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Why Trump couldn’t steal the election — and how a future demagogue could

The system only works if enough people in power agree to let it.

A person waves a Trump 2020 flag on January 6 outside the Capitol building.
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The United States has just lived through historic events, with no real precedent in its modern history. The president, having lost his reelection, tried feverishly for two months to overturn the result and retain power — an effort that culminated in a mob of his supporters storming the Capitol building. In the end, he failed.

And the main reason Trump failed is that the people with key institutional roles in formalizing the outcome, including many Republicans, chose not to help him — opting instead to uphold the rule of law and abide by the norms of the country’s electoral system, despite facing great pressure to do otherwise.

In a sense, Trump’s failure was overdetermined. His efforts to delay state certifications, to get state legislatures to appoint new electors, to get judges to intervene on his behalf, and to get Congress and the vice president to throw out results he didn’t like all failed, as did the mob. Trump never had a realistic path to reversing Joe Biden’s win, and he didn’t come close to finding one.

The conduct of many Republicans since the election has been abysmal. Many at different levels of the party, from conservative activist leaders to state attorneys general to state legislators to most Republican members of the House of Representatives, claimed to doubt Biden’s wins in certain states and said they wanted them thrown out. Others tried to stay out of the controversy to the extent they could, and only a relative few openly debunked Trump’s lies claiming the election was stolen.

The other side of the story, though, is that in Georgia and Arizona, Republican governors and statewide officials resisted attempts to interfere with certification. Bipartisan election boards in Wisconsin and Michigan did the same (though not without some drama in the latter state). GOP-controlled state legislatures in five key states did not try to replace Biden’s electors with Trump’s. Dozens of judges, including several Trump appointees, just kept on rejecting frivolous lawsuits from Trump and his allies. Then-Attorney General Bill Barr’s Justice Department did not step in with some dramatic intervention — and neither did Vice President Mike Pence.

To put it mildly, the GOP clearly did not act in a disciplined, unified way to help Trump steal an election — even though that appears to be what many of their voters wanted to happen. In particular, key Republicans with positions of authority to affect the results largely didn’t use their formal powers to help Trump. If more of those officials had made different choices at particular junctures, the post-election period could have at the very least gotten a whole lot messier, and the political crisis more intense.

This is not a call for complacency. Trump’s power grab failed given the particular circumstances and facts on the ground this time — how the election turned out, and which individuals (and parties) happened to hold key positions. For a future election, a closer one with a different set of circumstances and factors, this same outcome is not set in stone. The system only works if enough people in power agree to let it work, and a crucial question for the future of American democracy is whether enough Republicans will continue to agree.

The split among the GOP

Shortly after the results of November’s election became clear, Trump began an unprecedented effort to interfere with the mechanics of the presidential electoral system. The goal was to overturn the results in at least three states where Biden won narrowly, delivering those states to Trump instead, giving him a second term in office.

Toward this end, Trump manufactured an alternate reality in which Biden only won these states because of “illegal votes” and widespread fraud from Democrats. For the party’s rank and file, it was a stunningly successful propaganda effort — around 70 percent of Republican voters now tell pollsters they think Biden’s win was illegitimate. And we saw that propaganda victory spill out into the real world on January 6, as Trump supporters took violent action at the Capitol (action that may seem quite justified for someone who truly believes Democrats illegally stole the election).

Most Republican elites, though, were sophisticated enough to realize that this was nonsense. And in November and December, a split in the party emerged between those seeking to pander to that nonsense for political advantage (like Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and most House Republicans), those who decided to temporarily indulge Trump without outright endorsing his effort (like Mitch McConnell), and a relative few who proactively tried to debunk these conspiracy theories (like Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse).

Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell speak on September 10.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Still, getting the outcome changed required concrete action from officials in positions of authority over the results. Trump and his supporters tried to amp up the pressure on any of these officials who happened to be Republicans (knowing they’d have no success with Democrats).

But a funny thing happened: The Republican officials who happened to hold those positions — governors, secretaries of state, state legislative leaders, Justice Department officials, and GOP-appointed judges — overwhelmingly resisted Trump’s pressures on them to use the powers of their offices unethically. As a result, despite everything, Biden’s win remained on track.

The contrast between the actions of Republicans in positions of authority over the results and the rhetoric from those with no real power to affect anything has been stark. It was almost as though everyone was playing out assigned roles. Most Republicans with responsibility to engage with the facts, evidence, and law did the right thing. They had a shared understanding that Trump’s election fraud theories were “bullshit” (as then-AG Barr reportedly told Trump in private), and they valued American electoral democracy.

Meanwhile, many of those who viewed themselves as having no such responsibility lied and pandered to their hearts’ content. They knew that Trump was full of it, and they saw no path by which he could succeed. But rather than be honest with their constituents about that, these Republicans decided to essentially cosplay a coup — holding hearings at which they pretended there were serious irregularities, signing on to lawsuits asking for Biden’s wins to be thrown out, or casting doomed votes to reject the results in Congress.

It was performance art politics — with the catch that the president and many of his own supporters wanted to make it real.

Even a more successful mob would not have changed the outcome

The storming of the Capitol on January 6 exposed just how wrong Republicans were to rationalize that playing along with Trump’s lies was harmless. One police officer and four rioters died in the Capitol complex; another police officer and another rioter each died by suicide days later. And considering how close the mob got to members of Congress and Vice President Pence, things could have gotten a whole lot bloodier than that.

Trump supporters fight during the riot on January 6.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

At this point, there’s no evidence Trump knew in advance of any plan to forcibly breach the Capitol. But it’s clear enough that he was trying to make something dramatic happen outside the Capitol that he hoped would allow him to remain president. And there are reports that as the Capitol was being stormed, Trump was delighted.

But even if a far worse tragedy took place — say, if key political figures present were murdered — that would not actually have achieved the rioters’ aims of giving Trump a second term. More likely, key players all across the political system would have reacted in horror and revulsion at such violence, and rejected Trump’s effort to interfere.

More to the point, for Trump to pull off a fully illegal coup like this, he would have needed to lock down support among military and law enforcement — not just among the rank and file, but in the institutions themselves. And he did no such thing. Despite some questions about their underpreparedness, law enforcement officials cleared the Capitol in a few hours. The joint chiefs of staff later issued a statement condemning “sedition and insurrection” from rioters.

But it could have been worse

Lest you get too confident in the strength of the system, note that the pattern of Republicans in important roles behaving responsibly wasn’t uniform.

Two Republican members of Wayne County, Michigan’s board of canvassers initially voted not to certify the county’s election results, giving nonsensical justifications about possible fraud in heavily Black Detroit. (One had frequently shared posts from right-wing conspiracy theory websites on social media.)

Then, one of the two Republicans on the state board of canvassers, Norm Shinkle, also refused to certify Biden’s win in Michigan. If the other Republican on the board, lawyer Aaron van Langevelde, hadn’t voted in favor of certification, the board would have been deadlocked.

So what if there were two Norm Shinkles on the board? Or what if Georgia’s secretary of state had been more open to Trump’s corrupt entreaties? As all this was unfolding, some experts argued that if officials had refused to certify legitimate results, state courts would step in and force them to do so. But the certification process, when carried out by partisans, is clearly vulnerable to partisan mischief.

This time around, many Republicans, including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, acted responsibly.
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Furthermore, it’s unclear if state courts really would have saved the day if certification went awry — because there was some questionable behavior from them too. In both Wisconsin and Michigan, state supreme courts decided not to hear absurd, meritless lawsuits from Trump or his allies trying to change the results. But each decision was made by a one-vote margin — and on each court, ominously, three of four Republican justices wanted to take up the suit.

Again, what if Republicans had one more seat on one of these courts? We know they were one vote away from taking up these suits, but we can’t say how they would have ruled on the merits. Yet even hearing a transparently bogus suit would have prolonged the process of finalizing Biden’s win. And with both of these state courts having a reputation for being highly political, things could have gotten even messier at the decision stage.

State courts, then, are another vulnerability. And if a corrupt state court struck down a candidate’s legitimate win, it’s unclear what the remedy would be. The state legislatures would be one possibility, but they are partisan actors themselves. As for federal court, while Trump’s failed suits make clear even deeply conservative justices were not champing at the bit to steal the election for him in some transparently hackish way, we don’t know if they would have stepped in to overturn a state court’s attempt to do so.

More broadly, while it’s clear that most Republican officials with some authority over the results didn’t use their powers to help Trump, what’s not as clear is why. The optimistic take, as Barton Gellman writes at the Atlantic, is that something about those institutional roles forced officials like Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and its governor, Brian Kemp, and even Vice President Pence to grapple with reality, and to act responsibly, even at risk to their political futures. An alternative take would be, basically, that it was luck — that the people who happened to hold those jobs were not from the wing of the party inclined toward believing or cynically exploiting conspiracy theories.

It was probably some combination of the two. The stark contrast between how two-thirds of House Republicans cast doomed votes to throw out Biden’s wins in key states and how those who could actually affect the outcome used their powers suggests where you stand may largely depend on where you sit. Then again, Trump’s entire presidency is basically a counterargument to the idea that holding an important office will make a person act responsibly.

How do you solve a problem like your voters?

In the end, though, the fact looming over all these post-election antics — and the GOP’s future — is that most Republican voters really do believe Democrats stole the election. Seventy-two percent of Republicans believe this, according to a recent poll by Vox and Data for Progress. They’ve bought into Trump’s alternate reality.

Those voters’ beliefs are what drove both the reluctance of many Republican politicians to speak out to debunk Trump and the opportunism of other GOP politicians to exploit those beliefs. Republican officials representing deep-red areas have far more reason to fear their political careers ending due to a primary challenge than a general election loss. And being dubbed an enemy of Trump is a great way to earn yourself a primary challenge.

Even conservative media outlets are to a large extent following demand. Fox’s ratings plunged after the election, and competitors like Newsmax that are even less ashamed of promoting conspiratorial nonsense about the election results are on the rise. Dynamics online and on social media are similar. A lot of Republican voters really do believe this stuff, and they seek information sources that reaffirm or substantiate those beliefs.

So while elites tend to get a bad rap these days, if Republican elites were wholly responsive to their voters, the post-election period would’ve been a whole lot uglier — because the GOP would have “fought” for Trump at every level.

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the US Capitol on January 6.
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

The Republican Party is not going away. Republicans control most governorships and state legislature chambers. Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are so narrow that the GOP has a strong shot at taking back both chambers next year. And in this two-party system, their candidate will always be one of the two main options in a presidential election.

When it comes to preserving the American electoral system in the future, then, it’s crucial that Republican elites who are willing to defy their voters’ wishes when it counts continue to hold the levers of power in the party. The risk is that more conspiracy theory believers, or more shameless and unethical panderers, will gradually replace those GOP elites in key positions who largely did the right thing this time.

Take Aaron van Langevelde, the one Michigan GOP canvasser who voted to certify Biden’s win. On Monday, the Detroit News reported that state Republicans are declining to renominate him to that post.

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