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The Next Time Could Be Worse

The GOP is unable and unwilling to put its anti-democratic wing back in the box.


President Donald Trump finally conceded the 2020 election, kind of, in a hostage video released Thursday night that was so low-energy it made Jeb Bush look like Tony Hawk.

“We have just been through an intense election and emotions are high. But now, tempers must be cooled and calm restored,” Trump said, reading from prepared remarks he was quite possibly seeing for the first time. “My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”

But if it’s not already abundantly clear, Trump’s forced concession does not bring an end to the broader civic crisis that he exploited and helped accelerate since coming down that escalator nearly six years ago. We’re just entering the next phase of it, and plenty of Republicans in Congress and elsewhere have already gotten a head start on marginalizing voters and their own competition.

To begin with, no one should be totally convinced the chaos that enveloped the Capitol on Wednesday is completely over, as we still have two weeks until the inauguration, some of the mob are planning on coming back, and Mo Brooks — the congressman who first came out in support of objecting to the electors — is now making favorable comparisons to Nazi Germany, albeit with a completely wrong understanding of how Hitler came to power.

There’s not just a split in the Republican Party opening up, but another split happening in the Trump movement itself, and historically the far right does not have a great track record of handling defeat. Add to this that the Capitol Police just showed themselves to be utterly worthless in performing the one job they’re expected to do, and it’s not exactly a recipe for peace and calm.

Then there’s the uncomfortable truth that, even after a mob swarmed the Capitol on Wednesday and five people died, two-thirds of the House Republican caucus led by Brooks and seven GOP senators, including at least two who could make serious runs for the Republican nomination in 2024 (Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley), voted to dismiss the electoral votes of Pennsylvania, a state which Joe Biden won by 81,000 votes, and did so with absolutely zero evidence of election fraud.

They did this even though Donald Trump is as politically weakened as he has ever been. Not only did he lose re-election, not only was he the first Republican to lose Georgia and Arizona in decades, not only had his claims of fraud been rejected by the courts and Republican-controlled state legislatures who have their own jobs to worry about, but he was also fresh off costing the GOP the Georgia runoffs and Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority. And that was all before he incited a riot in the Capitol.

Yet well over half of the total Republicans in Congress voted to simply dismiss the will of Pennsylvania voters four years after Trump rode the state to the White House, and even more are now defending Trump as the calls grow for his removal from office. That is not the sign of a chastened party getting ready to throw in the towel on Trumpism, or whatever post-Trump version of it we’re about to get.

What some are taking away from this, including the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial board in its call for Trump to resign Thursday, is that our institutions were violently shaken but held remarkably steady. Socialist historian Corey Robin, who has somewhat convincingly argued against describing Trumpism as fascism, pointed to the whole episode and the collective response to it as proof that Trump never really had the level of diehard support from the conservative movement that’s been ascribed to him for the past four years.

But looking beyond Trump, if this is really the end of him as a serious political figure, what happened on Wednesday fully flipped on a switch that could be very difficult to turn off in the future. From the crackdown on voting rights following the election of Barack Obama in 2008 to the actions of the North Carolina GOP in 2016 and its Wisconsin and Michigan counterparts in 2018 following the election of Democratic governors, the GOP has been dancing around open subversion of representative government for years. They are now essentially doing the worm on it while actively allying themselves with violent fascists and white supremacists.

We’re already seeing the fallout of two months of Trump undermining the election results outside of Washington. As the Capitol was fully melting down, legislative buildings in at least four states had to be locked down, the Trump-critical new Republican governor of Utah had to be evacuated, and protesters broke through the gate of the governor’s mansion in Olympia, Washington.

Inside the halls of power in Pennsylvania, the GOP-controlled state Senate refused to seat a Democratic member on Tuesday who defeated his Republican opponent and had that win certified and upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They also blocked Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the official president of the body, from presiding.

In Georgia, which can now reliably be considered a swing state, the Republican-controlled legislature is reportedly already planning to make its pandemic-era expansion of voting access temporary for no other reason than the results not turning out well for them. Newt Gingrich said as much last month, even before Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their elections, when he blasted Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State for “mak[ing] it harder for Republicans to win” by providing people with ways to safely participate in the voting process.

Considering the GOP exceeded expectations in state legislatures in November and now control 59 of 99 state legislative chambers across the country ahead of redistricting, we’re just getting started.

We also got lucky in 2020, because the presidential election really wasn’t that close. Trump needed to overturn or prevent the certification results in at least three states (Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona) where he lost by more than ten thousand votes to get to even an Electoral College tie, and the Trump team helped to cement its own extremely thin legal case as a joke by waging fights in states he lost by comparably huge margins, like Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and even New Mexico, where Trump lost by 11 points. And even if it had been closer, the Trump campaign essentially didn’t prepare at all for the possibility of a sustained legal challenge to the election results, which reinforces the point that these people weren’t ever organized to pull off an actual coup.

But it’s not difficult to envision someone more competent than Trump and the people he surrounded himself with taking advantage of the fracture in an American politics Trump blew wholly open, or the incapacity of our institutions to deal with someone like him if the GOP holds the keys to the presidency, the courts (they already do, and will for decades) and Congress (extremely feasible in the next decade). It’s also not easy to imagine a much closer election result, like 2000, where 537 votes in Florida (and thousands more that were never counted) decided the election.

It’s even easier to imagine a scenario in which the GOP controls both chambers of Congress in the event of the election of a Democrat so loathed by the entire conservative movement that it unites the Republican Party, and thus has both the power and motive to unilaterally overturn the results. All that was standing between us and that scenario four years ago was fewer than 100,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania going to Hillary Clinton instead.

It’s difficult, on the other hand, to believe that the Republican Party will make such a clean and immediate break from the Trump era that it will suddenly begin accepting losses that are anything more narrow than a total blowout as legitimate again. All available evidence we have is that the sentiment that drove this week’s riot is not going away anytime soon. The blowback to this week’s events has been intense, the product of worldwide revulsion at such an openly brazen and violent assault on basic democratic principles. But what will happen if things play out with less desperation and more savvy next time? What if the election is closer? What if Republicans find the judges they need? What if the mob is more sophisticated? What if people let down their guard?

If the circumstances are ripe enough, there’s real potential that the Hawley-Brooks plan that came up short Wednesday could be the precursor to something worse; after all, it’s not like the world hasn’t ever seen a failed coup followed by a successful one.