Even by the standards of a Republican-run state, Wisconsin’s legislature is gerrymandered so ruthlessly that the 2018 elections, in which voters supported Democrats by a 54-to-46-percent margin in the State Assembly, nonetheless delivered Republicans 64 percent of the seats. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, asked about the gerrymander, argued that it was perfectly fair. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” he told reporters after the election. In Vos’s mind, the fact that many Democratic voters resided in the state’s two largest cities rendered them undeserving of equal representation.
Indeed, as Vos saw it, if there was anything unfair about the system, it was the process for electing the governor. Democrat Tony Evers had defeated incumbent Republican Scott Walker by nearly 30,000 votes, and the fact that this result was arrived at by counting votes of city residents exactly the same as votes of people in small towns did not sit easily with Vos. “I do not like the fact that Madison and Milwaukee chose Governor Evers and they’re the reason that he won,” he said.
And so Vos and his party set out to rectify the injustice. In the last weeks before Evers takes office, the lame-duck all-Republican government swept through a series of votes designed to weaken the incoming governor. Some of the measures curbed his policy authority, like the ability to appoint members to an economic-development commission. Others were intended to suppress voters in future elections, like a rollback on early voting, a blow to low-income Democrats who have difficulty getting away from work and family obligations to stand in a crowded voting line on a Tuesday. “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in,” he told reporters. That the “very liberal governor” had won a fair election did not seem to matter. “Where I live,” Vos tweeted from the State Assembly’s account, referring to the areas of the state that should not be subject to a one-person-one-vote election Republicans might lose, “people have said do whatever you have to do to make sure the reforms that have been positive for Wisconsin don’t go away.”
“Do whatever you have to do” to get the outcome you want. Donald Trump’s gold-embossed version of authoritarianism, inflected with narcissism and a Mafia ethos, is highly distinctive and, at least to some Republican elites, occasionally unsettling. But Trump did not invent the broader distrust of democracy infecting his party. Nor is the philosophy espoused by Vos merely some alarming idiosyncrasy coming from one legislator in Wisconsin. In fact, paradoxically, the black-swan nature of Trump’s presidency is obscuring a decades-long project that, should the grand American experiment in self-government end in ruin, could easily bear more responsibility for its death than any single president.
Like many political innovations, the anti-democracy project has developed in Republican-controlled states, where over the past dozen years members of the GOP have enacted a wide array of restrictions designed to discourage minorities and students from voting by making the practice as burdensome as possible: forcing them to acquire photo identification from state offices with limited locations and hours, reducing the hours and number of voting stations, carrying out frequent purges that force voters to reregister. Very few Republicans or conservative intellectuals raised any objection to these practices, which at first attracted significant media attention. But the shock has worn off, the maneuvers have become something like standard operating procedure for state-level Republican governance, and we now inhabit a political reality in which Republicans looking to exploit the powers of minority control have become even more brazen in their tactics.
After North Carolina elected a Democratic governor in 2016, the state’s Republican legislature used its lame-duck session to strip the office of much of its power. Liberals and academics who study government and democracy howled in outrage; Republicans raised no objection. Some of these powers have since been reinstated by the courts, but this year’s lame-duck period demonstrates how attractive the North Carolina playbook has become. In addition to Wisconsin, Republican legislatures in Michigan have raced to hobble incoming Democratic governors, leveraging the counter-democratic power of gerrymandered legislative seats to overrule the statewide offices that are responsive to the majorities of those states.
North Carolina Republicans proposed a bill that would require every county election board to be chaired by a member of the party with the highest number of registered voters during odd-numbered years and the party with the second-highest during even-numbered years. The purpose of this baroque arrangement becomes clear when you realize it would give Republicans (the party with the second-most registered voters) control of elections in even-numbered years, which is when elections are held.
The methods on display in states like Wisconsin are telling because its political environment is a microcosm of the country’s. Starting in 2000, the election that first produced the regionalized red-blue map that has barely changed since, Democrats have won the popular vote in every presidential election but one. Republicans have controlled the House for all but four years. As Republicans have grown increasingly reliant for power on the disproportionate representation afforded rural voters, they have grown convinced that a fair system means protecting “real America” from the urban hordes.
What is more disturbing than the methods that have been used so far is the logic offered up as justification. When you treat a party’s majorities as unfit to govern or inherently fraudulent, you open the door to almost limitless responses. Trump’s wild charges about “rigged elections” and millions of imaginary illegal voters stand out for their blunt-force ignorance but not their basic thrust.
It was Florida senator Marco Rubio, the candidate of the party mainstream in 2016, who charged that a legally mandated recount of his state’s razor-tight election was a sinister Democratic plot to “try to steal a seat in the U.S. Senate & Florida Cabinet.” It was House Speaker Paul Ryan who mused that the slow counting of ballots in California indicated massive Democratic fraud. “It defies logic to me. We had a lot of wins that night, and three weeks later we lost basically every contested California race.” It was Mississippi governor Phil Bryant who said of the presidential election two years ago, “The election is rigged,” because, “as we look at the states where the more liberal voting population may be in cities in New York and California and some of the other areas, all you have to do is win those particularly large states.”
And it was 12 years ago that the George W. Bush administration ordered U.S. attorneys to find evidence that Democrats were committing wide-scale voter fraud — and then, when they failed to turn up any, fired several of them.
Trump may be worse, far worse, than anything that has come before him. But the twisted paranoia he espouses is a version of reality he absorbed from binge-watching the party’s most popular propaganda organ, and it is recognizable to the party he has taken over. Social conservatives see a diversifying population outnumbering white America. And economic conservatives see “takers” voting themselves a raise by confiscating the property of the rich minority. At some point, Trump will be gone, but American politics will continue to be a struggle over the legitimacy of democratic government.
*This article appears in the December 10, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!