September 24, 2021
On Monday, we learned that after last year’s election, John Eastman, a well-connected lawyer advising former president Donald Trump, outlined a six-point plan to overturn the outcome of the election and install Trump as America’s leader. They planned to cut the voters’ actual choice, Democrat Joe Biden, out of power: as Trump advisor Steve Bannon put it, they planned to “kill the Biden presidency in the crib.” This appears to have been the plan that Trump and his loyalists tried to execute on January 6.
That is, we now have written proof of an attempt to destroy our democracy and replace it with an autocracy.
This was not some crazy plot of some obscure dude in a shack in the mountains; this was a plan of the president of the United States of America, and it came perilously close to succeeding. The president of the United States tried to overturn the results of an election—the centerpiece of our democracy—and install himself into power illegitimately.
If this is not a hair-on-fire, screaming emergency, what is?
And yet, Republican lawmakers, with the notable exceptions of Representatives Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), have largely remained silent about the fact that the head of their party tried to destroy our democracy.
The best spin on their silence is that in refusing to defend the former president while also keeping quiet enough that they do not antagonize the voters in his base, they are choosing their own power over the protection of our country.
The other option is that the leaders of the Republican Party have embraced authoritarianism, and their once-grand party—the party of Abraham Lincoln, the party that saved the United States in the 1860s, the party that removed racial enslavement from our fundamental law—has become an existential threat to our nation.
Democracy requires at least two healthy parties capable of running a government in order to provide oversight for those currently in control of the government and to channel opposition into peaceful attempts to change the country’s path rather than into revolution. But Republicans appear to believe that any Democratic government is illegitimate, insisting that Democrats’ calls for business regulation, a basic social safety net, and infrastructure investment are “socialism” that will destroy the country.
With Democrats in charge of the federal government, Republicans are cementing their power in the states to support a future coup like the one Eastman described. Using “audits” of the 2020 elections, notably in Arizona but now also in Pennsylvania and Texas, Trump loyalists have convinced their supporters to distrust elections, softening the ground to overturn them in the future. According to a new poll by NORC at the University of Chicago, 26% of Americans now believe that “[t]he 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president,” and 8% believe that "[u]se of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency."
Arguing that they have to stop the voter fraud they have falsely claimed threw the election to Biden, Republican lawmakers in 18 states have passed more than 30 laws to cut down Democratic voting and cement their own rule. Trump supporters have threatened election workers, prompting them to quit, and have harassed school board members and local officials, driving them from office.
Although attorneys general are charged with nonpartisan enforcement of the law, we learned earlier this month that in September 2020, 32 staff members of Republican attorneys general met in Atlanta, where they participated in “war games” to figure out what to do should Trump not be reelected. The summit was organized by the Rule of Law Defense Fund, the fundraising arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), which sent out robocalls on January 5 urging recipients to march to the Capitol the following day “to stop the steal.” In May, RAGA elevated the man responsible for those robocalls to the position of executive director, prompting others to leave.
In states where Republicans have rigged election mechanics, party members need to worry about primary challengers from the right, rather than Democratic opponents. So they are purging from the party all but Trump loyalists, especially as the former president is backing challengers against those who voted in favor of his impeachment in the House in January 2021. Last week, one of those people, Representative Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), announced he was retiring, in part because of right-wing threats against his family.
Trump loyalists are openly embracing the language of authoritarianism. In Texas, Abbott is now facing a primary challenger who today tweeted: “Texans deserve a strong and robust leader committed to fighting with them against the radical Left. They deserve a leader like Brazil has in Jair Bolsonaro…..” Bolsonaro, a right-wing leader whose approval rating in late August was 23%, is threatening to stay in power in Brazil against the wishes of its people. He claims that the country’s elections are fraudulent and that “[e]ither we’ll have clean elections, or we won’t have elections.”
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) today used language fascists have used in the past to stoke hatred of their political opponents, tweeting that “ALL House Democrats are evil and will kill unborn babies all the way up to birth and then celebrate.” Yesterday, the leader of Turning Points U.S.A., Charlie Kirk, brought the movement’s white nationalism into the open when he told a YouTube audience that Democrats were backing “an invasion of the country” to bring in “voters that they want and that they like” and to work toward “diminishing and decreasing white demographics in America.” He called for listeners to “[d]eputize a citizen force, put them on the border, give them handcuffs, get it done.”
Today, we learned that the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will be held in Budapest, Hungary, where leader Viktor Orbán, whom Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson has openly admired, is dismantling democracy and eroding civil rights. When former vice president Mike Pence spoke in Budapest earlier this week at a forum denouncing immigration and urging traditional social values, he told the audience he hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would soon outlaw abortion thanks to the three justices Trump put on the court.
Establishment Republicans who are now out of power are not on board the Trump train. They are quietly backing anti-Trumpers like Representative Cheney. Former House speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, former Florida governor Jeb Bush—who was widely expected to win the Republican nomination in 2016, only to be shut out of it by Trump—and former president George W. Bush's former adviser Karl Rove have all donated money to Cheney to help her stave off a challenge from a Trump loyalist in the 2022 election. Next month, former president Bush himself will hold a fundraiser for Cheney in Texas.
Other establishment Republicans currently in power might be staying quiet about the party’s slide toward authoritarianism because they are simply hoping that the Trump fire will burn itself out. The former president is no longer commanding the crowds he once did, and his increasing legal woes as well as the investigation into the insurrection will almost certainly take up his time and energy. The mounting coronavirus deaths among his unvaccinated supporters also stand to weaken support for his faction.
But the fact that Republican lawmakers have ignored the Eastman memo, which outlines the destruction of our democracy, suggests that the party, which organized in the 1850s to protect the nation against those who would destroy it, has come full circle.