Donald Trump was soundly defeated in his reelection campaign, and, at last, Republicans might be forced to take notice. The mountain of frivolous lawsuits by Trump’s legal team has been defeated. The Supreme Court rejected a last ditch effort by Texas to bait the court into overturning the election results in four critical states. Even the judges Trump appointed specifically in the hope that they’d help him steal the election have basically responded to the President with “new phone, who dis?” Now, electors have formally voted for Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States.
At last, it seems, the nightmare is ending. Trump tried to steal the election—and he failed. He will be removed from office at noon on January 20, 2021, just as the Constitution requires. We won.
But what exactly does that mean?
Unfortunately, some people are taking the wrong lesson from Trump’s defeat. In recent weeks I’ve seen some pundits crow that things did not fall apart, the center held: Our institutions proved able to resist the full force of Trumpism deployed against them. David Lauter, the senior Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, tweeted, “So far, predictions of catastrophe have fallen flat: No violence, no huge lines, no big problems with USPS nor mass numbers of voters with ballot errors. No efforts by GOP legislatures to interfere. Just Rudy [Giuliani] with hair dye dripping on his face. Whimper, not bang.” Brad Heath from Reuters wrote, “The basic gears and sprockets of our democracy have so far proved pretty resilient. Trump has attempted some pretty wild moves to subvert the election he just lost, but so far each and every one of them has failed.”
But that analysis appears overly sanguine. Trump failed to steal the election because he and his legal team are incompetent criminals, not because our democratic institutions defeated him. Saying that our democracy proved resilient against Republican attempts at subversion is like saying the fences at Jurassic Park proved resilient against raptors. Yes, technically Trump kept getting zapped on the electrified fence that is the federal judiciary. But his willingness to try—and the willingness of large swaths of the Republican Party to help him—shows that if the guardrails give way for even a moment, Republicans will break out and start eating the votes of Black people.
This election witnessed new and destructive attempts by the GOP to win: Instead of merely trying to suppress the votes of Black people, the party tried to nullify those votes altogether. In predominately Black city after predominately Black city, Republicans urged courts, state boards of elections, and secretaries of state to throw away ballots cast by legitimately registered voters on the basis of “voter fraud.” They offered no evidence for these allegations but expected officials to throw out literally hundreds of thousands of votes anyway.
And it almost worked. In Michigan, for instance, the two GOP members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, William Hartmann and Monica Palmer, initially refused to certify the results in their county, which includes Detroit. Palmer indicated she’d be willing to certify results everywhere in her jurisdiction except for precincts in that predominately Black city. Even the four-member Board of State Canvassers didn’t vote unanimously to certify Michigan’s results. One of the two Republicans abstained over “concerns” with election fraud—concerns that, again, were not substantiated by any evidence.
Once it became clear that the certification gambit would fail, Trump invited the state’s top two GOP legislators to the White House in an apparent attempt to intimidate or bribe them into sending a slate of Trump supporters to the Electoral College. The legislators balked at the idea. But if they had caved, would other Republican-led legislatures have followed suit?
Biden won Michigan by over 150,000 votes. What would be happening there now if he had won the state by only 11,000 votes—which is about the margin by which Trump defeated Hillary Clinton there in 2016? By how much are Democrats now required to win elections to make Republicans acknowledge the obvious results?
Meanwhile, as similar charades played out in other states, vanishingly few national Republican officials acknowledged Biden’s victory, instead choosing to support Trump’s baseless lawsuits to overturn the election. Some went even further. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is being investigated for ethics violations because he allegedly tried to pressure a Georgia official into throwing out some counties’ absentee ballots, the majority of which were for Biden.
Unfortunately, we now know that at least 126 Republicans in Congress are every bit as partisan and craven as Senator Graham. That’s how many of them joined Texas’s lawsuit to overturn the election. These Republicans seamlessly moved from “Trump has every right to pursue his legal options” to “we should throw out the votes of every swing state that Biden won,” as if nobody would notice the difference. But we noticed, we saw that at least 126 Republican members of Congress are more committed to partisan victory than basic democracy. We should never forget that.
This election revealed an entire network of functionaries who were captured and corrupted by Trump and were willing to help him steal the election. Who knew that the postmaster general could be turned into a weapon against democracy? Who would have thought that the head of the General Services Administration was such a weak and craven partisan? How many officials would Trump have fired if they stood in his way, as he did with cybersecurity chief Chris Krebs after he dared to tell people that the election was secure?
The Trump legal team is so incompetent and the courts have been so consistent in rejecting his campaign’s amateur-hour lawsuits that people may be tempted to think that the courts, at least, will reject similar threats to democracy in future elections. But I wouldn’t be so sure. The next phase of the Republican project to own our electoral system is now clear. Having seen the obstacles to throwing out the votes of Black people, conservative law professors and their Federalist Society coconspirators can be expected to start cranking out legal justifications to do just that.
Remember, 15 years ago, nobody would have thought that the Supreme Court would eviscerate the Voting Rights Act. The provision requiring historically racist states and counties to receive clearance before changing their election laws was reauthorized by Congress with 390 votes in the House and signed by President George W. Bush in 2006. But just seven years later, Chief Justice John Roberts destroyed that provision as part of the right’s long-term effort to suppress the votes of Black people. Who knows what conservative courts might be willing to do in future elections?
I do not think the institutions held during this election; I think Trump just got whupped beyond the point that the corrupted institutions could save him. Next time, we might not be so lucky. As Samuel L. Jackson’s character says in Jurassic Park, right before he cuts the power to the fences, “Hold on to your butts.”
Later in the movie, Jackson is eaten.