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On September 23, 2020, reporter Barton Gellman published an article at The Atlantic titled “The Election That Could Break America.” It was the stuff of small-d democratic nightmares.
Gellman described “blinking red lights” among expert observers of our political process — alarming signals ahead of the 2020 election that “the mechanisms of decision are at meaningful risk of breaking down.”
You could sense stomachs flipping somersaults when The Atlantic posted Gellman’s essay, with that reporting and its revolutionary implications laid out so starkly.
Some of the portents Gellman observed were already in clear public view: Former President Donald Trump — in advance of the election — denouncing mail-in ballots as inherently fraudulent; Trump proclaiming the election itself — again, in advance — as “The greatest rigged election in history.” Gellman walked readers through the wooliness and exploitable loopholes in the statutory and constitutional provisions that undergird the lauded “peaceful transition of power” during the interregnum between election day and inauguration.
Gellman also reported for the first time that the Trump campaign was “discussing contingency plans to bypass election results… in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority.” Pennsylvania’s state Republican party chair even admitted to Gellman that he had initiated those discussions with Trump’s campaign because, “If the process… is flawed… our public may lose faith and confidence” in the election’s integrity. And in that instance, the argument goes, Republican state legislators would step in and void the result of the supposedly flawed vote, replacing it with their own declaration of who won. They would then send a slate of electors for their chosen candidate to represent Pennsylvania for the electoral college count.
You could sense stomachs flipping somersaults when The Atlantic posted Gellman’s essay, with that reporting and its revolutionary implications laid out so starkly: “The worst case… is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all.”
That was Gellman’s warning in September.
In the end — well, at least in November — the election result was clear, and Joe Biden is now well into his first year as president. We did experience a paroxysm of violence from Trump supporters on Jan. 6, for which Trump was impeached a second time (and acquitted a second time, thanks to Republicans in the Senate). But we avoided the worst of what Gellman foresaw for the interregnum: the prospect that there would be no clear answer as to who should be sworn in on Jan. 20.
As the first months of this new presidency have passed, though, rumblings on the right about the legitimacy of Biden’s election have grown louder, and, frankly, weirder.
As the first months of this new presidency have passed, though, rumblings on the right about the legitimacy of Biden’s election have grown louder, and, frankly, weirder. Trump now frequently claims that he will be “reinstated” as president. A majority of Republican voters now say they believe the 2020 election was marred by significant fraud, and that Biden may not in fact have been elected to the office he now holds. Citing those doubts and fears among their voters, Republican-controlled states across the country are restricting voting rights aggressively and reorganizing election procedures to give partisan Republicans more control over election infrastructure and post-vote challenges.
Arizona Republicans have organized an absurd inquisition into most of the state’s presidential vote, administered by QAnon adherents and pro-Trump conspiracy theorists. The stated intent of the promoters of Arizona’s stunt is to “decertify” Arizona’s presidential election result, which – as the kids say — is not a thing. But the literal legal standing of the election result, at the end of the day, is not really the point.
The real point is to unsettle Americans’ sense that the election is done, and that its results are objectively knowable.
We may have survived the narrow scrape with a violent coup attempt during the interregnum, which we were so presciently warned about before the election. But since then, during the Biden presidency, the predominant dynamic among base Republican voters has bent back toward small-d democratic rejection. In 2021, the otherwise normal flow of off-year conservative politics has been inflected by a steady and growing effort to “illegitimize” the 2020 election result and declare it unclear — or unsettled.
The stakes of this gamble are high for the future of American elections. One risk for Republicans is that their own voters become fearful and suspicious enough about voting itself that they decide turning out on election day is a futile effort. That dynamic may have played a part in the Jan. 5 election in Georgia of two Democratic U.S. senators; Democratic voter turnout stayed roughly as strong as it had been in the November presidential contest, but Republican turnout fell off, amid loud Trump complaints that the Georgia election system was somehow “rigged.”
But the larger risk is that fears about election integrity become intractable; that the Trump-led effort to undermine the clarity of his own election loss calcifies into a hardened belief among Republican voters that there is no objective truth in election results, that instead it is one party or the other that controls the democratic process, and whichever result that party prefers is simply proclaimed at the end of the day.
That is in fact how sham elections work in autocratic countries around the globe. It’s not how they’re supposed to work here.
That is in fact how sham elections work in autocratic countries around the globe. It’s not how they’re supposed to work here. But hey, time flies when you’re flirting with anti-democratic authoritarian nihilism.
Not in the dystopian distant future but in the near term, this dynamic is at work now on the political right. The point of making election results seem unclear and inherently suspect is to provide a pretext for partisans to seize the democratic process for themselves and declare the election “result” they favor. That’s not the risk we run somewhere far off down the line; in the wake of the 2020 Trump re-election loss fiasco, that’s what Republican-controlled states like Georgia are doing now as they restructure elections to fit the conspiracy narrative about 2020.
We made it through the interregnum, yes. But if “the mechanisms of decision [were] at meaningful risk of breaking down” then, they’re even more at risk now. We’re used to Democrats versus Republicans in American elections. Now we’re entering the era of anti-democrats versus elections themselves. The red lights are blinking brighter than ever.