One of the maddening things about Donald Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was “stolen” is that no proof of election fraud is required to sustain the lie. Among the former president’s supporters, election denial is practically an article of faith; it relies more on conspiracy theories and mistrust of Trump’s enemies than any demonstrable facts. That’s why Trump can blithely assert not only that he won the 2020 election but that it was a historic landslide. The underlying assumption is that elections in the United States are now illegitimate. So why bother engaging with democracy at all if it produces patently “wrong” results?
This question lurks behind the MAGA movement’s growing hostility to democracy, not just to Democrats. In his discussions with grassroots Republicans in the election-denial stronghold of Arizona, New York Times reporter Robert Draper found that the old John Birch Society battle cry that America is “a republic, not a democracy” is on many tongues:
What is different now is the use of “democracy” as a kind of shorthand and even a slur for Democrats themselves, for the left and all the positions espoused by the left, for hordes of would-be but surely unqualified or even illegal voters who are fundamentally anti-American and must be opposed and stopped at all costs. That anti-democracy and anti-“democracy” sentiment, repeatedly voiced over the course of my travels through Arizona, is distinct from anything I have encountered in over two decades of covering conservative politics.
The identification of conservative political causes as synonymous with Americanism isn’t new, of course. But it’s turning from a rhetorical device to an actual creed whereby the enemies of right-wing political success are deemed enemies to the country itself. This line of reasoning lets MAGA politicians and activists justify any means of resistance, including the often-threatened “Second Amendment remedies.” Kari Lake, Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, minces no words in hurling anathemas at Democrats and those who collaborate with them, as Draper notes:
They have cast the 2022 election as not just history-defining but potentially civilization-ending. As Lake told a large crowd in downtown Phoenix the night before the primary: “It is not just a battle between Republicans and Democrats. This is a battle between freedom and tyranny, between authoritarianism and liberty and between good and evil.” A week later, in response to the F.B.I.’s executing a search warrant at Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Lake posted a statement on Twitter: “These tyrants will stop at nothing to silence the Patriots who are working hard to save America.” She added, “America — dark days lie ahead for us.”
With the very existence of America at stake in every election, does it really matter whether you can prove the “evil” people broke the rules in each individual case? Probably not. And that helps explain why election denial is still flourishing in Arizona. When the state’s bizarre 2020 election audit dragged on for many months and proved nothing that simply led to more assertions that Democrats and RINOs were suppressing the truth. Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for secretary of State, has summed up the Arizona GOP’s illogic by arguing that the burden of proof should be borne by those who consider legitimate elections legitimate:
A former GOP operative told Draper the particular susceptibility of Arizona Republicans to this sort of madness (aside from a tradition of extremism dating back to Barry Goldwater) may be attributable to a huge retiree population prone to conspiracy theories:
“These are all folks that have traded in their suit pants for sweatpants,” he said. “They’re on the golf course, or they’re in hobby mode. They have more than enough time on their hands. They’re digesting six to 10 hours of Fox News a day. They’re reading on Facebook. They’re meeting with each other to talk about those headlines. And they’re outraged that, ‘Can you believe that the government is lying to us about this?’”
But there’s clearly something else going on in Arizona and the nation that is deeper than the spread of disinformation. Hostility not just to government but to our democratic system of elections has been growing on the right for quite some time. It was evident during the Supreme Court coup of Bush v. Gore and the contempt Republicans expressed for the 2000 Democratic popular-vote victory. It was more fully manifest in the nasty right-wing reaction to the election of Barack Obama, whose legitimacy as president was regularly challenged and whose social and economic policies were attacked for allegedly redistributing resources from “deserving” taxpayers to undeserving poor people. The feeling on the right that democracy had broken America was expressed perfectly by Obama’s 2012 challenger Mitt Romney in his infamous remarks deploring the ability of the “47 percent” of Americans who owe no net income tax to vote themselves government benefits.
The ideological vanguard of the anti-Obama tea-party movement were the politicians and opinion leaders who dubbed themselves “constitutional conservatives,” typified by Jim DeMint, Michele Bachmann, and Ted Cruz. They held that conservative policy prescriptions were embedded in the Founders’ design for America and were eternally binding, regardless of the contrary wishes of democratic majorities. And the absolutism of the constitutional conservative belief system was typically strengthened by Christian nationalist views. An increasing number of conservatives seemed to believe that small government, gun and property rights, and conservative cultural totems like homophobia and fetal rights were handed down by the Founders with the explicit blessing of Jesus Christ. In this scheme, democracy is a strictly circumscribed means for choosing stewards of these inflexible traditions, never to be traduced without dire consequences for the republic.
Donald Trump and his followers took constitutional conservatism to its next level: an aggressive creed-mixing libertarian hostility to government with reactionary cultural views, all wrapped in the super-patriotic rhetoric of American greatness. Today’s MAGA-dominated GOP is a perfect playground for people like Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, the Arizona Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate whose campaign Thiel has bankrolled. Thiel proclaimed in 2009, as the tea-party movement began to rage against Obama’s election, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” A few years earlier, Masters said, “People who support what we euphemistically call ‘democracy’ or ‘representative government’ support stealing certain kinds of goods and redistributing them as they see fit.”
This authoritarianism in the name of liberty and godliness certainly seems counterintuitive, but it’s extremely useful as a political weapon. Anyone utilizing the democratic process to promote alternative policy visions is deemed un-American, and their successes are dismissed as illegitimate. Or as Trump put it in August 2020: “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” That could mean fraudulent ballots, or it could mean allowing immigrants who should have never been admitted to America to vote, or it could mean an election controlled by the 47 percent who expect something for nothing. Any democratic process that fails to affirm the righteous views of Trump and his supporters must be “rigged.”
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