Democratic nominee Joe Biden pulled ahead in Pennsylvania this morning, closing in on 270 electoral votes and thus the presidency. Millions of Democrats yearning to free themselves of President Trump are just minutes or hours from celebration. But what should be a moment of relief will be darkened by a gathering cloud of ominous threats coming from the president, his children and allies, and even some leading Republicans.
As Biden was pulling ahead yesterday morning in pivotal battlegrounds, leading in states totaling 306 electoral votes, the Trump camp was floating completely unsubstantiated conspiracies and claiming that "once the election is final, President Trump will be re-elected." Trump has no plans to concede and will go out as ugly and destructively as possible, dragging the country down with him.
These efforts to precipitate what amounts to a coup will almost certainly fall short of their goal. But that failure should not lead us to believe that our institutions are robust or that they saved us. It's more that just a handful of Republicans — the leadership of the Pennsylvania legislature, Mitch McConnell and other GOP senators, maybe one or two of the conservatives on the Supreme Court if it ever gets that far — still possess some tiny modicum of integrity and will prevent the president's conspiracy against America from succeeding. The Pennsylvania GOP won't send the Republican slate of electors to Congress. The Senate lacks a leader or a majority willing to endorse such a maneuver even if they did. And the Supreme Court would not sign what amounts to democracy's death certificate. Not today anyway.
This handful of Republicans, who have collectively done absolutely nothing to stop the situation from getting so out of hand in the first place, are literally all that is standing between us and authoritarianism.
For months, President Trump has clumsily telegraphed his plot and Republicans looked on in shameful silence, possibly because they believed the (terrible) polling and thought they were about to get waxed across the board in a way that would make the president's machinations look absurd. Once it became clear in the spring that more Democrats than Republicans wanted to avoid voting in person so as not to die of the highly contagious plague currently infecting more than 100,000 Americans a day, the president's team relentlessly attacked the legitimacy of voting by mail, tried to wreck the U.S. Postal Service, litigated every modest effort to make the process easier and more forgiving for citizens, and even enlisted GOP state legislatures in critical swing states to delay counting those ballots until Election Day.
They wanted to create the appearance of a Trump "win" being subverted by counting "illegal" late votes. They tried to convince millions of their followers of the utterly false premise that any ballot not tabulated by midnight on election night is illegal. And they have succeeded in doing just that. The fruits of their malevolent handiwork will menace this democracy for years no matter what unfolds over the next 10 weeks.
The right-wing propaganda apparatus is on board. At The Federalist, an outlet that makes Fox News look like the platonic ideal of objectivity, writers are claiming that "Democrats are trying to steal the election in the Midwest." Facebook had to shut down a group with hundreds of thousands of members called "Stop the Steal," which was advocating violence and catapulting baseless allegations across Mark Zuckerberg's vast digital empire. Prominent commentators like Mark Levin called on GOP state legislatures to submit their own electors in the precise nightmare scenario envisioned by The Atlantic's Barton Gellman in September. And Fox itself is giving hours and hours of airtime to people working tirelessly to subvert the election.
Because Biden is leading in several crucial states rather than just one, they probably won't be able to pull it off. But we must remember that it's not any mystical "guardrails" holding us up. It's happenstance. It's luck.
The uncomfortable truth is there is nothing in "the institutions" themselves to save us. They are not self-enforcing, as we discovered time and again during the Trump presidency, no more obviously than when Trump and his circle unapologetically violated the Hatch Act countless times and were met with complete indifference by every single elected Republican in the country. Those tasked with enforcing the rules looked the other way. When the branch of government that is supposed to faithfully execute the nation's laws is conquered by the lawless, there is no real backup plan.
And while you might not care that much about the Hatch Act, what they proved was that they could openly flout laws with no consequence whatsoever. Today it's an obscure ethics rule. Tomorrow it could be election laws. The day after it might be our basic human rights and freedoms. Think of it this way — what if one of the QAnon conspiracy theorists Republicans just sent to Congress was the governor of Pennsylvania or Wisconsin? What if one of them becomes the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? The chief justice of the Supreme Court?
The Republican Party is slipping away from its few remaining principled conservatives and is in the advanced stages of being gutted and rehabbed by some of the most dangerous people in the country. It is now a budding authoritarian organization that commands the loyalty of something like 47 percent of the population. It includes the sitting president and vice president of the United States, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, the chair of the Senate judiciary committee, Lindsey Graham, and multiple former Republican leaders and presidential candidates including Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, all of whom are out there right now giving credence to a plan to steal the election based on ludicrous fraud allegations they are literally making up.
Despite all of this madness, Biden stands at the precipice of the presidency. The temptation to turn the page is understandable. It has been a long and exhausting four years, characterized by new outrages, indecencies, and threats seemingly every hour. For too many of us, the din of madness has drowned out other human pursuits and joys that we want nothing more than to return to. On Jan. 21, the worst of it will probably be over for now. But Democrats can't be too busy celebrating to recognize the enormous dangers that are still with us.
There can be no post-election demobilization and no return to normal. Those dreaming about not having to think about the president every day need to wake up and realize that we are at most one Republican wave election away from putting a bunch of Pizzagate conspiracy theorists and Lost Causers in charge of the federal government, where they will fully control the coercive apparatus of the most powerful country in the history of the world. Some of them are willing to destroy democracy just to prevent an elderly, moderate Democrat from leading what amounts to a weak caretaker government, one that will probably be unable to pass a single piece of meaningful legislation.
What will they do when there is more on the line? Do you really want to find out? It can happen here. And if we don't remain vigilant, it will.