” visible in other countries, including Turkey under Recep Erdoğan, Hungary under Viktor Orbán, or, in the most extreme example, Russia under Vladimir Putin. In those nations, a party that wins office through a democratic election then seeks to use state power to tilt or completely undermine future elections.
“With one of our political parties trying to overturn the results of a free and fair election, we are way farther down that road now than we were before the election, or a year ago,” she told me. Republicans “have been going down that road all through Trump’s term, but this is the parting gift, which is more extreme than what has happened before.”
Republicans’ widespread enlistment in Trump’s efforts follows years in which officials have advanced hundreds of state-level measures making it more difficult to vote; engaged in extraordinary legislative maneuvering to deny former President Barack Obama the opportunity to fill a vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat; and have either looked the other way or abetted Trump in a series of actions shredding democratic norms, including attempting to weaponize the Postal Service, tilt the results of the census, and pressure the Justice Department to investigate his opponents.
Polling has consistently found that the majority of Republican voters believe, without evidence, that the election was stolen. One academic study, based on a national survey conducted early this year, found that a stunningly large share of self-identified Republicans endorsed antidemocratic propositions such as “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” GOP behavior during this postelection period suggests that these are not abstract sentiments: The secretaries of state in Georgia and Arizona, who have rejected Trump’s claims of fraud, have faced death threats, and a mob of armed protesters gathered last weekend outside the home of Michigan’s secretary of state, who’s also stood by her state’s results.
Geoffrey Kabaservice, the director of political studies at the libertarian Niskanen Center, told me he sees a fateful watershed in the party’s postelection deference to Trump. “Once the Republican Party got into this idea that voter suppression was the way to go, once it stopped believing it was the majority party—and the entire American project was at stake, and Democrats would ruin the country if they hold power—then anything would be permitted, including antidemocratic means,” said Kabaservice, who is also the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of moderate Republicans. “This was all before Trump came on the scene, so Trump simply furthered what was there.”
The Republican Party, “without acknowledging or realizing it, has become an antidemocratic force,” he added.
Some key local Republican officials have conspicuously resisted Trump’s pressure, including Doug Ducey and Brian Kemp, the Republican governors of Arizona and Georgia, respectively. In Michigan, a young GOP member of the state’s canvassing board voted to uphold the state’s results recording a decisive Biden win there. And many Republican-appointed federal judges, as well as some elected at the state level, have joined in rejecting Trump lawyers’ unsubstantiated claims of massive voter fraud.
But, as Kabaservice notes, almost all of the elected Republican officials pushing back on Trump’s claims are those responsible in some way for the election he is impugning. In a sense, “these people are being asked to say, ‘I am complicit in a conspiracy,’ and none of them will do that,” he told me.
More telling may be the growing number of elected Republicans who have endorsed Trump’s attempts to disqualify huge numbers of ballots and to have GOP state legislators override the vote and send pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College. Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, worries that Trump’s string of legal defeats has produced public complacency about the magnitude of that movement in the past few weeks.
Although “nobody has been seriously concerned that Trump was going to succeed at accomplishing a coup and overturning the election result,” she told me, “an alarming number of Republicans are willing to go along with this attempt to subvert democracy, and even more, there are many who are willing to enable it and participate actively in it.”
That list has steadily lengthened at the state and federal levels. Though Republicans in the Pennsylvania state legislature concluded that they lacked the authority to override Biden’s win there, more than 60 of them (including the state House speaker) signed a letter last week urging Congress to reject the state’s results when lawmakers meet next year to certify the election. In Georgia, several Republican state senators circulated a petition asking the legislature to convene a special session to overturn the results. In Arizona, the state GOP posted a tweet asking supporters if they were willing to die to overturn the election, and more than a dozen current or incoming GOP state legislators appeared at a rally this week to “stop the steal.”
Another measure of state Republican support is the unusual lawsuit filed this week by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asking the Supreme Court to throw out the results in four key states that Biden carried: Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Officials in all four states have already dismissed the suit’s claims as inaccurate, but fully 17 other Republican-led states filed a brief with the Supreme Court supporting the case, as did lawyers for Trump. (Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both of whom face January runoff elections that will determine control of the Senate, endorsed the lawsuit as well, even as Georgia’s Republican attorney general said it lacks merit. Trump called the same attorney general this week to warn him against seeking to recruit other Republicans to oppose the litigation.)
In Congress, support for Trump has been largely tacit; almost all Republicans have refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory or to raise any objections as Trump has unspooled tangled conspiracy theories about the election and personally pressured state legislators to throw out their state’s results. (Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are among the rare exceptions who have condemned those tactics.) Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of Trump’s most combative defenders, went even further this week, urging Trump not to concede the election even after the Electoral College votes next week and hinting that he would seek a floor debate when Congress meets to certify the outcome. More than two dozen House Republicans this week sent Trump a letter urging the appointment of a special counsel to investigate so-called election fraud. Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, the GOP Senate and House leaders, respectively, this week voted against a measure acknowledging Biden’s victory.
From President-elect Biden on down, Democrats have mostly downplayed the accumulating Republican support for Trump’s machinations. Instead, they’ve tried to deflate Trump by projecting certainty about Biden’s eventual victory. In the process, though, hardly any Democratic leaders have raised full-scale alarms about Trump’s maneuvers, or tried to brand the Republicans supporting him as threats to the basic tenets of American democracy.
Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, told me that he considers congressional Republican support for Trump’s efforts “horrific” and dangerous. “It’s hard to believe that people [who] take an oath to support and defend the Constitution would engage in an effort to support a president who is undermining our Constitution, our democracy, and the rule of law and refusing to accept the decision of the voters,” he said.
But Cicilline added that Democrats are balancing that conviction against a desire to focus on the Biden-administration transition and a reluctance to give Trump’s claims more oxygen. “On the one hand, you don’t want to take it lightly or [ignore] the damage it’s doing,” he told me. “On the other hand, you don’t want to give them a platform to promote this completely made-up idea.”
Yet one consequence of that choice is that Republicans appear to feel no political danger from supporting Trump. As is often the case in the GOP, Republican officeholders appear more concerned about provoking a backlash from the right if they don’t support Trump than pushback from the center or left if they do.
One measure of right-wing pressure: Fresh calls from state and federal Republicans for a new wave of laws making it more difficult to vote. Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida and Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas want a national law imposing the kind of strict voter-ID requirements that conservative states have passed over roughly the past decade, and that civil-rights groups argue disproportionately disenfranchise minority and low-income voters.
Republican state legislators in Texas have already unveiled an assortment of new proposals that could make it harder to vote, after Democrats markedly increased their total vote in the state this year. Most dramatic, the Republican majority in the Georgia state Senate announced this week that it will try next year to ban ballot drop boxes; repeal the state’s long-standing law allowing any voter to request a mail ballot for any reason; and require voter ID for all remaining mail ballots. “The Georgia Senate Republicans have heard the calls of millions of Georgians who have raised deep and heartfelt concerns that state law has been violated and our elections process abused,” the majority insisted in a statement. (Georgia’s Republican secretary of state has repeatedly said there is no evidence of widespread fraud in the November election, from mail ballots or otherwise.)
Nse Ufot, the chief executive officer of the voter-registration-and-mobilization group New Georgia Project, told me that the proposals represent a transparent effort by Republicans to suppress turnout in a state electorally evolving away from them. After an election that saw unprecedented participation from both sides, the GOP legislators’ reaction “is to say, That worked too well. Let’s construct additional hurdles to participation. It’s ridiculous,” she said. “But desperate people do desperate things. In the marketplace of ideas, young people and the majority of Georgians are not buying what they are selling, and in order for them to hold on to power, they have to cheat.”
Dan Pfeiffer, a Democratic strategist and former White House communications director for Obama, says that Trump’s success at convincing so many GOP voters that the election was stolen will only increase pressure on Republican elected officials to participate if a future nominee—whether Trump or someone else—tries to overturn another vote. To Pfeiffer, it’s naive to expect that the party will reverse its antidemocratic trajectory once Trump leaves office. If anything, the pace could accelerate if Trump brands GOP officials who resisted him as “Republicans in name only” (or RINOs) and successfully backs primary challenges against some of them in 2022.
“This is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end,” Pfeiffer told me. “In elections going forward, not trying to steal the election will be seen as RINO behavior. And that’s the danger of this.”