The conservative movement has been xenophobic, intellectually bankrupt, and proto-authoritarian since well before the phrase “President Donald Trump” ceased to be a Simpsons reference.
Mitt Romney’s “compassionate conservative” pedigree did not stop him from demanding the self-deportation of “illegals” in 2012 (nor, for that matter, did not prevent him from kissing the birther king’s ring). The GOP’s disregard for deficits under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did not stop it from fomenting anti-debt hysteria under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; nor did the repeated failure of supply-side tax cuts to pay for themselves stop Republicans from insisting that the next round would. Meanwhile, through aggressive gerrymandering, the Roberts Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and various voting restrictions aimed at combating nonexistent mass voter fraud, Republicans have been chipping away at the foundations of our liberal democracy for more than a decade.
But they used to have some sense of decorum: Conservatives insisted that their opposition to “amnesty” was rooted in a commitment to the rule of law and concern for native-born workers, not racial animus against nonwhite immigrants; that their support for regressive taxation derived from macroeconomic models and not plutocratic avarice; and that their apparent attempts to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning constituencies reflected earnest concern about safeguarding the integrity of election results, not a conviction that their opposition had no legitimate right to govern.
Donald Trump had no patience for such politesse. For five years now, the mogul has been waging total war on the American right’s (im)plausible deniability about its own true nature. There were plenty of immigration restrictionists in the 2016 GOP primary, but the Republican base opted for the one who’d declared that Mexicans were rapists and that no Muslims should be allowed to enter the United States. By manically oscillating between contradictory economic proposals — calling for universal health care and higher taxes on the wealthy one day, work requirements for Medicaid and supply-side tax cuts the next — Trump revealed the policy nihilism of the self-styled “party of ideas.” The high priests of supply-side voodoo may have disdained empirical rigor, but only Trump broadcasted contempt for the very concepts of ideological coherence or reasoned argument.
Now, in his presidency’s final chapter, Trump has torn away the conservative movement’s most precious fig leaf — the one concealing its naked contempt for democracy.
Until this week, the president’s months-long campaign to end constitutional government in the United States (a.k.a. “the putz putsche,” a.k.a. “the nincomcoup”) had wrapped its authoritarian will to power in a thin scrim of conspiracy theories. When 11 Republican senators declared their intention to oppose certification of the 2020 presidential election this week, they justified their stance by referencing “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud, violations and lax enforcement of election law, and other voting irregularities.” Of course, as some other Senate Republicans pointed out, the unsubstantiated nature of these allegations are of greater relevance than their unprecedented quantity. Nevertheless, the party line among the Trumpist faithful, which reportedly includes a supermajority of Republican House members, is that they are fighting to preserve democracy in the U.S., not to destroy it.
On Sunday, this bluff got called. Audio was released of a phone call between Georgia secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Trump, in which the president implored him to manufacture exactly enough new Republican votes to paint the Peach State red. Trump did float a variety of conspiratorial voter-fraud allegations during his phone call with Raffensperger, but ultimately, he stated explicitly that he was not seeking an accurate vote count, but merely one that rendered him the victor. “So look,” the president said, “all I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.” Trump further suggested that Raffensberger was taking a “big risk” in refusing to rustle up the desired ballots.
This was the day’s most spectacular “mask drop,” but not its most telling. The president’s phone call exposed his own cynicism, but it took a House vote Sunday evening to expose that of his congressional allies. Roughly 140 House Republicans are reportedly planning to object to the certification of state Electoral College votes this week. One of their colleagues, the staunchly conservative Chip Roy of Texas, objected to their stance — and decided to spotlight its bad faith. The Trumpists claim that the vote counts in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and other swing states are so rife with fraud, Congress is justified in nullifying their Electoral College votes, at least until the body conducts investigations into alleged improprieties. And yet, none had called for Congress to refuse to seat the newly elected (or reelected) House members from these same contested states. Which is patently inconsistent: If one believes that a state’s vote total in a presidential race is inaccurate, one can’t simultaneously hold that the vote totals in each and every House district within that state are pristine. The House and presidential elections were conducted on the same ballots. If a vast number of fraudulent ballots were counted — or a vast number of legitimate ones destroyed — then that would compromise the integrity of House elections just as surely as it would the presidential one.
Thus, on Sunday night, Roy challenged the seating of all House members from states that Biden had narrowly won. His apparent aim was to invite his colleagues to follow their position to its logical conclusion or expose the fraudulence of their own avowed concerns about voter fraud. Only two House Republicans voted against seating these new members. The rest effectively admitted that their incendiary allegations of mass fraud are instrumental fictions.
Some take solace in the Trumpists’ cynicism, observing that no Republican with actual authority to overturn the election’s result has done their part — not the conservative Supreme Court justices, nor Republican-controlled swing-state legislatures. Other Republican officials are simply putting on a show for primary voters, fully cognizant that their protest votes will have no impact on the election’s outcome. But this argument is not strictly true. For one thing, three of the four conservatives on Wisconsin’s seven-member state Supreme Court voted to effectively flip the state from blue to red, at the Trump campaign’s behest. Had this election come down to the Badger State alone, and had there been one more far-right justice on Wisconsin’s bench, the conservative movement might well have overturned the outcome of a presidential election by judicial fiat.
Regardless, “House Republicans are only promising to nullify an election because they are afraid GOP primary voters will punish them if they don’t” isn’t an especially comforting thought. The combined power of Trump’s bully pulpit and the GOP base’s capacity for motivated reasoning has made unhinged conspiracies into red America’s common sense. Patricia Murphy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution told Axios this week that she had yet to find a single Republican voter who believes that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, while “many of them don’t even think he’ll be inaugurated on January 20.”
There is a reason why opposition to certifying the 2020 election’s results is more widespread in the House than it is in the Senate. House Republicans were all on the ballot last year, and will be again in 2022. They are therefore more reflective of — and less insulated from — their party’s Trump-era lurch into unabashed authoritarianism than their Senate colleagues are. Tyrannic madness might not be hegemonic in today’s GOP, but it is ascendent. Which is also why the minority of Republican senators who oppose certification includes two presumptive 2024 hopefuls, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.
It is worth noting that the overrepresentation of Republican voters in the Electoral College, House, and Senate has already led the entire GOP to disavow the concept of popular sovereignty. Back in 2000, when it looked to many analysts like the Democratic Party boasted an advantage in the Electoral College, George W. Bush’s campaign publicly argued that if their candidate won the popular vote, he should be president, no matter how the electors shook out. As the New York Daily News reported on November 1 of that year:
So what if Gore wins such crucial battleground states as Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania and thus captures the magic 270 electoral votes while Bush wins the overall nationwide popular vote?
“The one thing we don’t do is roll over,” says a Bush aide. “We fight.”
How? The core of the emerging Bush strategy assumes a popular uprising, stoked by the Bushies themselves, of course.
In league with the campaign – which is preparing talking points about the Electoral College’s essential unfairness – a massive talk-radio operation would be encouraged. “We’d have ads, too,” says a Bush aide, “and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted.”
Today, Republicans suggest that anyone who deems it unfair for a presidential candidate to receive more votes than her opponent yet still lose the election is woefully ignorant about the nature of our form of government (“we’re a republic, not a democracy”). But the emergence of a pro-GOP bias in all of America’s counter-majoritarian institutions hasn’t just turned Republicans into hypocrites. It’s also gutted the party’s vestigial attachment to the most minimal democratic principles. Once you accept that it’s completely legitimate for a presidential candidate to lose the popular vote by 2 million ballots and still take office — or for the majority of Americans who live in the ten most urban states to collectively boast only 20 representatives in the Senate — then there ceases to be any ethical basis for opposing the construction of new, wholly arbitrary mechanisms for subordinating the popular will to partisan advantage. In most Electoral College battlegrounds, state legislative maps overrepresent rural areas so profoundly, Republican majorities in the statehouse are effectively permanent; even in “blue wave” election years, the GOP retains its state legislative supermajorities, thanks to the overrepresentation of rural areas. With a little aid from the judiciary, these state legislatures could award themselves the power to allocate their states’ Electoral College votes, transforming purple states into reliably red ones, thereby entrenching one-party Republican rule.
This hypothetical is not certain or even likely. But the GOP’s up-and-coming House members, and two of its top 2024 contenders, are betting that antidemocratic conspiracism is their party’s future. It would be imprudent for America’s small-d democrats to bet against them.
Under Trump, the conservative movement’s authoritarianism has grown more ambitious and unashamed. But it has also become too garish to miss. And that constitutes a silver lining of sorts. The Trump presidency has been catastrophic, but it has also been clarifying. If Democrats capture a bare Senate majority in Georgia tomorrow night, they will face an unambiguous choice: to fortify democracy in the United States (by passing landmark reforms that increase the influence of popular majorities over the federal government) or uphold Senate traditionalism (by declining to abolish the legislative filibuster). The mainstream press, meanwhile, must decide whether it wishes to defend the norms of “view from nowhere” journalism, or those of liberal democracy, without which their vocation would cease to serve any civic purpose. Finally, in Georgia tomorrow, self-described “constitutional conservatives” will have the opportunity to make a clear-eyed choice between their republican values and their Republican ones.