It’s twelve months today since a mob stormed the United States capitol building to try to prevent the counting of the electoral college votes that confirmed Joe Biden’s victory. What have we learnt since then?
Perhaps the most significant lesson has been that then-president Donald Trump, who incited the mob, has more control over the Republican Party than most of us realised. At the time, I remarked that “fear of his power and influence is a diminishing force in the Republican Party,” although I made the caveat that “any more broad questioning” of the party’s Trumpist trend “seems much less likely.”
In fact, Trump’s personal influence has maintained itself remarkably well. And it has become even less ideological than ever, as Trump’s policy views – never a major part of the package – have been completely displaced in his mind by his grievance of having lost the election. Loyalty to Trump now requires nothing more, but also nothing less, than a devotion to reinstating him as president.
A striking sign of that came last May with the removal of Liz Cheney, a staunch conservative, from her Republican leadership position in the House of Representatives. She was replaced by a member with a much more liberal record, but one who, unlike Cheney, had refrained from criticising Trump.
But the Cheney affair also suggests that the state of the Republican Party is not quite so simple. When she was first challenged, after voting to impeach Trump, she prevailed comfortably in a secret ballot, 145 to 61. Her removal three months later was on a voice vote. Clearly there are many Republicans who are afraid of Trump and of his grassroots supporters without themselves being Trumpists.
The story of the last twelve months is of the middle group of Republicans, including the House and Senate leaders, making the tactical decision to not challenge Trump for the moment. Their goal is that, with the exception of the few dissenters like Cheney, the party will stay united going into November’s mid-term elections – and if it regains control of one or both houses, they will be in a stronger position to assert themselves.
It’s not a crazy strategy. A lot could happen in the year and a half before the 2024 presidential campaign gets under way: Trump could go to jail, or he could find himself a new hobby. But there’s a high risk that not only will he again be the Republican candidate, but he will again expect the party’s office-holders to co-operate in stealing the election for him if the verdict of the electorate goes against him.
Last time, the vast majority of those that actually had any say in the matter refused to go along. Although 138 House Republicans voted (even after the insurrection) to throw out the Pennsylvania result, they all knew that was a doomed piece of theatre. It doesn’t follow that they intended to support a coup: and even if they all did, they would still be a long way short of a majority even in a new Republican-controlled House.
In some respects, the Trumpists have advanced since then. Trump and his inner circle realise that their biggest problem last time was the integrity shown by Republicans at state level, and they are working hard to remedy that. November’s elections are likely to remove many experienced Republican officials in key states and replace them with loyal Trumpists.
But it’s not clear how much that will help. Remember that (whatever Trump himself might dimly realise) the grassroots Trump followers are not, by their lights, trying to rig an election – they wholeheartedly believe that Trump won the last one fair and square. They will be trying to accurately count and tabulate votes, and if they find that those votes don’t favor Trump (as, for example, the Arizona “audit” found), there won’t be a great deal they can do about it.
Republican state legislators may give themselves the power to appoint presidential electors instead of following the popular vote. That’s a genuine threat to democracy, but it’s subject to the same shortcoming as Republican control of congress: not all Republicans are Trumpists, and stealing an election requires overcoming both the non-Trump Republicans and the Democrats in maybe three or four different states. It’s a very big ask.
Yes, the Republicans got away with theft in 2000, but that was an exceptionally close election, resting on a single state (Florida) decided by only a few hundred votes. The chance of something like that happening again is very small (I’ll do another post sometime soon to look at just how small).
Certainly 2020 wasn’t that close. Trump’s chance for stealing it, such as it was, rested crucially on his control of the executive branch: if enough Republicans had followed his lead, they might have created enough confusion for him to declare martial law and shut down opposition. But most of them stopped short of that point – particularly Mike Pence, who despite four years of loyal service was, as I put it at the time, “most unwilling to risk starting a civil war in order to help his mad boss steal an election that he lost by seven million votes.”
In three years time, with the executive in Democrat hands, that option will be closed off. It’s true that there are plenty of Republicans with guns, but they’re not realistically going to stand much chance against the US military.
This is now looking like a catalogue of reasons not to worry about American democracy, but that’s not actually my intention. A country in which a majority of one side of politics doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of its elections is in a bad way, and addressing that should be an urgent priority. But the danger is less in the immediate likelihood of a coup and more in the longer-term breakdown of institutions – and especially what might happen if Trump or someone like him were to actually win a future election.
America needs to fix the structural weaknesses in its electoral system that present anti-democratic elements with so much opportunity. (The Biden administration seems to have less than the required sense of urgency about this.) But it also needs to somehow start dealing with the underlying causes of anti-democratic sentiment. What that might look like will have to be the subject of another post.