Warning: This is How Our Mechanisms of Secular Democracy are being Undermined

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Followers of Donald Trump are methodically placing election deniers, those who believe Biden stole the election through fraudulent voting, in crucial state positions which have the power to legally overturn a popular vote if a Trumper candidate does not win the next presidential election. The liberal press has covered this effort with Barton Gellman’s article in the Atlantic Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun, leading the charge.

As Gellman immediately notes, Trump’s attempt wouldn’t be an armed uprising. Nevertheless, violence like the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol could be repeated in the future by right-wing groups such as the Oath Keepers, 1st Amendment Praetorian, and the Proud Boys.

There is no other word than “violence” to describe what happened. At a congressional hearing last week, four officers testified before Congress that crowds of people, many wielding weapons, attacked and threatened them. More than a hundred were seriously wounded in protecting our nation’s Capitol.

Reporters from CNBC revealed that an indictment in a Washington federal court described a “conspiracy among at least 18 Oath Keepers in which members of the Oath Keepers planned to move together in coordination with regular communication to storm the United States Capitol.” Another subpoena said that at least 34 people affiliated with the Proud Boys had been indicted by the Justice Department in connection with the riot. And, the 1st Amendment Praetorian and its chairman, Robert Patrick Lewis, tweeted on the day of the attack on the Capitol that “Today is the day the true battles begin.”

Aside from the threat of violent force to alter the results of a 2024 election, the more substantial threat rests in Trumper Republicans controlling state positions that typically perform perfunctory roles in executing procedures that should be nonpartisan, like counting votes. By resurrecting the vague and rarely used Independent Legislature Doctrine (ILD), Republican-controlled state legislatures could substitute Trump electoral votes for Biden or another Democrat should one win that state’s popular vote. Four Supreme Court Justices have indicated that they consider the ILD as a legitimate doctrine.

However, they can’t use this ILD without some justifiable rationale. The cornerstone of a legislator’s using the Doctrine is that our democracy is about to see a second presidential election stolen. Trumpers are becoming public officials who are willing to believe that there could be significant voter fraud in 2024, regardless of any evidence. That evidentiary hurdle is one that Trump was unable to get past last time.

Trump failed to convince his Vice President Mike Pence and the majority of the Republicans in Congress of massive voter fraud. It didn’t help him that every court and state election official upheld Biden‘s victory. However, Trump’s repeated insistence that there was massive fraud has been widely accepted by the public. According to a November 1 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, Trump convinced 68 percent of all Republicans that the election had been stolen from him. That constitutes a belief stronger than what the Southern Confederacy held regarding Abraham Lincoln’s election as president. They did not challenge the legitimacy of Lincoln’s victory even though he wasn’t on the ballot in any Southern state.

The enduring anger from Trump’s supposedly being a victim in the last election is reminiscent of the South’s rationale that they were forced to fight the Northern non-slave states from destroying their culture. Therefore, they had a right as sovereign states to leave the Union and, by violence if necessary, to preserve their freedom from Yankee domination. 

A similar belief can be seen in a recent PRRI poll that found 12 percent of Americans believing both that the election had been stolen from Trump and that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”  In other words, to save their country from liberal democrats. That fear is fanned today by right-wing broadcasters, some of whom follow the QAnon conspiracy that if Democrats continue to run the country, they will allow rampant child pedophilia.

Embracing extreme beliefs is not new in our history. When Abraham Lincoln was elected as president, many Southern politicians saw that as an act of war. They predicted Union armies would seize their slaves and force white women to marry black men.  

Former Trump presidential advisor Steve Bannon is one of the more popular right-wing broadcasters with more than 100,000 listeners. The day before Trumpites stormed the Capitol on January 6, Bannon told his listeners that “All hell will break loose tomorrow. It’s them against us. Who can impose their will on the other side?” Congress wants to know what Bannon communicated with Trump, as the mass rally on the National Mall turned into a march on to the Capitol to stop confirming the election results.

A September ProPublica investigation detailed how Bannon’s continuing radio broadcasts encourage election deniers to challenge the 2024 election by becoming election poll ballot counters and precinct officers. According to Bannon, President Trump lost because the Republican Party sold him out. As a result, Bannon has pushed a “precinct strategy” for taking over various counties’ Republican Party leadership. 

Following his broadcasts, thousands flooded into local county Republican meetings to replace established Republican Party leaders with new Trump-supporting members. ProPublica contacted GOP leaders in 65 key counties, and 41 reported an unusual increase in signups after hearing Bannon say, “This is your call to action.” There has been no similar increase in Democratic Party precinct officers who vote for local party leadership. 

These lowly positions play a critical role in getting out the vote because they go door to door, distribute literature, and talk to residents to vote for their party’s candidates. As a result, more precinct officers increase voter turnout for their party’s candidate. But even more importantly, in some states, they help pick poll workers, and in others, they help determine members of boards that oversee elections. The new Republican recruits for these positions are not like the traditional conservatives who ran the party. Instead, these folks are fired up and often embrace unproven conspiracies espoused by far-right groups. 

The New York Times has highlighted instances where election deniers are running and winning critical election oversight positions that the parties have largely ignored in the past. The Times provided an example of a pastor who attended the January 6 rally who said he attended because he was “standing for the truth to be heard” about the stolen election. He returned to his conservative Pennsylvania township, ran, and won the office that administers polling on Election Day. The Times concluded that “Until this year, races for administrative positions like a judge of elections were non-competitive to the point of being more or less volunteer opportunities.

Meanwhile, according to Gellman’s article in The Atlantic, officeholders receive death threats and harassment from Trump supporters. As a result, nonpartisan voting administrators are being driven to contemplate retirement. Gellman cites Vernetta Keith Nuriddin, 52, who left the Fulton County, Georgia, election board because she had been bombarded with threatening emails from Trump supporters, one of which read, “You guys need to be publicly executed … on pay-per-view.” She knew colleagues on at least four county election boards who resigned in 2021 or chose not to renew their positions. Are these isolated incidents or a part of a wave to sweep public officials out of office who are not willing to fight for the Trump version of reality? 

There has been no evident effort by Democrats to track what extent Republicans are putting election deniers in crucial positions to supervise election counts. Perhaps Democrats, and liberals in general, believe that our democracy will survive, while Republicans and right-wing adherents see our democracy being threatened by liberal Democrats and Socialists. An October poll found that 71 percent of Republicans believe democracy is facing a “major threat,” as compared to just 35 percent of Democrats.

The Republican Party, since Trump knocked out all the establishment Republican candidates in 2016 to become the party’s presidential candidate, is becoming dominated by a Manichean paradigm that the US is now in a struggle between the good and the evil, and they clearly see liberalism and liberal democracy as evil.

The role of the Republicans is to save our nation from the Democrats’ inability or unwillingness to protect our nation’s three most essential freedoms. These freedoms are defined as protecting human life from abortion, protecting our freedom to defend ourselves from stopping the government from controlling our access to guns, and defending our borders from an invasion of foreigners who do not think, act, or look like us. 

Republicans have held these views for a long time, but with Donald Trump, they found someone willing to throw out liberal democracy altogether because it is corrupt by attacking all three of these freedoms. 

Trump acts as a revolutionary in tearing down our government. But rather than leading a violent overthrow (which lingers in the background as a possibility), he is astutely attacking democracy’s governing norms. The most critical norm is that our democracy works. By arguing that the last election was a fraud, without any evidence, Trump directly undermines the founders’ belief that the peaceful transfer of power from one national leader to another was their most outstanding achievement. Moreover, America was exceptional in being a democracy ruled by laws, while other nations were ruled by a single monarch ordained by that nation’s dominant religion.

Trumpers could shape elections rules based on their beliefs instead of performing their duties based on evidence. That hyper-partisan approach will continue to fragment our nation. Consider that the federal government’s legitimacy already appears to be crumbling. According to the Grinnell College National Poll taken in October 2021, there is a Grand Canyon size gap between Democrats and Republicans in trusting election results. Only 38 percent of those leaning to and being Republicans have “Very or Somewhat Confidence in votes being counted correctly in the next election in 2022.” Meanwhile, those who lean to or are Democrats score 82 percent on that question.

Autocrats in other countries, past and present, have used the anger of the many to consolidate power in the hands of the few. This transfer has occurred because a hollowed-out shell of a democracy could not stop it. In his extensive Atlantic piece, Gellman concludes that Donald Trump came closer than anyone thought he could to toppling a free election a year ago. Yet, he is preparing in plain view to do it again. Unfortunately, Gellman misses the damage currently underway to our national perception of democracy, which has always been widely supported but shallow in understanding. 

If that damage is lasting, it is not just the election results of 2022 or 2024 at risk but perhaps most importantly for what occurs in 2028. What happens if a Trumper candidate wins in 2024 but refuses to concede defeat in 2028? A replay of January 6, 2020 would be likely, but not necessarily with a storming of the Capitol. The vice president at that time may have no qualms as to which votes to count. A legal challenge to that power grab would be decided by a Supreme Court dominated by right-wing justices

The solution is not in providing more social welfare programs, as much as they are needed, but in addressing the importance of our survival as a secular democracy, not as an autocratic theocracy. The path forward must be a nonpartisan clarion call for all citizens to unite around conserving the rules and norms of democratic behavior, which protect the freedom of everyone to govern ourselves and to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The article above first appeared in TheMedium.com.

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Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/changemakers/ Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/

5 COMMENTS

  1. “In addressing the importance of our survival as a secular democracy”
    Don’t you mean a secular liberal democracy ? One of these days you will recognize that a lot this country’s voters are independent , fiscal conservatives who see through your totally liberal view as well as Q’non over the top beliefs . If you want to quell the Trump movement, quit talking about him and remind us of all the good things that Biden is accomplishing.

  2. The article is a needed warning, but I wonder at depth of research that went into its sweeping conclusions. The Seattle left is pretty insular, by history prone to apocalyptic warnings and depictions of opponents as evil doers or their dupes.
    If Nick continues to write on this topic, suggest he get out of the echo chamber a little more. Talk to Republicans of varying stripes. I know articulate, insightful folk, but just received release from 4th District U.S. House candidate touting endorsement from coup plotter Gen. Flynn.
    Intelligent issue discussion can be heard at Mainstream Republicans’ Cascade Conference in Leavenworth, views ranging from wacko culture war screeds to intelligent discussion of the homelessness crisis at January’s Roanoke Conference.
    :

    • Joel,
      Can you direct us to the statements from Mainstream Republicans of Washington that clearly condemn Trump and his many supporters in our state for their lies about the election and for their anti-vaccination mandate approach to the pandemic? Or how about Mainstream Republican support for voting rights, fair housing, clean water? Can you show us where the common sense Republicans exist in our state and nation that support fair taxation of corporations to pay down the national deficit, rebuilding our nations infrastructure and support affordable health care? I keep looking, as I believe they exist. Yet few stand up to be counted in their communities.

  3. Mr. Licata might want to dial back on his CNN/MSNBC consumption. Heterodoxy is hard. Ideological rigidity (intolerance), on the other hand, is not only uncivil, it’s destructive as well.

  4. I think Washington State is largely immune from the worst: Legislature substitute it’s judgment for voters. But in Swing states this legislative substitution for the popular vote is a real thing. My guess is that 2024 is going to be a nightmare for this reason. We risk another “President by Supreme Court” and too few are taking this seriously.

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