This past weekend, former national security adviser Michael Flynn appeared at the “For God & and Country Patriot Roundup,” a right-wing conclave in Texas, where he endorsed a military coup. “I want to know why what happened in Minamar [sic]” — QAnon believers have fixated on Myanmar’s military junta as a precursor to a similar event here — “can’t happen here?” an audience member, who identified himself as a Marine, asked Flynn. “No reason. I mean, it should happen here. No reason. That’s right,” Flynn replied. (Flynn later denied saying this, but it was captured on video.)
At the same time Flynn casually endorsed the military overturning the election and reinstalling the defeated president, the state’s Republican legislature was rushing through a package of voting restrictions that would advance the same broad agenda as Flynn advocates, but within the color of law.
One of the easy and cheap tools of political rhetoric is to hold up one of the more extreme members of the opposing party and misleadingly depict them as representative. To be clear, Michael Flynn is not representative of the Republican Party. He is an outlier in the full extent of his paranoia and willingness to advance the party’s cause through mass-scale illegal domestic violence.
But Flynn’s beliefs are not isolated, and as the drama in Texas indicates, they relate closely to the agenda of the party’s mainstream. A clear majority of Republican voters believe the 2020 election was stolen, and nearly a quarter of them support QAnon’s deranged fantasies. (Specifically, they agree that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation,” that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders,” and “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”)
The proportion of Republicans who believe Joe Biden legitimately won a majority of votes in a majority of the Electoral College is also about one-quarter. All of this is to say that people like Flynn are no more marginal within the GOP than people who believe Joe Biden won the election. If Flynn is an outlier, so are the Republicans who accept the election results. Within the Republican Party, Michael Flynn is no more of a kook than Mitt Romney.
The party’s mainstream has accordingly formed a position between the pro-military coup pole and the accept-the-election pole. That consensus Republican position avoids engaging with internally divisive questions like the legitimacy of Biden’s election (the official talking point, when asked if Biden won the election fairly, is to avoid the question and simply note that he is the sitting president). Republicans likewise prefer to avoid the topic of QAnon by deflecting questions and pivoting to talk about other extremist groups.
But Republicans can’t afford to completely alienate their pro-coup wing. That is why the consensus party stance is to act on the majority Republican belief that Biden stole the election, by imposing a sweeping regimen of voting restrictions, along with legal provisions that will allow Republicans to more easily challenge and overturn the next Democratic presidential election victory.
In Arizona, Republicans stripped the secretary of State (who is currently a Democrat) from any role in election litigation, while vesting all authority in the state’s attorney general, who is currently a Republican. Tellingly, the provision sunsets in January 2023, when the term ends for both officials.. Why? Because the state’s Republican-controlled legislature wants to be sure that it can hand control over a contested election to a Republican, and don’t know yet which office will be controlled by which party.
In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled state legislature has hired ex-cops to investigate the state’s 2020 election. “Is there a whole lot of smoke or is there actual fire? We just don’t know yet,” explained House Speaker Robin Vos. “My hope is that they come back and they build the case to show Gov. (Tony) Evers and the Democrats who are in the ‘Casablanca’ mode — ‘nothing to see here,’ ‘everything’s fine,’ ‘they just want to suppress the vote.’ No. These are professional investigators.”
The Texas bill, which the state’s Democrats have temporarily delayed by fleeing the legislature to deny it a quorum, is the most egregious measure yet proposed in any state. It would not only impose the now-routine clawbacks of voting access: limits on early voting, drive-through voting, and other conveniences that allowed the state to record higher turnout. It would crack down on volunteers driving more than two people to the polls (so, if you don’t have a car and you want to vote, you might be out of luck). And it would make it easier to disqualify mail ballots by comparing signatures, a notoriously unreliable method of ascertaining identification.
Republicans understand perfectly well that government does not always operate efficiently, and that red tape can slow it down. That is precisely their intention. In addition to a blizzard of new restrictions on voting access, they are creating one-sided penalties, all on the side of reduced voting access.
The bill would also ramp up fines and criminal penalties on election officials who err on the side of voter access. Officials who send out absentee ballot applications to voters who haven’t requested them would face prison time; there is no equivalent ramp-up in penalties for officials who deny eligible voters a chance to cast a ballot. The new structure, by design, heavily incentivizes officials to err on the side of restriction rather than access.
More alarming still is a combination of procedures seemingly designed to create a crisis should Democrats win a statewide election. The measure creates protections for poll watchers and criminal penalties for state officials who in any way obstruct or impair their “free movement” throughout polling areas. Recall that in 2020 Republicans deployed thousands of poll watchers, many of them with brains addled by Fox News and brimming with absurd claims of fraud.
Relatedly, the state also lowered the evidentiary bar for judges to declare elections fraudulent. The two aspects work in tandem: one generates more potential rule violations and more people to claim they witnessed rule violations, and the other more easily enables those claims to cancel the election.
After Donald Trump rejected the election outcome and began his effort to undo it, Republicans calmly insisted that they merely wished to allow “the legal process” to play out, as if the normal way to handle elections was through a series of hysterical charges and groundless lawsuits. The Texas bill indicates that this “process” will become routine, at least in any election Democrats win.
The thing to grasp about the Republican state-level counteroffensive against voting is that, within the bounds of party opinion, it is a compromise. Stacking the legal deck against voting, and in favor of Trump-style postelection legal challenges, arouses barely any controversy on the right. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which has occasionally drawn publicity by criticizing Trump’s communication style and undisciplined personal conduct, gives the Texas bill a fulsome endorsement. (The Journal has been laying the groundwork to fend off another Georgia-style backlash by running column after column warning corporations to stay out of the democracy issue.) Even Liz Cheney refused to condemn voter suppression, or even concede any link between these measures and Trump’s lies about the election.
The Republican Party, like all parties, is trying to hold together a coalition. That coalition includes people like Flynn, who want to simply seize power at gunpoint. The accommodation they have reached between their violent and nonviolent wings is a legal regimen designed to ensure that the next time a Trump rejects the election result, he won’t need a mob to prevail.