Pre-war pro-slavery radicals spoke freely of division and violence, Democratic paramilitaries planned their attacks on Reconstruction governments in front of the public, and the people who codified segregation in Jim Crow did so openly. In other words, bad actors don’t always make their plans in secret.
When people plot to do something bad, they often do it in plain sight. To the extent that they succeed, this is at least in part because no one took them as seriously as they should.
So it is with the conspiracy to restore Donald Trump’s power against the will of the voters. The first attempt, inspired by Trump’s refusal in 2016 to say whether he would accept the presidential election, culminated in an attack on the Capitol this year, which was televised worldwide. Since then, the former president and his allies have made no secret of their intention to play the same game a second time.
Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser and White House official, hosts a popular far-right podcast in which he urged his listeners to take control of the local electoral administration. “It will be a fight, but this fight must be won, we have no other choice,” he said in May. “We’re going to take this back village by village, site by site.”
These listeners … well, they listened. “All of a sudden,” according to a recent ProPublica investigation, “people who had never shown an interest in party politics before started calling the local GOP headquarters or thronging county conventions wanting to enroll as district officers. They appeared in the states that Trump won and in the states that he lost, in the dark red rural areas, in the suburbs where the vote was taken, and in the densely populated cities. “
Many of these new activists are eager to “stop the theft.” In Michigan, ProPublica notes, “one of the main organizers of the recruitment of new district officers pushed for the sacking of the state party’s executive director, who contradicted Trump’s claim that the election was stolen and who later resigned.” Likewise, in Arizona, new district officers, inspired by Bannon, “filed for the removal from office of district officials who refused to cooperate with the 2020 Republican” forensics “of the Senate Bulletins.”
The obvious rationale behind all of this is to eliminate resistance if the 2024 presidential election is once again on the resolve of local authorities. In his desperate fight to undermine the 2020 election results, Trump has explored and found weaknesses in our electoral system. His supporters are fighting to make them more vulnerable.
In tandem with the struggle for control of the electoral administration, there is an attempt to transform the states of the battlefield into an almost permanent republican legislative majority. “In Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Georgia,” according to my colleagues in the newsroom, “Republican lawmakers have either created a super-majority to overcome the governor’s veto, or have narrowed competition in counties so much that a Republican advantage is nearly impossible — by leaving voters in narrowly divided states are unable to change the leadership of their legislatures. “
In these states, Democrats could have won a small majority but won less than half the seats in the state legislature, while Republicans could have won with the same majority and won far more than half the seats. This is an affront to the ideal of political equality, not to mention the one-man-one-vote standard enshrined in the 1964 Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims. A system in which some voters are worth much more than others, and where the popular majority is deprived of power, if they support the wrong people, is a lot, but it is not a democracy (or, if you prefer, “Republic”).
This inconceivable superiority serves a purpose that goes beyond mere party advantage. The belief that Trump did indeed win the 2020 election is underpinned by the belief that an election is not so much a belief as a rigged process and ballot control. And in the hesitant states that Trump lost, his strongest allies promoted the radical idea that state legislatures have complete control over presidential elections even after voters have voted. Trump could lose his vote in Arizona, but the theory is that the legislature can still give him state electoral votes if there is any pretext (such as “voter fraud”). In practice, this would mean that these legislatures can simply hand over their state’s electoral votes to Trump, even if he is defeated at the ballot box.
With that in mind, we should turn to Wisconsin, where Republicans are fighting for control of the state’s federal elections now that they have become a near-permanent legislative majority. (The Wisconsin Republican Party, along with the North Carolina Party, have been at the forefront of an authoritarian turn in the national party.)
Senator Ron Johnson said last month that lawmakers in his state could take control of federal elections even if Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, finds himself in opposition. “The state legislature must reaffirm its constitutional role, declare its constitutional responsibility, set the time, place and procedure for elections, and not continue to outsource elections through the Wisconsin Board of Elections,” Johnson said, referring to the bipartisan Republican commission. was created to manage elections. “The governor is never mentioned in the Constitution.”
And, of course, Trump is taking an active role in all of this. From his seat in Mar-a-Lago, he has supported Michigan legislature candidates with the clear hope that they will help him disrupt the election if he runs as the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. “Michigan needs a new president. the legislature, “Trump wrote in one such endorsement last month. “Now there are cowards too spineless to investigate election fraud.”
Increasingly distracted from any commitment to electoral democracy, large and influential sections of the GOP are working to bring Trump back to power by whatever means necessary. The Republicans could have won without this tactic – they did it in Virginia last month – but there is no reason to think the party will turn off that path.
All of the incentives driving the GOP, from Fox News to the former president, point to a shift away from sobriety about the realities of American politics to outrageous, antisocial, and authoritarian ones.
None of this happens behind closed doors. We are heading for some kind of crisis. When this happens, we may be shocked that it actually happens, but don’t be surprised.