We are coming to the end of the most consequential year in the complicated history of democracy in our country. Next year, 2022, will be even more fateful.
New Year’s Day, 2021, saw Donald Trump and his followers, both within and outside of government, fully engaged in a coup. Their objective was to stop the duly elected president, Joe Biden, from taking office, and keep Donald Trump in power. On January 6, they came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding.
The assault on the Capital was a last ditch, “What have we got to lose?” sort of tactic. It was also the point of the spear, or the more overt, violent aspect of a well-planned, months long undertaking—a coup by any other name—which was supposed to replace the winner of the 2020 presidential election with the loser. Despite some legal setbacks, the coup was very much alive right up to the moment Vice President Pence convened Congress to count the Electoral College votes, and the mob outside began its assault.
The groundwork was laid in plain sight. It began with the Big Lie, that is, Trump claiming over and over the election was rife with fraud. Next, the vote in states Trump lost was challenged, with zero success, in courts across the nation, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, a number of Republican controlled states conducted amateurish “audits,” designed to bypass election officials and reveal the true vote counts, presumably proving Trump’s victory.
None of this had the slightest basis in fact or reality, nor was any fraud uncovered. But that was never the point. The idea was to plant doubts about the legitimacy of the election by endlessly repeating the Big Lie, in as many versions and on as many platforms as possible. And it worked. Surveys have shown significant numbers of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump.
We now know that Trump himself was pressuring election officials in states he lost to either reject the vote counts or, as in the case of Georgia, alter the results. Meanwhile, his allies and officials within the administration were cranking out quasi-legal arguments for everything from a declaration of martial law to a refusal by Vice President Pence to accept electoral votes from Biden states.
None of this was based in legal precedent or legitimate constitutional scholarship, let alone evidence. But again, winning the argument on its merits was not the point. The objective was to manufacture enough doubt about the election to throw the decision to the House of Representatives. There, with each state essentially having a single vote, Trump would prevail because 27 of the 50 states have Republican-majority House delegations.
This strategy failed because Vice President Pence saw no way, under the Constitution, that he could do anything but accept and record the electoral votes presented by the states. The mob attacking the Capital had different ideas. Again, success only required disrupting the process. In the chaos and confusion, turning the whole thing over to the House would suddenly become a reasonable course of action, with Republican members happily going along.
This very well could have happened if the attackers had breached the session itself, caught, injured, or even killed members of Congress, or at the very least physically destroyed the electoral ballots. They came within a few minutes, and a few feet, of doing exactly that. They only failed because of the courage and sacrifice of the Capital Police, and because Congress had the wisdom and fortitude to resume the certification as soon as possible later that night.
Joe Biden was sworn in as President on January 20, 2021. You might assume that meant the coup failed, but in reality it has just gone into remission. The violence on January 6 was a necessary tactic only because no election officials could be found who would reject legitimate votes, or change the ultimate results. And the ones who might have wanted to, were legally prevented from doing so.
This has been corrected through a series of new elections laws, passed by Republican legislatures in a number of critical, swing states. In general, these laws make it harder to vote—or remove previous changes which made it easier—especially for groups seen as hostile to the Republican cause.
More importantly, partisan legislators have taken direct charge of elections. They’ve given themselves the power to remove election officials, and replace them with officials more to their liking. And as if that weren’t enough, they can now simply reject any votes they deem improper, evidence notwithstanding.
These laws have the support of many of those same officials pressured in 2020 to hand the presidential election over to Trump. In other words, the next coup will be legal. If you doubt that, try imagining the partisan Georgia or Texas legislators saying “Okay, you won fair and square,” and presenting the governorships of those states to Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke.
The future of democracy in this country is anything but certain, and a whole lot of people are oblivious to the danger. For some, awareness and involvement in government, politics, or even voting is simply not part of life. Others consider themselves informed, but don’t grasp the magnitude of the events taking place right before their eyes. And of course, the Republican portion of the population sees nothing at all wrong with what is happening.
Right now, as 2022 dawns, the forces arrayed against democracy assume they own the future. They look forward to solidifying their grip on power in the November mid-terms, but they are on untraveled and unpredictable ground—at least for this country.
They will inevitably stumble. What happens then will determine the future. There is no formula for a response, but it starts with a basic, guiding principle: Someday we will all be asked by friends, neighbors, family—even by generations to come and historians prowling the detritus of these times—what did you do when they came for our democracy?
Erich Obermayr is an author, community activist, and career archaeologist specializing in sharing historical and archaeological research with the public. He writes about Nevada politics and social issues. He lives in Silver City, Nevada, with his wife.
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