Friday, December 11, 2020

The Leader of the Republican Party Is Attempting to Illegitimately Remain In Power Through Extralegal Means: What would we say if this happened in another country?

(12/11/2020)


Zeynep Tufekci of The Atlantic recently published an excellent contribution to the debate over whether or not Donald Trump’s behavior challenging the election amounts to an attempted “coup d’├ętat” (‘This Must Be Your First’ — Acting as if Trump is trying to stage a coup is the best way to ensure he won’t). I hope you will read the article in its entirety.

I understand many people are exhausted with politics right now. I get it. But I believe we are witnessing an extraordinary moment in American history that demands our close attention (The New York Times: Trump’s Attempts to Overturn the Election Are Unparalleled in U.S. History). I sound the alarm not to induce panic but to induce attention and reflection so that we may strive to prevent this from reoccurring. While Tufekci’s article only covers a fraction of the reasons for alarm, it accurately conveys the seriousness of this moment and the error of ignoring it. 

Zeynep Tufekci grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, which she describes as “the land of the coups.” Drawing on her familiarity with Turkish history, Tufekci argues that we should focus less on whether Donald Trump’s behavior technically meets the literal definition of a “coup” and more on the simple and disturbing truth that Donald Trump is attempting to illegitimately remain in power in defiance of a free and fair election, and a considerable portion of his party is enabling him along the way.

The article is worth reading in full, but here are some key excerpts:

  • The U.S. president is trying to steal the election, and, crucially, his party either tacitly approves or is pretending not to see it. . . . [I]n English, only one widely understood word captures what Donald Trump is trying to do, even though his acts do not meet its technical definition. Trump is attempting to stage some kind of coup, one that is embedded in a broader and ongoing power grab. And if that’s hard to recognize, this might be your first. . . .

    If things proceed in their ordinary course, the Electoral College will soon vote, and then Biden will take office. But ignoring a near catastrophe that was averted by the buffoonish, half-hearted efforts of its would-be perpetrator invites a real catastrophe brought on by someone more competent and ambitious. . . . It’s not enough to count on our institutions to resist such onslaughts. Our institutions do not operate via magic. . . . We’re being tested, and we’re failing. The next attempt to steal an election may involve a closer election and smarter lawsuits. Imagine the same playbook executed with better decorum, a president exerting pressure that is less crass and issuing tweets that are more polite. . . .

    When Biden takes the presidential oath in January, many will write articles scolding those who expressed concern about a coup as worrywarts, or as people misusing terminology. But ignoring near misses is how people and societies get in real trouble the next time, and although the academic objections to the terminology aren’t incorrect, the problem is about much more than getting the exact term right. Alarmism is problematic when it’s sensationalist. Alarmism is essential when conditions make it appropriate. . . .

    Our focus should not be a debate about the proper terminology. Instead, we should react to the frightening substance of what we’re facing, even if we also believe that the crassness and the incompetence of this attempt may well doom it this time. . . . Act like this is your first coup, if you want to be sure that it’s also your last.

I agree with the central theme of Tufekci’s article. I don't feel qualified to opine on whether this meets the technical definition of what scholars call an attempted “‘self-coup’ — or, using the Spanish term, an ‘autogolpe’ — in which a head of state attempts to remain in power past his or her term in office.” But the very fact that we are having this debate at all — and that there are esteemed scholars and publications on each side of the debate — is cause for great concern for the health of our democracy. As Ishaan Tharoor writes in the Washington Post, “Coup or No Coup, Trump Sets Dangerous Precedents.” 

Donald Trump’s behavior is so far beyond the bounds of acceptable political behavior that it raises a legitimate question over how committed the Republican Party truly is to the idea of liberal democracy at all. According to a team of international scholars, the GOP’s refusal to acknowledge Biden’s victory is in fact entirely consistent with data suggesting that the Republican Party has recently shifted “away from democratic ideals and practices” and has “adopted the authoritarian beliefs and tactics” of Donald Trump (The Washington Post: GOP leaders’ embrace of Trump’s refusal to concede fits pattern of rising authoritarianism, data shows). As Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of Berkeley Law recently wrote, we are witnessing a truly extraordinary assault on our system of representative government that we cannot afford to ignore:

  • For over 200 years, since 1787, never has the United States seen such an effort to undermine an election or by a defeated incumbent to stay in power. . . . We have witnessed something unprecedented in the U.S. since Nov. 3. We must not ignore it, even if it has no consequences in terms of Biden assuming the presidency.

Despite this unprecedented attack on our democracy, many GOP leaders continue to deny Joe Biden’s victory, claiming that Donald Trump remains within his rights to pursue all available “legal options” to dispute the election. This may have been true at the beginning of November, but it is no longer true now. As Greg Sargent notes in the Washington Postwhat Donald Trump is asking lawmakers to do is not within the bounds of the law (in other words, it is extralegal):

  • But this effort is not “legal.” It’s extralegal. Kemp, a Republican, has released a statement clarifying that under state law, the legislature can only “direct an alternative method for choosing presidential electors if the election was not able to be held” on Election Day. Kemp noted that the legislature already decided back in the 1960s that the electors are chosen by the state’s popular vote and added that under the law, a special session to appoint different electors is “not an option.” In other words, Trump is calling on the state legislature to go outside of state law to subvert the state’s popular vote and decree him the winner. . . . 

    Trump wants to remain in power illegitimately: Much of the debate about Trump’s efforts seems strangely divorced from the unvarnished reality of what it is he’s actually attempting to do. There’s been a loud argument over whether the extended legal losses and all around clownish incompetence of Trump’s team render it absurd to call this an attempt at a “coup.” But as Zeynep Tufekci points out, the debate over semantics and over the Trump team’s failures must not overshadow the core overriding fact of this current situation, which is that Trump is attempting to invalidate an election in order to stay in power illegitimately.

Never before have we experienced such a brazen assault on our democratic system of free and fair elections. Never before has an American president falsely claimed victory against all evidence and demanded that election officials stop counting lawfully cast ballots (!). Never before has a sitting president and a major political party promoted such an irresponsible torrent of demonstrably falsifiable disinformation aimed at eroding public faith in our elections and democratic institutions. Never before has a president and his party asked state and federal courts to invalidate millions of legitimately cast ballots across the country, while simultaneously pressuring state legislatures to overrule their own election in defiance of their state’s popular vote results. And never before has a president mounted an extralegal effort to explicitly pressure governors and election officials to disregard their legal duties, nullify an entire election, and declare himself the victor in defiance of their state’s laws, only to then label them as “enemies of the people” when they refuse to comply with what Republican governors have called an “unconstitutional” demand. 

This is not your run-of-the-mill election dispute. This is an illegitimate attempt to deny the democratic transfer of power through extralegal means, using unsubstantiated allegations that no court has found credible as justification. Far too many Republicans support these actions, and far too many have failed to condemn them.

To condemn such actions is not a partisan statement — it is to recognize reality. There are many issues that are up for legitimate debate between political parties. This is not among them. The moment we fail to recognize such distinctions, equate both sides of an objectively uncontroversial issue as equally valid, and dismiss condemnations of such blatantly antidemocratic behavior as mere partisanship or alarmism, is the moment we embark on a dangerous path. It is the moment we submit to “both sides-ism,” an unwise attempt to appear “neutral” or “moderate” by proposing false equivalencies between ideas of vastly unequal merit. It is the moment we cease to recognize our own ability to filter fact from fiction and to obtain objective truth. It is the moment we begin to doubt whether there is even any objective truth at all.

This is a dangerous path. As Hannah Arendt wrote in 1951: “the ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (that is, the standards of thought) no longer exist.” The scourge of online disinformation that increasingly plagues our society — much of which is promoted by the Commander in Chief who now seeks to overturn a free and fair election — threatens the distinctions between fact and fiction about which Arendt spoke and on which our shared reality is based. The age-old authoritarian strategy of spreading an endless stream of disinformation is, as one observer put it, “to obliterate the nation of objective truth” and “to confuse the line between reality and fiction, until people find it so exhausting to separate the two that they mostly give up trying.” Nicholas Goldberg described this strategy aptly in a recent piece for the Los Angeles Times:

  • From the moment he took office, Trump has used his powerful platform — and the outsized megaphone that goes with the presidency — to create an alternative reality in which his truth is as good as anyone else’s truth, even if it isn’t exactly, well, true. The idea was that if he cast doubt on information put forth by society’s traditional arbiters — the scientists, the experts, the judges, the journalists — it would leave ordinary Americans rudderless and uncertain what to believe. If every “expert” who disagreed with him was a liar, as well as a partisan or an enemy of the people or a member of a vast conspiracy, then their facts posed no challenge to his “facts.” Americans would have to decide what to believe based on who screamed the loudest and who was saying what they wanted to hear.

    – Nicholas Goldberg: Trump’s election lies are part of a much broader strategy. Here’s how it works.

The strategy is working. Americans are living in two very different factual realities right now. In one of these Americas, tens of millions of citizens are being told by elected officials that they’ve been denied their democratic rights by a nefarious, rigged election — a momentous accusation of historic proportions, yet one that lacks credible proof. An astounding 88 percent of Trump-voters believe the election was stolen, and only 20 percent of Congressional Republicans have acknowledged that Joe Biden won the election. This despite the fact that not a single court has found any credible evidence of systemic fraud or irregularities that could plausibly change the outcome of the election in any of Donald Trump’s legal cases (where, unlike social media, the standard of factual scrutiny is robust and where the attorneys are constrained by a duty of candor to the court). Even Donald Trump’s own Attorney General and prominent conservative publications such as the Wall Street Journal and The National Review have stated that they’ve seen no credible evidence of major fraud that would change the election. 

Regardless, Donald Trump continues to tell millions of voters that the election was rigged and that Joe Biden would be an “illegitimate president,” and millions of voters continue to believe him. And while it is true that Hillary Clinton also eventually called Donald Trump an illegitimate president during his presidency — which I condemn — it is also true that she conceded to Trump within 24 hours of the polls closing, saying “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead,” and no Democratic leadership ever alleged that actual vote tallies were manipulated in 2016, as Trump falsely claims now. Meanwhile, election officials across the country continue to receive death threats, fueled by the dishonest rhetoric of the GOP and its leader. Just yesterday, the Arizona Republican Party asked its followers whether they were willing to give up their lives for the fight to “Stop the Steal.”

This “stab-in-the-back myth” (i.e., “we would have won the election, if it weren’t for those traitorous ‘enemies of the people’”) is corrosive to a democracy, and it portends ominous and familiar themes that we have encountered during some of democracy’s darker moments in history (“1918 Germany Has a Warning for America”). As Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes in the Boston Globe, this dangerous “myth of victomhood” can endure long past Joe Biden’s inauguration day: 

  • What we face now in the United States is a new, American incarnation of the old falsehood: that Donald Trump’s defeat was not what it seems, that votes were stolen from him by internal enemies — by a left-wing party. . . . This stab-in-the-back myth could become a permanent feature of American politics . . . . A coup is under way, and the number of participants is not shrinking but growing. . . . 

    History shows where this can go. If people believe an election has been stolen, that makes the new president a usurper. . . . Democracy can be buried in a big lie. . . . If you have been stabbed in the back, then everything is permitted. Claiming that a fair election was foul is preparation for an election that is foul. If you convince your voters that the other side has cheated, you are promising them that you yourself will cheat next time. Having bent the rules, you then have to break them. . . .

    When politicians break democracy, as conservatives in Weimar Germany did in the early 1930s, they are wrong to think that they will control what happens next. Someone else will emerge who is better adapted to the chaos and who will wield it in ways that they neither want nor expect. The myth of victimhood comes home and claims its victims.

    This is no time to mince words. In the interest of the Republic and of their own party, Republicans should accept the results. 


     – Timothy Snyder: Trump’s big election lie pushes America toward autocracy: Clinging to power by claiming you are the victim of internal enemies is a very dangerous tactic. Don’t underestimate where this can go.

We are fortunate to live in a country with strong enough institutional guardrails to withstand this kind of assault—at least this time. In case after case, judges of the president’s own party — even those appointed by the president himself — have resoundingly rejected both the factual allegations and the legal theories advanced by Donald Trump and his campaign. And so far, election officials have certified their election results and the leaders of Republican-controlled state legislatures have refused the president’s demands to overturn their state elections and appoint pro-Trump electors, despite enormous pressure from their own party and the president himself (though this is not particularly praiseworthy given that they are under a legal obligation to do just that, but I commend them all the same).

But let’s repeat what needs to be said: Donald Trump is attempting to illegitimately remain in power through extralegal means, and with few exceptions, a major political party is doing precious little to condemn him. No matter what we decide to call it, this is beyond outrageous, and we risk normalizing the abnormal by not condemning this for what it is. 

Again, he will not succeed. But that Trump will fail is no reason to look away and ignore him in this unprecedented moment. Nor is it a reason to ignore those sounding the alarm about the threat he poses and the wounds he reveals in our social fabric, some of which could re-emerge if we do not tend to them with care. Doomed as Trump’s authoritarian power-grab may be, we ignore this moment at our own peril. 

 – BW
 (12/11/2020)

  [You can read Zeynep Tufekci’s full article here: ‘This Must Be Your First’ — Acting as if Trump is trying to stage a coup is the best way to ensure he won’t.]