This week’s long but important read is by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker on the American battle over “election integrity”, colloquially known as the Big Lie: the claim that last year’s presidential election was the scene of large-scale fraud that deprived Donald Trump of victory.
Mayer takes us through the Trumpist refusal to accept defeat, and the network of right-wing think-tanks, foundations and individuals that have mobilised to try to discredit the electoral process and to ensure that in the future it can be manipulated in their favor. The current front line is the bizarre Republican-ordered “audit” of votes in Maricopa county, Arizona, but similar moves are afoot in other marginal states.
As usual in America, race is never far from the picture. Mayer quotes Michael Podhorzer, an adviser to the union movement:
What animates [the Big Lie] is the belief that Biden won because votes were cast by some people in this country who others think are not “real” Americans. … Trump won white America by eight points. He won non-urban areas by over twenty points. He is the democratically elected President of white America. It’s almost like he represents a nation within a nation.
Hence the Republican efforts at voter suppression, to try to drive down turnout among demographic groups that favor the Democrats. But voter suppression, although important, is only part of the story: much more worrying are the attempts to take over electoral administration and to give Republican legislatures the power to determine results. These are the things that make election expert Rick Hasen tell Mayer that he is “scared sh*tless”.
The Trumpists are not just trying to rig the rules of democracy in their favor. They are preparing the ground to overturn democratic government itself – not by armed insurrection, as some of them attempted on 6 January, but by ostensibly legal means. Once you deny the legitimacy of votes cast for your opponents, any and all means to prevent them taking effect can be justified. (Myanmar is just the latest example of where that can lead.)
Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the way it has divided the Republican Party, not on any sort of pre-existing ideological lines, but between those who held actual responsibility for elections and those who did not. Republicans who were at the coalface of electoral administration – canvassers, county supervisors, secretaries of state and the like – overwhelmingly accepted that the election was fair and above board. Those who claimed fraud were almost all at a step removed from the process: legislators and outside agitators, plus Trump and his cronies in Washington.
That may have implications for the contest for control of the party that we talked about the other day. There are large numbers of of Republicans on the ground who may otherwise have no personal or political gripe against Trump, but who can see from personal experience that his claims are unmoored from reality. If they remain in the party, their influence could ultimately swing it away from Trump’s influence; if they leave, it will mean a damaging loss of administrative experience.
For the moment, however, the party is following the Trumpist playbook. At best, its leaders are in denial about the real aims of the election fraud caravan. At worst, they are fully complicit in its assault on democracy.