George Thomas is Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College and a regular contributor to The Constitutionalist.
A seditious mob, spurred on by President Trump’s lies about electoral fraud, took over the Capitol Building in an effort to disrupt Congress as it was engaged in formally counting the electoral votes that would recognize Joe Biden as the next president. Offices were plundered, windows broken, shots fired, and blood stained at least one statue. Yet within hours of this momentous and tragic event, a first in our history, Republicans repeated Trump’s lies on the floor of the House and the Senate. In the end, 138 Republicans in the House and 7 Republicans in the Senate formally voted to overturn the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, disregarding state election law, the Constitution, and the truth. The morning after all of this, with Trump unapologetic about the violence he urged on Congress, he was applauded when he called into a Republican National Committee meeting.
We like to say, this isn’t America. But it is. This is all happening here. And it wasn’t just predictable, it was predicted. Events in the last week, beginning with Trump’s phone call to Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, offer a microcosm on Trump’s authoritarian impulses, depraved character, and disdain for the law, the Constitution and the truth. The GOP, with a few honorable exceptions here and there—most notably Senator Mitt Romney—has enabled all of this.
Let’s start with the call.
“Say you’ve recalculated,” Trump urged Raffensperger with lawyers in the room for both parties. As if Secretary Raffensperger, the official in charge of carrying out Georgia’s election law, can just add a few votes here, subtract a few votes there, and declare a different outcome to the election. Actually, that’s almost certainly how Trump sees things. In the rambling phone call, Trump prodded, pestered, and threatened, offering delusional and conspiracy laden takes on stolen and lost votes. But in the end, Trump got to the bottom line: “find 11,780 votes.” A number, he pointed out more than once, that would give him Georgia’s electoral votes.
Listen to the call. Trump doesn’t care how it happens. He doesn’t care about the integrity of the election, the democratic process, or any of that nonsense. He’s not asking for yet another recount. He’s not asking to ensure that all legitimate ballots are counted or that no unlawful ballots are counted. That process has already played out. And there was no evidence of fraud. Trump wanted the win, and he thought Raffensperger could deliver it. In Trump’s head, he won. That’s all that matters. All else must conform to Trump, who is a law unto himself.
There’s nothing new in this. We’ve been here before.
Remember the Ukraine call? When Trump asked for a “favor” from the President of Ukraine to manufacture dirt on Joe Biden before he’d release the foreign aid Congress had authorized? Remember Trump did this to smear a likely opponent in the 2020 election? Maybe it’s asking too much given the blur of events over the last year, but remember too that one of the articles of impeachment against Trump was abuse of power for “undermining the integrity of the United States democratic process”? Watch Representative Adam Schiff plead with the Senators during Trump’s impeachment trial, asking them to say “enough” to Trump’s efforts to compromise our elections.
But here we are again. Only this time around, Republicans, by and large, aren’t looking the other way as they did during impeachment. In Congress, nearly half of them lined up to aid and abet Trump’s lawless and fraudulent effort to stay in power. In the impeachment trial, Schiff insisted that truth mattered to the Republicans. But it doesn’t. At least not to most of them. He insisted to Republicans that Trump is “not who you are.” But he is.
As Trump spread baseless lies about electoral fraud, many Republicans repeated the lies. Others looked the other way, letting events play out rather than stating the simple and obvious fact that Trump lost. Scores of Republicans joined lawsuits asking courts to throw out the legitimate votes of their fellow citizens with no evidence and based on absurd theories of the Constitution. Others pressured canvassing boards and state legislatures to do the same. As those efforts failed, they pressured Vice President Mike Pence to disregard the certified election results of a handful of states. Credit to the Republicans who refused to go along and stood with the law. But before we get too celebratory over simply following the law and the facts, particularly with Vice President Pence recognizing he had no constitutional authority to simply toss out votes under the 12th Amendment, let’s recall that Pence welcomed the objections to a number of state’s electoral votes.
But what was the basis for the objections?
Here is the root of the problem—for Republicans and the Republic. The objections are based on Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories. There is simply no evidence of electoral fraud that would alter the outcome of the election in any of the states. Worse, the lies have been debunked by election officials multiple times over. In 60 plus cases brought in federal and state courts, where actual evidence is required to make claims of fraud or illegality, Republicans have won a single—and minor—case. A jurist appointed by President Trump, Judge Bibas, captured all of this perfectly in a case dismissing Trump’s claims against Pennsylvania: “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
And yet, Trump’s fraud, the real fraud, is what stirred his supporters to seize the
Capitol Building. They were urged on by President Trump and his sidekick Rudy Giuliani at a rally right before they marched on the Capitol. Trump repeated lies about a stolen election and insisted “we must never concede.” Giuliani called for “trial by combat.”
Even after the violence, Republicans repeated the lies when objecting to counting the electoral votes. I won’t rehash the whole debate. Let me focus on two of the lead instigators as they are stunning examples of pretend constitutionalists: Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.
Senator Hawley tried to couch his objections in lawful language. Audaciously, he even quoted Abraham Lincoln’s famous line about no appeal from ballots to bullets. He was right to condemn the insurrectionists taking over the Capitol Building as engaged in the equivalent of turning to bullets. Yet Hawley himself was engaged in an effort to throw out lawfully cast ballots. Indeed, the entire thrust of Lincoln’s Special Message to Congress, which this line comes from, his preoccupied by domestic insurrection. The very sort of insurrection that had just occurred, if in feeble form, on the Senate floor hours earlier. It was an insurrection egged on by the likes of Hawley. To play statesmen in those circumstances, to position himself as an aspiring Lincoln, is grotesque. As I wrote in these pages weeks ago,
In a special message to Congress delivered on July 4th in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln insisted the great challenge facing America was whether we could maintain popular government “against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it.” It may be overwrought, but that is the challenge we face. And Lincoln insisted that what ballots “have fairly, and constitutionally, decided”—the election in this case—cannot be appealed “except by ballots themselves, at succeeding elections.”
Hawley cast his lot with those who would overturn what ballots lawfully decided.
Objecting to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, Hawley attempted to position himself as the sober voice of concerned citizens who thought the election was stolen. But he never addressed why they thought it was stolen. He did not speak to his role in knowingly perpetuating these lies. In Hawley’s perverse populist universe, he was speaking for the 74 million who voted for Trump. It did not matter that 81 million people voted for Biden. Nor did it matter that the people of Pennsylvania gave Biden 80,000 more votes than Trump.
Truth, like the law and the Constitution, is a casualty of Hawley’s sycophancy to Trump, driven by his overweening ambition. Hawley is the sort of character Alexander Hamilton warned us about in Federalist 1: “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
Senator Ted Cruz similarly wanted to speak for those citizens who believe the election was stolen from them—to the unprecedented allegations of voter fraud. But he too had not a word, not a word, about why so many people believed the election was stolen. Cruz, too, would happily overturn state and federal law, disregard the Constitutional process, and do it all on the basis of a President who is manufacturing fraud and lies. Cruz once called Trump a “pathological liar” who “doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth.” Cruz is now happy to lie on his behalf. In Federalist No. 71, Hamilton captured characters like Cruz, warning against “the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate.”
Hawley, Cruz, and the 5 senators who joined their objections, as well as the 138 House members who did so, are not objecting because there is any real dispute about the election results. They are objecting because Republican voters have taken to believing the lies Trump traffics in. As Senator Romney pointed out in what may be his finest moment, Trump is the source of the fraud. The way to respect your fellow citizens is to tell them the truth, not to perpetuate lies. Watch Connor Lamb, a young Democrat from Pennsylvania, insist on this point in the House, calling out Republicans perpetuating these lies as they sought to steal the election for Trump (and watch the ugly Republican response).
This is the fraud that is devouring the Republican Party. Even now, less then 24 hours after yesterday’s horrific events, some Trump supporting Republicans are putting forward conspiracy theories that those who seized the Capitol yesterday were members of ANTIFA disguised as Trump supporters. More lies, more fraud.
Yet this motley cast of Republican characters is too stupid, too craven, or too blinded by ambition to think carefully about the precedent they are setting—the damage they are inflicting on our constitutional democracy. Sure, the coup didn’t work this time, but what about next time?
This is what the Republican Party has become. If Republicans would truly like to disavow sedition against constitutional self-government, remove the President you have too long enabled. Show us that you believe in something besides your own power. Take a step toward redeeming the party by impeaching and removing President Trump. Even if he now sounds cowed, act to repudiate Trump. Act to remove the stain he has left on our politics. The rest is just talk. And we’ve seen where that leads.