The incumbent president, who continues to claim victory two months after an election he clearly lost, was caught on tape attempting to bully a state election official into altering vote counts in his favor. He openly called on his second-in-command to toss out results, a power the deputy doesn’t have, citing disproven claims of electoral fraud. A significant bloc of his supporters in the national legislature are staging an unprecedented effort to nullify the election results. A group of former leaders of the nation’s armed forces felt the need to warn soldiers against military involvement in the presidential transition.
Prior to Donald Trump’s tenure in office, it would have been hard to imagine such a description of strongman-induced political chaos applying to the United States. The fact that it does — that the American president is brazenly attempting to overturn the results of a free and fair election with the backing of a large swath of his party, just one day after losing control of the Senate — illustrates that we are in the midst of a serious political crisis.
But identifying the stakes in this crisis is not as simple as it may seem. The president’s plots are destined to fail: It’s clear at this point that Trump and his allies will not be able to stop Joe Biden from assuming the presidency on January 20.
So if they can’t block Biden, how bad are things exactly? Some observers are painting the election theft efforts as an extinction-level threat for American democracy, the beginning of a confrontation over the system itself that could end in catastrophe. Others have argued that things aren’t so dire: that Trump’s attempt to bully Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger failed, the courts and state legislatures have rebuffed various Trump campaign election-stealing gambits, and that the congressional challenge to Biden’s victory will lose by a pretty hefty margin in both chambers.
The truth lies somewhere between the poles, though I think the pessimists are unfortunately closer to correct. While Trump won’t be able to crown himself president, the attempts to do so are inflicting serious damage on the foundations of American democracy.
In a two-party system, democracy depends on both major parties being willing to play by the rules of the electoral game. In the long run, the post-Trump struggle for the soul of the Republican Party could decide the overall fate of American democracy. By going down swinging, Trump is dragging the party down with him, putting the party’s voters and elites on a path that they may not easily be able to turn back from.
This process began well before Trump: Think about the proliferation of state-level voting restrictions and the treatment of Barack Obama as a functionally illegitimate president. But Trump has been the most powerful accelerant imaginable, with the election-stealing efforts potentially the most significant act of all.
A critical mass of Republican primary voters will now be convinced the electoral system is rigged against them, incentivizing ambitious politicians (like Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz) to cater to them in word and deed to get ahead. The result could be a party that becomes even more willing to engage in procedural radicalism to undermine election results — making a more organized and effective attempt at an authoritarian power grab more likely down the line.
Trump “leaves the legacy of a radicalized party,” says Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian of authoritarianism at New York University. “They know now that these forms of behavior have a market in America.”
The Republican Party’s authoritarian flux
The best way to think about the GOP in the Trump era is that it is undergoing an authoritarian conversion: a party that had previously been committed to the basics of the democratic system becoming more and more willing to subvert them. This is hardly an unprecedented process.
Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz, which has set up a subtle kind of one-party state, began life as a pro-democracy youth movement challenging an authoritarian communist regime. Turkey’s ruling AKP, a party that jails more journalists than any regime other than China’s, was once hailed as a pro-democracy force less than a decade ago for its efforts to combat the Turkish military’s longstanding habit of launching coups against elected leaders.
In these two cases, the process of authoritarian conversion was led by a Trump-esque party leader: Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. But crucially, those two strongmen retained the top position in their party until the transformation was complete — until key positions were filled by apparatchiks willing to go along with an outright anti-democratic policy agenda.
The GOP is not so unified. If it had been, there would have been little resistance from the courts and state-level politicians to Trump’s power grab, yet it was Trump-appointed judges and Republican state officials like Raffensperger who played crucial roles in stopping his claims of voter fraud. A firm majority of Republicans in the Senate, including many from deep-red states, look set to oppose the election revision efforts in Congress.
But the reaction to Trump’s efforts also show that the party is further down this road than we’d like. As many as 70 percent of House Republicans are expected to vote for the congressional effort to challenge the Electoral College results, with support from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The senators supporting the effort include leading 2024 hopefuls like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. While Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence may not be personally working to overturn the election results, they’re also not stopping Cruz and Hawley from trying.
The fact that these efforts are doomed given Democratic control of the House, and that their architects in Congress know it, is unusual: Typically, authoritarian parties try to overturn elections when they actually think they can pull it off. In this case, the GOP might be doing it precisely because they can’t pull it off, trying to cater to the base without risking a constitutional crisis.
Steven Levitsky, a comparative politics scholar at Harvard, went so far as to call this insincere election-stealing attempt to subvert the election “unique” in a global context. It stems from the GOP’s state of flux: not especially committed to democracy but perhaps not united in an authoritarian stance either, and capable of moving in either direction in the post-Trump era.
The best metric to judge what’s happening right now, then, is not whether Trump or the congressional GOP’s election nullification succeeds at denying Joe Biden the presidency. It’s what effect it has on the party’s behavior down the line: Does Trump and the congressional GOP’s current behavior make the party more likely to engage in authoritarian behaviors in the future — to the point it might make a unified effort to steal an election?
It would be one thing if the Trump years were some kind of aberration. But for the past few decades, Republican procedural extremism and anti-democratic behavior — from the impeachment of Bill Clinton’s presidency to Bush v. Gore to the push for restrictions on voting rights in GOP-controlled states — has gotten more and more serious.
After Democrats retook the House in 2018, leading Republicans ranging from Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) to then-House Speaker Paul Ryan labeled Democratic votes questionable and potentially fraudulent. “There are a lot of races [in California] we should have won,” Ryan said, blaming the GOP defeats on allegedly “bizarre” voting and vote-counting procedures in the state. At the time, I wrote that this set the stage for a crisis in 2020:
The GOP’s authoritarian streak predates Trump but intersects with his autocratic political instincts. The president’s rhetoric about illegitimate elections is the kind of language that, in some countries, has caused political crises — where a leader who loses an election then refuses to admit defeat. But the institutionalized Republican Party is unwilling to check Trump and in fact backs his play, because he’s on their team against the Democrats. ...
This is a recipe for a crisis, and 2018 showed us what the most likely flashpoint would be: a Trump defeat in the 2020 presidential election.
Now the predicted crisis is here. And its implications could be catastrophic.
The GOP’s vicious authoritarian cycle
The GOP’s accelerated turn against democracy in the Trump era has been an iterative process between party leadership and the rank and file: The president does something dangerous, rank-and-file voters come to believe in it because they believe in Trump, and party leaders align with him either out of genuine conviction or fear of the base.
It’s a vicious cycle: Each authoritarian act by Trump has created greater acceptance of and demand for authoritarian behavior by the rest of the party. There’s a straight line from the Ukraine call (asking the Ukrainian president to “do us a favor” and launch an investigation into Joe Biden) to the Georgia call (asking Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” in his favor and flip the state).
This final Trumpian attack on the electoral system is the most dangerous such escalation yet. By centering claims of fraud, it has successfully convinced Republican partisans that the entire electoral system is illegitimate and rigged against them.
Post-election polling has consistently found that large majorities of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump; while losing partisans often say elections were rigged against them, the numbers this year are notably larger. A larger proportion of Republicans are telling pollsters that they’re “certain” of fraud than in years past, suggesting this is something different from the typical post-election sour grapes.
Widespread myths of fraud can persist: A 2019 YouGov poll found that 56 percent of Republicans still believed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. During Obama’s tenure, Republicans became increasingly willing to engage in procedural extremism — from holding the debt ceiling hostage to blockading Merrick Garland. This was enabled by a base that was willing to countenance anything in the name of stymying a president they saw as illegitimate, a rotted form of partisanship that laid the groundwork for the emergence of Trump’s more overtly anti-democratic politics.
In the post-Trump era, Republicans will have incentives to go even further. Their base has now been convinced that the political system is rigged; challenging that belief will be politically costly, and playing into it politically beneficial. This pushes Republican officials toward future attempts to overturn elections and rig the rules in the GOP’s favor.
“My main concern is the extreme distrust that we’re seeing government, in authority, in expertise, and in our democratic institutions — now including elections,” says Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University who studies democratic decline. “Distrust in all of those institutions what has led in other historical instances to the rise of demagogues.”
Some evidence for this dark assessment has already emerged at the state level.
Citing Trump’s baseless voter fraud claims, Republican legislators in the key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia are pushing new voting regulations like eliminating at-will absentee balloting and tightening voter ID requirements that would likely disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters. The Georgia proposal has been endorsed by none other than Brad Raffensperger, indicating that the Republicans most willing to resist Trump aren’t exactly paragons of democratic virtue.
This is a somewhat different process of authoritarian conversion than what happened to a party like Hungary’s Fidesz. There, a clever leader with an authoritarian plan stacked the party’s leadership with loyalists willing to help implement his vision. Here, a party is being dragged in a dangerous direction by a complex interplay of Trump’s personal tendencies, the voting base, and the ambitions of individual Republicans.
Non-Trump Republicans don’t really want to overturn the election, but that’s less reassuring than it might seem. Hawley and Cruz almost certainly don’t believe that their votes will hand the presidency to Trump, but their intentions are somewhat irrelevant: The issue is whether their actions contribute to the broader authoritarianism reshaping the GOP and, by extension, the country.
“Clearly, there was no plan to steal the election. It began almost entirely as an effort to humor Trump ... but [the erosion of democracy] often is not a plan,” Levitsky says. “We’re reaching a point where a huge part of the Republican base, not just voters but maybe even more so activists, are just beginning to cross the line into open embrace of authoritarianism.”
Of course, it is hardly inevitable that this process continues. Maybe Trump will disappear from the political scene after he leaves office, humiliated by his failure to steal the election and the Senate defeats in Georgia. Maybe this will cause his cult of personality to dissipate, and more level-headed Republicans will be in a position to retake the party from Hawley types looking to continue his legacy. Maybe!
But the party’s drift in this dangerous direction predated Trump and arguably even Obama; it is buoyed by trends that will outlast his time in office. The most likely scenario looks to be a dark one: that the GOP becomes more and more comfortable being a party that aims to subvert democracy from within.