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Trumpists Have Made Alarming Advances in Their Quest to Control Elections

GOP lawmakers at every level have used Trump’s illusions about voter fraud to rig future elections in their favor.

Protesters in support of former President Donald Trump gather outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum where ballots from the 2020 general election wait to be counted on May 1, 2021, in Phoenix, Arizona.

In state after Republican state around the country, a push is underway to create legal pathways to subvert election results. This effort is buoyed by the fact that well over half of Republican voters believe that Donald Trump is the “true president.” And it will be further bolstered by Trump’s summer-of-hate tour, during which he plans to traverse the country to give stump speeches aimed at keeping himself in the political spotlight, putting pressure on any and all GOP officials and political leaders to continue to hew to his lies. Trump appears ready to actively campaign against any GOP political figure who supported his impeachment and opposes his ongoing claims to having won the election.

From the beginning of his presidency, Trump and Trumpism both appeared to be a cult and a deeply authoritarian political movement, one that tapped into some of the most violent impulses in U.S. political history. It was a combination of the demagoguery of McCarthyism and the conspiracism of the John Birch Society. It valued absolute loyalty tests — not to country or to the Constitution, but to the person of Donald J. Trump. And in demanding loyalty, it brooked no dissent, insisting that individuals and institutions bend repeatedly to its will.

In the weeks after the November election, when it was clear that Trump had massively lost the popular vote and had also lost the Electoral College vote, it was increasingly clear that Trump would attempt to hold onto power by any means necessary. Sure enough, there he was on January 6, goading on an enraged mob of Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, neo-Nazis, and other violent extremists whom he had invited to D.C. with the express purpose of making it impossible for Congress to certify the election result. The resulting bloodshed, as horrific as it was, ought to have surprised no one. Trump had, after all, been encouraging armed assaults against institutions of power for the better part of a year, calling on militias to “liberate” Michigan and other states from COVID-related public health restrictions and for his supporters to monitor the November 2020 polls. And GOP leaders, instead of distancing themselves from him, had essentially given him a free pass.

That the January 6 insurrection did not lead to greater bloodshed than it did was due more to luck than to lack of will. In the months since then, it’s become clear that the Capitol Police and National Guard were essentially, for many hours, ordered to stand down in the face of the far right attack. It has also become clear just how far Trump’s team was willing to go to basically order Department of Justice personnel into the fray to further their election fraud claims and attempt to overturn a democratic election result. And, in the ongoing seditionist language of Michael Flynn and other acolytes, it’s become clear just how comfortable these right-wing extremists were in utilizing military force to cling to power, and how, nearly half a year into the Biden presidency, they cling to the hope that an armed uprising, involving elements of the military and others, will somehow return their Great Leader to the White House.

The failed mob attack of January 6 ought to have been the event that lanced this toxic, poison-filled boil. In its wake, the GOP leadership, at a congressional and a state level, has had ample opportunity to cauterize the wound and sever their never-particularly-stable alliance with Trump.

At the federal level, had a handful more GOP senators found the courage to vote to convict the disgraced ex-president following his second impeachment, he would have been destroyed as a viable political figure and possible future candidate. More recently, had Sen. Mitch McConnell not rallied his senators to vote against the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate January 6, Congress could have thrown its full investigative muscle into unraveling the extent of Trump’s anti-democratic plans.

At the state level, state GOPs could have supported the congressmembers, including Liz Cheney, who had the moral courage to vote to impeach Trump for his actions (though not the courage to oppose his agenda while in office). Instead, those state parties have taken vote after vote to censor the pro-impeachment figures; activists have heckled and booed senators who voted to convict; and state lawmakers in one state after the next have moved to embrace Trump’s fantasies about rigged elections and massive fraudulent voting.

In Arizona, they have set in motion an utterly disreputable “audit” of election results that is being carried out with no transparency by a cohort of avowedly pro-Trump, and conspiracist individuals and organizations.

In Georgia, they have voted to constrict the franchise and to undermine the role of elections officials, from the Secretary of State on down, by allowing GOP elected officials to replace officials they deem a threat to the electoral process. Recall that, in 2020, the secretary of state stood firm in the face of extraordinary intimidation tactics from Trump, from his lawyers, and from his trolls who unleashed volleys of death threats and other threatening behavior against him. Come 2022 or 2024, that official, and county-level officials, might not have the ability to both withstand such pressure and to continue to hold their jobs.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, who is running for reelection and needs to keep Trump on board, has called a special legislative session this summer that most commentators assume comes with the specific intent of dramatically tightening voting requirements, and constricting both absentee voting and early voting.

Around the country, state officials are buying into Trump’s rhetoric about a stolen election, and are putting in place rules designed to make it easier for the governing party and election officials to reject votes that don’t go their way. And around the country, too, as the media continues to give Trump a vast amount of free publicity by covering his each and every utterance, it is fast becoming a litmus test for GOP primary voters as to whether or not candidates support the most outlandish and far right of conspiracy claims and worldviews. As a result, the last vestiges of moderation and of rationalist politics are now being driven from the GOP. The GOP is now, the better part of a year after Trump’s thumping election defeat, on the verge of becoming more like a full-fledged far right party as seen in Europe than a mainstream conservative party.

Addressing a QAnon event, Trump’s disgraced national security advisor Michael Flynn argued that the U.S. military should intervene in domestic politics in much the same way as did the Myanmar military earlier this year. The most shocking thing about Flynn’s speech wasn’t his words — after all, Flynn by now has a long history of saying entirely despicable, fascistic things in public settings; it all was in the crowd’s reaction: he was wildly cheered rather than booed off the stage.

Trump was an entirely malignant, destructive president. Now, from his post-presidential gilded exile in Mar-a-Lago he is setting the stage for future waves of extremism and violence, and his henchmen are, increasingly, flirting with the language of paramilitarism and coups. Trump is demanding that state parties and federal political figures toe his line, and he is using his popularity among the GOP base to take down establishment Republican figures and to replace them with unbending loyalists and sycophants. His reactionary followers, led by the likes of Steve Bannon, are pushing a “domino theory,” arguing that a series of state audits of elections results will ultimately lead to Biden’s demise and to Trump rising, phoenix-like from the political ashes.

Goaded on by this tsunami of disinformation, 30 percent of Republicans now believe that Trump will magically be “reinstated” as president by August, or shortly thereafter — a stunning number and one that should cause grave concern. Never before in U.S. history has a defeated president spent the year after he left office trying to undermine the election result, attempting to seize control over all the state levers of power within his party so as to further his personal political ambitions, and using his proxies to gin up the notion of violence against his successor.

Trump was in the gutter as a president, and there he remains. As Trumpists take over political apparatuses around the country, he is becoming even more of a threat and a havoc-maker. I do not doubt that Trump would, if he ran for president again, be thoroughly defeated in any even remotely free-and-fair election. But, as Trump loyalists seize control in more GOP-led states, and as election law changes are implemented that make it easier for governing Republicans to undermine unfavorable election results in their states, I have every doubt that upcoming elections and the vote counts that follow can be guaranteed as free-and-fair in the first place.

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