Democrats have challenged the legitimacy of every presidential election they’ve lost this millennium: They blamed a corrupt Supreme Court for their defeat in 2000, crooked voting machines in 2004 and Russian interference in 2016 – sparking a years-long collusion hoax to knee-cap Trump’s presidency.
But now, as President Biden’s poll numbers tank, his legislative agenda falters and his party’s 2022 prospects look increasingly grim, they and their media allies are adding a new twist to the tactic: They’re challenging elections before they happen.
Prestigious news outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, the Atlantic, NPR and the New York Review of Books warn that American democracy is under siege. With headlines ripped straight from Democratic Party talking points they argue that Republicans are planning a two-pronged coup to seize power in 2022 and beyond.
Step one, they say, is a series of election laws being passed by GOP state legislatures designed to thwart the will of the people. Anyone who has bothered to read these pieces of legislation – which modify but still maintain early voting, mail-in voting, and other open-ballot measures – knows that their impact will be negligible. That hasn’t stopped Biden and others from describing them as “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” Note this is the same argument they made for years about voter ID laws, which, studies show, do not suppress minority turnout. Further claims that the laws will allow state legislatures to pick the winners despite the tallies is also a fabrication.
The intent of this argument is clear – to cast doubt on the legitimacy on all Republican victories. That it is being made by the same people who relentlessly (and correctly) assail Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election demonstrates their bad faith.
The second prong of their coup narrative is even more invidious. In their telling, the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was just a test run for Republicans to violently seize power if their plans to rig the elections fail. Jan. 6 was, indeed, a dark day in American history; it was a criminal riot stoked by a troubled president. Its perpetrators, at every level, deserve the full measure of fair justice.
But it was not insurrection. The perpetrators were unarmed, for one thing. Reuters reports that the FBI found scant evidence that the riot was an organized plot to topple the government. And we can trust the authority of our own eyes to see the absurdity of claims that Jan. 6 was worse than 9/11.
I am tempted to say that no reasonable person could embrace the coup fantasies advanced by the left. And while there is almost certainly a cynical, partisan aspect to these arguments – proponents believe they will help their cause – the truly frightening thing is that many are sincere.
Many honestly believe that the American right is a hotbed of violent hatred bent on gaining control of the nation as the brownshirts did in Germany during the early 1930s. To their mind, Trump is only the outward symbol of a cultural cancer (although NPR compared him to Hitler in a recent report).
Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland recently summarized this view in the New Yorker. “January 6th was not the final act, but perhaps the prologue to a titanic struggle between democracy and violent authoritarianism in America. Long after Donald Trump is gone, we’ll be dealing with a movement of violent, neo-Fascist elements who came very close to knocking over the U.S. government.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Barton Gellman tried to define the threat more precisely in his long Atlantic article, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” citing a June poll which reported that just over 8% of Americans agreed that Biden’s election “was illegitimate and that violence is justified to restore Trump to the White House.” Never mind that poll results are notoriously unreliable, especially when trying to reduce complex questions to yes, no and maybe answers; this was enough for Gellman and his sources to declare that at least 21 million Americans are “committed insurrections.”
This squishy finding – supported by no evidence of armed groups planning political mayhem – then becomes fact, as Gellman quotes an “expert” who states, “‘The last time America saw middle-class whites involved in violence was the expansion of the KKK in the 1920s.’”
Commentator John Heilemann echoed and expanded this “fact” without challenge on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” telling viewers, “We’ve had political violence before, lynching, many things over the course of time that African Americans have suffered, but this is 30 million people right now who are ready to take up arms.”
Probably because we have never seen signs of such violent intent – even the Jan. 6 assault was arms-free – journalist Ron Brownstein assured CNN voters that the “Let’s Go, Brandon” chant widely adopted by conservatives as code for “F— Joe Biden proves their thirst for “insurrection.”
How can Democrats and their allies embrace such a dark view of the American people? History provides part of the answer.
From their 19th century roots as the party run by Southern planters and Northern political machines, to their embrace of technocratic progressivism during the 20th century, to their current status as the party of global elites, the Democratic Party has long been a hierarchical outfit where those at the top promised to act in the best interests of those below them. Especially in the South, this paternalism was fused with demagoguery, as leaders kept voters in line by playing on fears of the “Negro menace.”
In the years following World War II, Democrats gradually changed the groups they pretended to speak for – working-class whites were out, once marginalized groups were in – but their DNA remained the same. They continued their uneasy relationship with the give-and-take of American democracy; convinced that their policies were unassailable, they argued that moral failings – stupidity, racism and greed – explained why we have two parties (see Thomas Frank’s much-discussed but superficially reasoned 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”). And they began using the exact same language that had once been deployed against blacks to demonize Republicans – today’s warnings of rampant white supremacy and conservative insurrection are updated versions of their ugly rhetoric regarding slave revolts.
In fairness, Republicans have engaged in many of the tactics ascribed to them. But their historic embrace of limited governmental power has usually restrained their impulse to direct people’s lives. They have tended to demonize small groups (e.g. left-wing communists) rather than entire populations. The argument that Republicans hate African Americans is simply a Democrat falsehood belied by the GOP’s long support for racial justice and the fact that America is by every measure less racist than it has ever been.
America is a fractured nation and we must be clear-eyed about the sources of this division. But instead of providing insight, the ugly smears passing as wisdom among Democrats are only adding fuel to the fire. In their quest for power, they seem willing to burn down the entire house.
J. Peder Zane is an editor for RealClearInvestigations and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.