With the unambiguous vote of the Electoral College on Monday, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has been formally elected the 46th President of the United States. All that now remains is the final ceremony on January 6, in which the U.S. Congress, sitting in joint session, opens and counts the electoral votes. Outgoing President Donald Trump cannot change the outcome. Republican senators are even starting to talk to President-elect Biden.
Yet we can’t just move on. The Republican Party, in particular, has an obligation to take action now to prevent the malignancy of the 2020 election from leaving deep and long-lasting scars on our democracy.
The disaster scenarios that many (including me) worried about will not come to pass. Though the popular vote counts for president were close in several states—including Arizona (10,457 votes, 0.3 percent), Georgia (11,779, 0.3 percent), and Wisconsin (20,608, 0.6 percent)—they were also stable and resilient. No recount in any close state, not even the double recount in Georgia, significantly altered the margin. Moreover, Republican legislatures did not ignore the vote counts and award their states’ electoral votes to Donald Trump. Hence, the nation does not face the chaos of opposing slates of electors casting rival votes for president in enough states to determine the winner of the Electoral College.
If Republican-controlled state legislatures in just three critical states had pronounced Trump the rightful winner of their electoral votes, the January 6 joint session would have been a high-stakes showdown, with the winner and the fate of American democracy hanging in the balance.
We got lucky.
American democracy weathered this storm thanks in large part to the independence and integrity of the courts. Trump waged a relentless, deceitful, and increasingly desperate campaign to reverse the voting results by any judicial means, but the effort has failed in virtually every court he approached. As the Washington Post reported, eighty-six judges in battleground states, appointed by both parties to benches up and down the state and federal judiciaries, have, in a “remarkable show of near-unanimity,” flatly rejected the legal bids by Trump and his supporters to throw out mail-in ballots or otherwise overturn the election results.
As summarized by one judge overseeing a Trump case, Stephanos Bibas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, “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.”
Last Friday all of the Trump-nominated Supreme Court justices joined their colleagues in delivering the final coup de grâce, dismissing the suit by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to overturn the vote in four other states in what the Pennsylvania Attorney General called a “seditious abuse of the judicial process.”
Yet 17 of the country’s 25 Republican state attorneys general backed the Texas suit, along with 126 of the 196 House Republicans, including House Minority Leader and possible future speaker Kevin McCarthy. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Republicans were “subverting the Constitution.”
Beyond the conservative jurists who have denied Trump’s complaints, there have been some other profiles in integrity and courage. Among them are Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, Congressmen Adam Kinzinger and Paul Mitchell (who is about to retire), and the secretaries of state who have executed their roles faithfully and refused to be intimidated by partisan pressure or physical threats. On December 5 armed protestors, bellowing threats and demands into bullhorns, surrounded the home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger withstood death threats, along with a crescendo of pleas from fellow Republicans within and outside his state to exclude enough Democratic votes to swing the election to Trump. He rebuffed them, oversaw two recounts that changed nothing, and calmly explained that he was trained as an engineer to “look at numbers” and “hard data.”
Our democracy would be in better shape today if Raffensperger’s fellow Republicans had listened to him. Instead, Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and other Trump loyalists in politics and the media have continued their campaign to smear the election using lies and disinformation. Claims have included precincts with more votes than registered voters; a mysterious surge of late pro-Biden mail-in ballots (scholars said for months that this would be the pattern of an accurate vote); voting machines that, in the words of a Trump tweet, “DELETED 2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES;” allegations that the voting machine company was owned by Democrats linked to—you knew this was coming—the Clintons; and assertions that the dead rose to vote in the tens of thousands.
All of these and more have been determined to be patently false. Yet Trump’s minions have persisted, undeterred by the absence of evidence or the avalanche of rulings against them. On December 2, in a forty-six-minute tirade delivered in the White House and posted on social media, the President made these sweeping, near-delusional claims of massive, unprecedented voter fraud. Now, incredibly, despite the decisive vote of the Electoral College, Trump’s consigliere, Stephen Miller, says the fight will continue on to the congressional deliberations on January 6 and even until Inauguration Day on January 20.
Trump’s election night allegation of “a major fraud on our nation” was correct: It described his own behavior, as the paramount con artist in American political history.
With every passing day, these efforts look more like the final wretched skirmishes of a lost war. But they are not pointless. They are mining the waters of our democracy with the explosive belief that the 2020 election was not legitimate and, therefore, neither is the Biden presidency—or any effort to work with it for the national good. They have raked in well over $200 million from Trump’s loyal following, most of which goes not to the recount effort but to his political action committee. This is a lot of money to use in impugning the legitimacy of the 2020 election, obstructing Biden’s legislative agenda, and preparing to run again in 2024.
Most important, this delegitimization campaign is deepening our already severe polarization and undermining faith in our democracy. According to a YouGov post-election poll last month, 62 percent of Trump voters, forty-six million people, have no confidence—none—that the 2020 election was fair. Another 16 percent have “little” confidence.
Supporters of the two candidates live in different universes. Fully 100 percent of Biden supporters believe he “legitimately won the election;” 85 percent of Trump voters believe the opposite. (And of those, 79 percent think Trump should not concede.) While 94 percent of black voters and 77 percent of Hispanics think Biden was legitimately elected, 52 percent of white voters do not. These numbers vastly exceed the already worrisome figures uncovered by a Voter Study Group survey a year ago, when 29 percent of Republicans said it would be appropriate for Trump to refuse to leave office if he claimed to have credible evidence of illegal voting. Another 15 percent had no opinion.
Of course, it’s not only the election that divides Republicans and Democrats. An August Pew Research poll found that three-quarters of Republicans but barely a fifth of Democrats believe that in the United States, “Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed,” a gap of 51 points. Four in five Democrats but only about half of Republicans believe that peaceful protest is very important to the country. Nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans, 79 percent to 41 percent, say significant structural changes are needed in American government. This gap between the two parties has doubled since 2018.
Most worrisome is the danger that the growing partisan gulf, along with the stab-in-the-back narrative of cheating and betrayal, could unleash political violence. In recent years, surveys by the Democracy Fund have found committed partisans from both parties increasingly ready to support or condone violence that advances their partisan objectives. While it may be that only a small part of those would act on this sentiment, that could amount to hundreds of thousands of people. The events of this summer—when left-wing extremists besieged government buildings in Portland, armed right-wingers marched on Michigan’s State Capitol, and authorities uncovered a right-wing plot to kidnap and “try” the Michigan governor—provided ominous portents. As the white nationalist Proud Boys demonstrated last weekend in Washington, D.C., even a few hundred misfits in “wannabe military gear” can generate mayhem. The appetite for violence grows when it is primed with wild conspiracy theories and inflammatory rhetoric—just what Donald Trump has fed his base, not just after the 2020 election but throughout his presidency.
We don’t know how long Trump will dominate and terrorize the Republican Party. But his power won’t fade just because it no longer emanates from the White House. It’s not the power of the presidency that gives Trump his hold over the party; it is his cult-like command over Republican voters and, thus, his ability to destroy political careers by backing primary opponents to Republican officeholders who cross him. It has long been clear that Republican politicians’ problem with Trump is not loyalty but fear.
The last great demagogue to similarly degrade the Republican Party through fear and cowardice was Senator Joseph McCarthy. On June 1, 1950, the only female Republican senator, Margaret Chase Smith, rose on the Senate floor and issued her Declaration of Conscience against the demagogue: “I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear. While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people.” Most Republicans did not heed her then: It would be four more shameful years before McCarthy was finally brought down, dissipating the paranoia and persecution that had badly damaged civility, civil liberties, and the rule of law during the second Red Scare in America.
Today, social media provide a much more potent platform for mobilizing fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear. Our democracy cannot stand another four years of Trump’s polarizing venom, even if he spews it from Mar-a-Lago. For the last four years, Republican officeholders have assured journalists and friends that they would break with Trump when he went too far. Now, as Trump rejects the results of an election he clearly lost, cynically seeds his followers with false conspiracy theories about a stolen election, refuses to cooperate with or even recognize the presidential transition, and escalates his abuse of power to a level that even his loyal attorney general, William Barr, cannot abide, he is crossing any reasonable concept of a red line in a democracy. However good life may be in Congress or a Statehouse, Republican officeholders owe a duty to their country and their democracy to say, finally and unequivocally, “Enough.”
Larry Diamond, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He coordinates the democracy program of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe