Crises, at least of the American variety, sometimes announce themselves long before the fact, like a save-the-date notice for a future cataclysm. The decade before the Civil War was so rife with talk about potential conflict over slavery that the shots fired at Fort Sumter seemed almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Prior to the 2008 housing crisis, several analysts recognized that market conditions could potentially culminate in a catastrophic crash. For many years, scientists have sounded alarms about rising temperatures and emerging viruses. The common theme in these warnings is our collective unwillingness to address them beforehand. At present, this appears to be the situation regarding American democracy.
Late last month, forty-six weeks after voting in the 2020 Presidential election had concluded, Republicans in the Arizona State Senate unveiled the results of a so-called audit of more than two million ballots cast in Maricopa County. The recount, which they had commissioned from the Florida-based firm Cyber Ninjas, determined that President Joe Biden had not only won the county but had done so by three hundred and sixty more votes than was previously known. Both Democratic and Republican officials in Maricopa County had denounced the recount, fearing that it would be used to cast further doubt on the most thoroughly scrutinized and legitimate election in recent history. (The county’s vote alone had been verified several times.) Fuelling their concern was the fact that Cyber Ninjas had never conducted an election audit, and that it is led by Doug Logan, who openly promoted allegations of voter fraud. Those officials are no doubt relieved by the outcome. But, as was to be expected, Donald Trump, for whom all facts are relative, rejected the findings. He told a crowd at a Save America rally in Georgia, “We won on the Arizona forensic audit yesterday at a level that you wouldn’t believe.”
A more subtle mind than Trump’s would see the futility of having a questionable firm undertake an unnecessary recount only to offer findings that are counter to his immediate interests. But the point of the exercise, and of others like it taking place across the country, is not so much to delegitimize the past election as it is to normalize specious reviews of future ones—including, perhaps, a 2024 race in which Trump’s name is on the ballot. We have seen too much of this form of mainstreaming of the absurd in recent years to note every example, but its origins likely lie in Trump’s fixation on Barack Obama’s birth certificate. In that case, once the birther myths were finally dispelled, Trump pivoted to congratulating himself for forcing people to get to the bottom of the issue. In effect, he recast a conspiracy theory as a legitimate inquiry resolved by legitimate means. The danger is the probability that some illegitimate future inquiry will be used to achieve illegitimate ends. The groundwork for this is more advanced than we care to contemplate.
Trump’s defeat, by more than seven million votes, was taken to be a sign that the most anti-democratic forces he represented would also be vanquished. The failed January 6th insurrection, which he encouraged and which sent his own Vice-President scrambling to escape a mob threatening to lynch him, seemed a fitting epitaph for his Presidency, and for the malice and the chaos that it engendered. His own incompetence had proved a great asset to American democracy. Since his loss, however, more efficient actors have stepped up to do his bidding.
After Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, refused to throw the Georgia vote in Trump’s favor, the G.O.P.-controlled state legislature passed a bill diminishing the authority of his office, and giving itself greater control over the way elections are administered. The legislature now has the power to, among other things, challenge election officials. Bills that restrict voting access have been passed in at least seventeen other states this year. Meanwhile, Republicans in Wisconsin and in Pennsylvania have initiated investigations along the lines of the Arizona recount—representatives from both states paid visits to Maricopa County. (Similar efforts in Georgia and in Michigan resulted in no changes to the election outcomes.) Most bizarrely, the Texas secretary of state’s office announced that it will conduct a review of the 2020 results in Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Collin counties, even though Trump carried the state by more than six hundred thousand votes. Last week, county recounts in Idaho conducted after Mike Lindell, the MyPillow C.E.O., alleged fraud, found slightly fewer votes for Trump than were initially reported.
The 2000 Presidential election came down to disputed results in Florida, and was resolved by a Supreme Court ruling, in Bush v. Gore, whose partisan implications were regarded by many people as a judicial coup, but whose prescriptions were nonetheless adhered to by the Democrat who had won the popular vote but lost the Presidency. Now consider a scenario in which a Democrat wins the election, and Republican-controlled legislatures dispute the results in their states. The dangers are obvious and, given the precedent of January 6th, include the potential for violence. It’s not encouraging that one of the lessons of the Republican-led opposition to vaccine mandates and other public-health measures is that, in moments of crisis, not even the logic of self-preservation can be relied on. (Early in the pandemic, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, said, in defiance of shutdowns, “There are more important things than living.”)
All this Trumpist fervor points to the importance of the Democrats in the House and the Senate taking full advantage of their control of those chambers. Countering voter-suppression efforts, more than twenty-five states have, in fact, passed bills expanding access to the ballot. These measures desperately need to be augmented by federal voting-rights legislation that is currently being held hostage by the debate over filibuster reform.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, published in June, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, justified her support for the filibuster, saying that it forces legislative minorities and majorities to find compromises on legislation. But Senate Republicans have used it to prevent the For the People Act, which Sinema co-sponsored, from even coming to the floor for debate. Sinema’s own state is the clearest example of what is at stake. We may yet avert a full-fledged constitutional crisis, but, should one arrive, we can’t say we never saw it coming. ♦