Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc
the national interest

Trump’s Insurrection Is Building Professionalized Institutions

Next time, they won’t rely on amateurs.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc

Donald Trump’s bid to win an unelected second term spectacularly failed. But the effort he inspired is winning a longer-term campaign to reshape his party into an organ to advance his belief that Democratic election victories are inherently illegitimate. Trump’s success can be seen in the general refusal of Republican officials to acknowledge Joe Biden’s legitimate victory and their co-option of stop-the-steal fantasies with vote-suppression laws and new election police forces. Its most dangerous manifestation is probably the creation of an institutionalized movement to disrupt and challenge elections on the ground as they occur.

That movement has been detailed in two recent stories, by the New York Times and Politico. The Times focuses on the role of Cleta Mitchell, a longtime conservative Republican who is recruiting activists inspired by Trump’s stop-the-steal crusade to serve as poll watchers. Politico reports both on efforts to flood election sites in Michigan with right-wing volunteers as well as a broader national effort to link up Republican district attorneys who can mount real-time challenges.

It’s difficult to forecast with any certainty what effect these new forces will have on future elections. It’s entirely possible they will merely harass and annoy voters and poll workers, and perhaps generate more unsuccessful legal challenges, without changing the outcome.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible this organizing will overwhelm the system’s capacity to function and generate a crisis in which Trumpists are able to prevail. And since the latter possibility is a serious, republic-shattering event, it is worth considering how it might unfold.

The plan is to flood voting sites with Republican volunteers, who largely believe they are witnessing crime scenes. The Republican poll watchers will almost inevitably harass and challenge both voters they suspect of fraud (i.e., ones who have dark skin) and the poll workers processing their votes. These objections can gum up the workers, increase lines, and discourage potential voters. Worse, they can trigger messy disputes, which opens the door for legislatures to override the results and select the winner.

“Come Election Day, you create massive failure of certification” in Democratic precincts, Nick Penniman, founder and CEO of Issue One, an election-watchdog group, tells Politico. “The real hope is that you can throw the choosing of electors to state legislatures.”

The risk of such a scenario is enhanced by the responses to Trump’s election lies undertaken by Republicans nationally. Several Republican states have enacted laws claiming to crack down on voter fraud, which extend the categories of potential violations and thus multiply the possibilities for objections. Some states have also created special police forces tasked with enforcing election law, and others are installing Trump loyalists into government positions overseeing elections.

All these changes interact with each other: more poll watchers monitoring more election crimes and having more sympathetic officials to act on their demands. These conditions create at least the potential for the party to successfully and legally contest and overturn an unfavorable election outcome.

Trump’s defeat obviously played a large role in setting the party on its present course, but the forces he mobilized have existed long before he came onto the scene. Many conservatives have believed for decades, without requiring any evidence for their conviction, that Democrats in cities, especially cities with large non-white populations, engage in massive, undetected voter fraud routinely. Republicans have generally assumed they simply have to win elections by large margins in order to overcome inevitable Democratic cheating. (This was the spirit of Hugh Hewitt’s 2008 book, If It’s Not Close, They Can’t Cheat.)

Politico has obtained video of the conservative trainings in Michigan, which predictably reveal a fixation on areas with large numbers of Black voters. In an October meeting, Matthew Seifried, the RNC’s election integrity director for Michigan, tells Republican volunteers its priority targets are Detroit, Pontiac, and Southfield. (“Those are the ones that we need to focus all our efforts on.”) Both Politico and the Times document that the GOP efforts heavily mobilize conservatives who believe Trump’s claims to have won the election.

Trump, an avid consumer of conservative media, absorbed the conservative belief in endemic Democratic vote fraud. His main innovation was to take the next step and assume his party should not be weak losers who passively accept this state of affairs, but instead fight.

Another key event that has enabled the party’s current response was a little-noticed court order in 2018 lifting a consent decree against the Republican National Committee. In 1982, the RNC had mailed warnings to minority voters and sent off-duty police officers to minority-heavy precincts in a putative effort to deter vote fraud. A lawsuit resulted in the RNC agreeing not to engage in similar activities, but a judge agreed to let it expire after 2018.

The timing could hardly be worse — the party’s ability to harass minority voters has been unleashed at precisely the moment its interest in doing so has escalated.

Media coverage of Trump’s efforts to tighten his grip on the party has focused heavily on his efforts to help his most slavish followers win primaries. These interventions have met at least some internal resistance (and thus produced mixed results) because Trump’s nominee-picking adventures have a heavy cost for the party. He frequently endorses more extreme or simply unqualified candidates, decreasing the chance Republicans will win in the general election.

However, the Trumpian campaign to organize election challengers has met virtually no intraparty resistance. Mitchell is a longtime conservative-movement apparatchik with deep party ties, and the groups she has brought together span the breadth of the party infrastructure. “They include election deniers as well as mainstream organizations such as the Heritage Foundation’s political affiliate, Tea Party Patriots and the R.N.C., which has participated in Ms. Mitchell’s seminars,” reports the Times. “The effort, called the Election Integrity Network, is a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a right-wing think tank with close ties and financial backing from Mr. Trump’s political operation.”

Just like Christian conservatives and gun owners, election challengers are becoming an entrenched wing of the Republican Party. They are building organizations, training cadres, raising funds, and planning for contingencies. What is happening is the institutionalization of an insurrectionary movement.

Trump’s Insurrection Builds Professionalized Institutions