Imagine If Republicans Had a Better Hand…

Let’s start with the obvious.

In the twenty days since the presidential election, Donald Trump has engaged in a campaign unprecedented in American history to try to nullify the results of the vote, discard the will of the people, and cling to power in a banana republic-style self-coup. In the process, he is doing horrific and perhaps irreparable damage to one of the most fundamental tenets of our representative democracy, the peaceful transition of power.

in a reign rife with strong contenders, history may well remember this as the worst of Trump’s many many sins. (Close seconds and dishonorable mention: playing violin while a quarter of a million Americans died, kidnapping and caging innocent children, and destroying the whole concept of Truth.)

Living through this latest and (we hope) final episode has been headspinning, and a bit like the Red Mirage/Blue Shift on Election Night. We all knew it was coming, it had been written about ad nauseam in advance…..and yet when it really happened, it was still shocking and terrifying, as if it took us completely by surprise. I myself made a cottage industry of predicting this precise chain of events for two and a half years, and I’m far from alone. Yet it’s still astonishing to be in the midst of it. (And we’re not out of the woods yet.)

The smart money says that the coup will likewise fail. Trump has exhausted his flimsy legal challenges; his efforts to get key state legislatures to throw out the popular vote and appoint Trump electors in defiance of the law seems to have sputtered out; and once the states certify their electors (in the eight days between now and December 1) and the Electoral College meets (thirteen days after that) his chances of getting the race thrown into the House look infinitesimal. Short of a Reichstag fire-cum-Wag the Dog moment that prompts the imposition of martial law, it’s hard to see how Trump can hang on, and even that farfetched scenario would likely lead to an uprising in the streets that might rightly drive him out.

This is not to minimize the damage he can and will do—and already is doing—on the way out. But make no mistake, out he will go. How he goes is a matter for another day. Likely he will never concede, only find some semi-face-saving excuse to slink off to Mar-a-Lago fuming that he wuz robbed and plotting his revenge (and a way to monetize it). That is a nightmare we shall have to deal with shortly. Stay tuned. 

But Trump’s mere attempt to overturn the election still leaves us with a bone-chilling realization about just how fragile our democracy really is. Having watched the leadership of the Republican Party willingly line up behind Donald and support his efforts, to say nothing of the even more ferociously loyal and rabid right wing rank-and-file, we now know this:

Trump’s self-coup will not fail because of principle on the part of the GOP, only because of practical matters that hindered it. Under circumstances more favorable to them, forty percent of our fellow Americans, led by an enthusiastic Republican Party, would gladly dispense with every once-cherished principle of American democracy, openly steal an election, and lead us into brutal autocracy.   

SOMETIMES IT SNOWS IN NOVEMBER

In The New Yorker, Susan Glasser notes, “There is simply no precedent for a President doing anything like what Trump is doing right now”—what she calls “a systemic attack on the integrity of the election itself.”

That should surprise no one who has observed Donald Trump’s career for more than fifteen minutes. But what is surprising, and much more alarming, is the extent to which the GOP has abetted him, as “Trump has, once again, made his Party’s leaders out as stooges and patsies.”

Glasser:

Look at how far Republicans have gone along with Trump’s folly after an election that was decisively won by Biden, a contest in which he beat Trump by more than five million votes and garnered three hundred and six electoral votes—exactly the electoral-college “landslide” that Trump secured in 2016. Republican excuses have grown increasingly pathetic: We’re just giving him time. We’re just letting the process play out. He’s entitled to pursue his claims in the courts.

In other words, the GOP is too cowardly to smack down even Trump’s weak and plainly illegal play, choosing instead to look the other way and wait for it to fizzle out. A real profile in courage there, guys.

But what if Trump’s play had been stronger? Would the Republican Party—the one that was too afraid to challenge a badly beaten lame duck—suddenly have developed the intestinal fortitude to attack him while he was in a position of strength? See me later if you’re interested in buying a bridge in Brooklyn.

I quoted The Bulwark’s  Jonathan V. Last on this point two weeks ago, but it bears repeating:

The only reason we believe Biden will become president is because we believe that his advantage is too big for Trump to succeed in overturning the election. We think that the rule of law will hold not because it is inviolable, or because both sides are committed to it, but because the results create too tall a burden on the would-be autocrat.

So, exactly as predicted in these pages and elsewhere, Trump’s coup failed only because Biden won so decisively. If it had been closer, if it had come down to just one swing state instead of five or six, if Trump had a real lawyer instead of Rudy Giuliani, if there had been genuine irregularities that the GOP could seize on to make its legal and public relations case, or if they had even been able to spin up fake ones, it might well have gone differently. We would be in a world of hurt.

Next time, it very well might.

STOOGES AND PATSIES AND PUNKS, OH MY

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the GOP reaction, given how supplicant it has been for the last four years. Yet its willingness to keep mum while Trump sets fire to the last and most fundamental of our democratic principles remains stunning.

The range of cowardice and venality runs from the full-throated toadyism of Matt Gaetz and Lee Zeldin to the mealy-mouthed equivocation of Moscow Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio, to the Sergeant Schultz “I see nahh-thing!” impressions of people like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. Among the worst, as usual, has been Lindsey Graham, with his outrageous pressuring of state officials. What business does a US Senator from South Carolina have calling Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State to discuss the recount of a presidential election? Should the GOP hold onto the Senate, Lady G ought to be stripped of his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, not that anyone asked me.

For his part, that Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, has shown principle and backbone to shame his predecessor in that job, election theft specialist Brian Kemp, who is now governor of the Peach State.

And it gets crazier.

Last week, one of Trump’s lawyers, Sidney Powell, claimed that Biden owed his win to “the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China and the interference with our elections here in the United States.” It was a claim so batshit that even Tucker Carlson ridiculed it, describing the whole press conference as “truly bonkers.” (And got attacked by MAGA Nation for his temerity. Sorry Tuck!) And yet, as Heather Cox Richardson reports, “the official Twitter account of the Republican Party endorsed Powell’s statements.”

Bill Barr, curiously, has been very quiet. Maybe he knows a lost cause when he sees one. If so, his instinct for self-preservation has, for once, outweighed his oft-demonstrated capacity for hypocrisy. I give him no credit for integrity, however—if he has any, he would have spoken out against Trump’s actions and resigned, or better yet, never sacrificed his (already unearned) reputation as a respectable “institutionalist” and joined this criminal administration in the first place, nor done any of the horrific things he has done as a member of it.

Only a very few Republican officeholders have spoken out against Trump’s actions, including Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, and recently, retiring Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey. I’ve been very hard in these pages on Susan Collins and Ben Sasse, so credit where it’s due, they’ve at least weighed in, albeit in pretty measured tones. Joni Ernst also peeped some mild complaint. This passes for courage in the modern GOP, where obviously the bar is pretty damn low.

Not counting those out of office like George Bush or Chris Christie, the most prominent and toughest Republican voice, again, has been Mitt Romney, who tweeted:

Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the President has now resorted to overt pressure on states and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election. It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president.

But these folks are outliers in the contemporary Trump—er, I mean, Republican—Party, occupying a position of pariahood only one notch above that of the denizens of The Bulwark or the Lincoln Project.

Retiring Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander awoke from his slumber and spoke up, though it would have been nice if he had done that during the impeachment last February. Speaking of which, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes reminds us, during that process the GOP’s Senate majority predicated its votes to acquit on the risible premise that it ought to be left to the electorate whether to remove Trump from office. Let’s set aside the way that that excuse was a shamelessly dishonest abdication of their own responsibility as a co-equal branch and accept, for the sake of argument, the idea that it should be up to the American voters to decide Trump’s fitness or lack thereof.

Well, we decided. Now the GOP wants to disregard the will of those voters. So it should come as no surprise to learn that the Republicans’ original rationalization was nothing but a fuckin’ joke.

Strike that: less of a joke than an insult.

NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS

For four years, MAGA Nation has been sneering at Democrats “You lost; get over it.” As Jeff Tiedrich notes, they are mighty quiet now. The other t-shirt popular among Moscow’s unwitting quislings (and some witting ones) reads “Fuck your feelings.” Yet now we are being asked to give Donald Trump endless amounts of “time” to come to terms with his defeat? Jesus Christ, how many more times in his miserable life will this loathsome meatsack be gifted with such unearned generosity?

In a brilliant essay for the Washington Post, Robin Givhan reminds us that “Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote but lost the electoral count to Trump in 2016, was barely given 24 hours to nurse her wounds before much of the country was tapping its toes anxious for her concession.”

So man up, you orange snowflake.

Not that I am holding my breath.

As Amy Davison Sorkin writes, also in The New Yorker, “We are at a strange point when soothing a President’s ego is seen as an acceptable reason to sow doubts about our democracy.” But it is not merely that the Republican Party is humoring him. They are waiting to see if he will gain traction, in which case they will surely throw in behind him.

The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, who grew up under authoritarianism, and lived through a coup attempt, writes that “An overwhelming majority of Republican elected officials are hedging their bets on the coup.” That hedging suggests they would readily go the other way if the wind shifted.

No aspiring dictator can commandeer enough military power to be able to dominate an entire country that refuses to recognize him. No coup plotters can close every channel of communication and stop all movement. No one usurping power can force people to forget that different norms and expectations existed as recently as yesterday. What successful coup plotters do is con enough people into thinking that they have already taken power.

If Republicans had a better hand, they might not be merely gazing at their shoes, trying not to offend Trump, and waiting him out. They might be in full-throated, Florida-in-2000 attack mode, trying to overturn this election.

Do you doubt it for a New York minute?

If the GOP’s plan has been to cravenly keep quiet and try to run out the clock, their strategy is being sorely tested by Trump’s willingness to take this to one extreme after another as each of his options is slowly but inexorably shut off. That process reached a new low last week when Trump invited the senior-most Republican leaders of the Michigan state legislature to the White House in order to pressure them not to certify the vote for Biden. (This after the whipsaw debacle involving the Wayne County Board of Canvassers earlier in the week.)

When considering just how jaded we’ve become under Trump, and what’s the most outrageous thing that he could do while we just shrug, this is a strong candidate. That his ploy—like his broader scheme—seems to have failed is not the point; the point is that he tried it at all, and it was not a national scandal.

In denying Biden’s win, and stalling the transition with baseless lawsuits and futile recounts, the laughably dishonest mantra of Trump’s surrogates is to “let the process play out.” (News flash: it has.) The decision point they repeatedly cite for when they will give up the fight is when the states certify their votes.

That moment will soon be at hand. As The New York Times reports, “six key states that Mr. Biden won—Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin—have deadlines between (Nov. 20) and Dec. 1 to certify his victories.” Once that happens, watch the GOP refuse to accept the certification and gin up a new excuse to try to get the race thrown into the House. And failing that, as a last resort, perhaps some other pretext to declare the vote null and void?

(PS How can the GOP claim that it won all its other races, but not the presidential one?)

What’s that you say? We don’t know what Republicans would do if Trump did something REALLY outrageous, like invoked the Insurrection Act?

Two things about that.

First, he has ALREADY done numerous deeply outrageous things in trying to get the results of this election overturned. How much further does he have to go before Republicans poke their heads out of their hidey-holes and clear their throats in polite complaint?

Second, and more to the point, if they won’t complain about this stuff, which requires not a lot of guts, what makes you think they’ll suddenly develop a backbone when loaded weapons come into play, pointed at the heads of American protestors outside the White House? Moral courage doesn’t wait for the worst case scenario to make its voice heard; it emerges early, and vocally, if it’s really there at all.

No. What this shit show has clearly demonstrated, and what we ought never forget, is that the Republican Party has no principles whatsoever except the accumulation and maintenance of its own raw power at all costs. If given a viable opening, no matter how deceitful, it would not think twice about destroying every single democratic tenet on which this country was founded and instituting a full-blown neo-fascist autocracy in defiance of the will of the people. Indeed, for some 25 years now it has been engaged in an aggressive low-intensity guerrilla campaign to do precisely that, through disenfranchisement, court packing, and its commitment to countermajoritarian rule.

Its shameful silence and complicity while Trump tries to overturn the election is just a stark demonstration of how far Republicans would be willing to take that campaign.

SHINING PATH

In April 1992, Peru’s sitting president Alberto Fujimori gave us the term autogolpe, or “self-coup,” when, with the support of the Peruvian armed forces, he attempted to dissolve Congress, replace most of the country’s judiciary branch, and seize near-absolute power. Fujimori was forced to flee Peru, and eventually thrown in prison for crimes against humanity including murder and kidnapping, along with a raft of corruption charges, marking “the first time that an elected head of state has been extradited to his home country, tried, and convicted of human rights violations.”

So watch out, Donald, in case you’re thinking of decamping to Saudi Arabia. It might not save you.

Then again, Fujimori still had a 60% approval rating in Peru when he fled, and in 2017 a subsequent president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski  tried to pardon him before the country’s Supreme Court reversed it. Dictators the world over have long depended on that sort of bolstering from their enablers.

As Americans, we have long arrogantly imagined that we are better than anyone else on Earth when it comes to the strength of our commitment to democracy, that we are uniquely immune to the dangers (and temptations) or autocracy. Recent events have blown that hubris to smithereens.

Susan Glasser again:

(A) Monmouth poll this week found that seventy-seven per cent of Republicans now believe the election was tainted by fraud and are not certain that Biden won. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, have refused to denounce Trump’s increasingly unhinged and undemocratic actions, and, while privately conveying acknowledgements of Biden’s victory, have publicly remained silent. The GOP leadership, which has tolerated so many abuses by Trump, is now openly complicit in his worst one yet.

Gessen is even more cutting in calling out the laughable toothlessness of the pushback to Trump:

(A)s is his way, Trump is succeeding even as he fails. His project all along has been to destroy the political order as we have known it….

Whenever Trump tweets that he won the election, Twitter adds, “Multiple sources called this election differently,” as though we didn’t know enough to say instead, “Trump lost.” Trump’s bad con continues to show how easy it would be to stage a good one.

Yea verily. Trump has given the GOP the playbook. When a smarter, more disciplined wannabe despot comes along, what makes us think they won’t succeed where Donald—yet again—failed?

The day will come when succeed they will.

********

Photo: Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in 1995

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