By Ken Hughes, Research Specialist, the Miller Center, University of Virginia
Now that a full year has passed since the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, the 2020 election and the republic, it is evident that the attack never really ended. Instead, it spread out to other, less visible, more vulnerable targets.
Donald Trump had hoped to reverse his election loss in a single, decisive, dramatic confrontation between his supporters and the republic’s, broadcast live around the world. His plan backfired, filling our screens with vivid illustrations of authoritarianism’s most repugnant ills: chaos, lawlessness, violence, racism, fascism and all manner of hatred run amok. The blatancy of the subversion provoked an immediate backlash, even among some Republicans.
Had he studied democratic erosion before becoming a practitioner, Trump would know that effective authoritarians tighten their grips on government gradually, stealthily undermining courts, legislatures, election officials, news organizations, political opposition and other institutions strong enough to check them.
The coup by a thousand cuts is the stuff of nightmares for democracy’s defenders and the dream of authoritarian politicians.
“The story of democratic erosion in other countries is that it happens invisibly, you don’t have this tanks-in-the-streets moment,” Brendan Nyhan told The New Yorker. Nyhan is a Dartmouth political scientist and co-director of Bright Line Watch, a group of political scientists who “monitor democratic practices, their resilience, and potential threats.”
Destructive conspiracy theories
Democratic erosion in America depends on the conspiracy theory, destructive and demonstrably false, that the 2020 election was stolen. As the author of a couple of books on Richard Nixon – who, before Trump, was the biggest conspiracy theorist to inhabit the White House that we know of – I see conspiracy theories less as failures of rationality and more as triumphs of rationalization.
When Nixon muttered to White House aides that he was the victim of a conspiracy of Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers, “arrogant” people he said placed themselves above the law, he did so to justify arrogantly placing himself above the law. Nixon launched a real conspiracy against an imaginary one, plotting real crimes – breaking into the Brookings Institution, leaking grand jury information damaging to Democrats – against those he deemed real criminals, despite a chronic lack of evidence.
Likewise, when conspiracy theorists falsely claim the last election was stolen, they’re putting the pieces in place for themselves to steal the next one. Not by anything as blatant as pressuring a vice president to publicly shirk his duty to certify the vote, but by subtler means, such as taking over the offices that handle vote certification at the state level.
Representative Jody Hice, a Republican who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s victory, is running to unseat Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who would not bow to pressure from Trump to “find” enough votes to reverse the election result. Fifteen election-denying Republicans are running for secretary of state, according to NPR, raising the risk that people who refuse to accept the results of the last presidential election will decide whether to certify the results of the next one.
Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature revealed who controls the party by stripping Raffensperger of his vote on the state election board, which sets election rules and investigates allegations of fraud. They have also passed new election laws targeting local boards. “The laws allow Republicans to remove local officials they don’t like,” the New York Times reported. Most of those removed initially were Democrats, at least half of them people of color.
Georgia’s not alone. In at least eight other states, Republican-controlled legislatures took power from those who kept the last election honest, such as secretaries of state and local election officials, and handed it to partisan entities, ABC News reported. Many, if not all, of those secretaries of state were partisan officials, though they largely behaved in nonpartisan ways.
Much reporting has focused rightly on the most prominent result of lies about voter fraud, “voting integrity” legislation. Those stories have focused on how little such legislation does to solve the already-minuscule problem of voter fraud in America, and on how much the legislation does to create problems for people who want to vote, especially if those people tend to vote Democratic.
False claims, real threats
Less attention has focused on the influx of conspiracy theorists at the local level of election administration, where they could warp elections in several ways. They could discriminate in enforcing voter-ID laws, make people cast provisional ballots that are subject to challenge, set up polling places in ways that create long lines, and more, said Scott Seeborg, Pennsylvania state director of All Voting Is Local, a nonpartisan group fighting to “remove discriminatory barriers to the ballot.”
If election workers reject false accusations of election fraud, they may face death threats. The news service Reuters documented over 800 hostile, threatening messages to election workers related to the conspiracy theories, including, “We’re coming after you and every other mother—-r that stole this election;” “Everyone with a gun is going to be at your house;” and “We are now watching your children and loved ones.”
These threats are not being screamed on television before the eyes of the outraged majority; they appear without warning, Reuters reports, often anonymously, in individual voicemail and email boxes, inspiring fear without provoking backlash. By these means and more, authoritarians are seizing the power to win elections without winning a majority of the vote. This is something Nixon never dared try.
In every race he ran – for House, Senate, vice president and president – Nixon faced an electorate where Democrats held a numerical advantage. This forced him to moderate his politics and policies, to broaden their appeals to the majority.
Today, Republicans can win not only the White House, but the Congress and gerrymandered state legislatures, without winning a majority. “We are witnessing a minority takeover of our democracy,” constitutional law scholar Kermit Roosevelt wrote in TIME. It is taking place not just nationally, but at the state and local level.
This is why democracy’s defenders – Republicans, Democrats, and all people of good will – must not make Trump’s mistake, thinking that the nation’s future will be decided in a single, public, climactic showdown. It depends on a thousand little struggles with enormous stakes, on unsung efforts of unknown heroes.