Last week, Axios reported an alarming but vaguely sourced story that “Republicans are talking more” about pressuring Republican state legislators to override the election results in their state and appoint pro-Trump representatives to the Electoral College. The next day, the New York Times identified the specific source of this terrifying idea: Donald Trump himself, who floated it in White House discussions.
This very maneuver was the most chilling scenario floated before the election. When Barton Gellman reported that Republican legislators in Pennsylvania had discussed it, the party indignantly denied having any such designs. And indeed, it would amount to little more than a coup carried out through a legal loophole. State legislatures in several states are gerrymandered so heavily that Republicans enjoy permanent, unassailable majorities; letting those voter-proof bodies abrogate a free election would plunge the political system headlong into authoritarianism.
Before proceeding, we should be clear about something: This is not going to happen. At least not this year. Donald Trump’s position is far too weak to support such a scheme. He would need to flip at least three states, his legal team is comically inept, and his gestures toward this drastic step have been too little and too late to sustain the necessary pressure.
But it’s because his effort is so feeble that the compliance of many Republicans is so striking. While supporting a coup that might come to fruition is tempting, supporting one that is certain to fail is not. Trump’s pathetic campaign to discredit the election is the easiest possible test of his party’s commitment to democracy. Remarkably, a number of prominent Republicans are failing it.
Influential Republican activists like Tom Fitton, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Ken Starr have all demanded state legislators override the election result. Politicians like Florida governor Ron DeSantis and South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham have also signed on.
They are not merely giving oxygen to Trump’s fantastical claims that Joe Biden stole the election — a suspicion that will preemptively delegitimize Biden’s presidency and fire up the Republican base against him, to the party’s benefit. They are endorsing the logical follow-on step of abrogating the supposedly fraudulent results.
Yesterday, Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger alleged that Graham had pressured him to help Trump prevail in that state’s recount, urging measures that would amount to throwing out legal ballots. Graham denied having said anything like this, and his defenders attested to his sterling character:
Of course, Raffensperger doesn’t have a recording of the conversation, so it’s his word against Graham’s. But what motive does Raffensperger, a Republican, have to rat out a fellow Republican, especially when doing so imperils his own political future? For that matter, what is the innocent version of this conversation? Raffensperger is running a recount, and Trump’s close ally is calling him to discuss the standards he’ll use for disqualifying ballots for what legitimate and aboveboard reason, exactly?
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Raffensperger gives more detail on Graham’s disturbing request. The two men had two conversations, and in the second one, “Graham called back again and brought up the idea of invalidating absentee ballots from counties with higher rates of signature errors.” Raffensperger rejected that request – which would amount in practice to invalidating huge numbers of Democratic votes on spurious grounds – as grossly illegal. Raffensperger also tells the Journal he had staffers with him on that call, which means there are potentially witnesses to Graham’s blatant attempt to steal a presidential election.
Graham of course has already gone on television and answered a question about appointing electors to cancel the vote in the affirmative: “Everything should be on the table.” If he is willing to support such a banana-republic maneuver in public, why wouldn’t he do the same thing in private?
Trump’s attempted coup is going to fail because he hasn’t gotten the party fully onboard with it. It’s not hard for them to say no: Trump didn’t even begin to organize his scheme until it was too late, he has too many states to flip, and the alternative facing them — a moderate Democrat constrained by a right-wing court and a likely Republican Senate — is hardly scary.
One can only imagine how the party would respond in a slightly different world: a Republican presidency capable of organizing plans in advance, an election coming down to one or two states, a more unconstrained progressive Democratic administration as the alternative.
The popular Republican stance has been to indulge Trump’s lies while dismissing the danger he poses. “To launch a coup you need more than a giant, suppurating grievance and access to Twitter,” Wall Street Journal opinion columnist and former editor Gerard Baker scoffs. “You need a fanatical commitment, a detailed plan, an energy, a sophisticated apparatus of revolution.”
Not exactly. Those are the things one needs to carry out a coup. To merely launch a coup, you only need a party leader who refuses to abide by an election and recruits allies to cancel its result. That isn’t a fright story told by wild-eyed liberals. It’s what’s happening right now.
This post has been updated.