Will Democrats stand up for democracy?
Crossing your fingers and hoping the Trump coup will go away is not a strategy
President Trump and his allies are now officially seeking to overthrow the legitimately elected government of the United States. Even though Trump's pitiful lawyers have spent two weeks getting skunked in court, failing time and again to provide even the tiniest shred of evidence to support their ever more outlandish conspiracy theories of election fraud, they just won't quit. Friday afternoon, Republican leaders of the Michigan state legislature will reportedly meet with President Trump to discuss his illegal plot to steal the state's 16 electoral votes. Presumably an effort to badger Republican legislators in other battleground states into submission will be next. The Republican Party is all on board with this plot against the very foundations of American democracy.
What have national Democrats been doing and saying about all of this? Like most pundits and reporters, they seem to regard the threat of a post-election putsch by the president as dark comedic theater rather than a mortal threat to the republic. President-elect Joe Biden, seemingly unaware of how close Republican elites are to executing this democracy-ending scheme, keeps calling the president's conduct "embarrassing" and "irresponsible." In his victory speech nearly two weeks ago, he didn't say a thing about any of it. His Twitter feed has been a reliably delusional encomium to long-dead bipartisan unity, mixed with more of the "Trump's COVID response is very bad" messaging that failed to deliver a truly decisive repudiation of the GOP on November 3. His team throws cold water on even tepid plans like suing the government to cooperate in the transition process.
Even as the president's allies hold increasingly lurid press conferences where they float baseless conspiracy theories, file lawsuit after lawsuit seeking to have the results of whole state elections invalidated by courts, and pressure both local and state officials in battleground states to slow down or reverse the certification of results, the putative president-elect and his party allies are mostly silent. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issues sternly worded statements about the purging of federal election officials. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweets that "Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani cannot change reality."
That'll show 'em! If this group of timid, long-past-their-prime Democratic leaders were put in front of a firing squad by the authoritarian GOP junta that the president and his allies would like to conjure into existence, their instincts would almost certainly be to dial down the tensions. Their dying words would be to blame their murders on "defund the police" and to thank their executioners for their technical skill. They would clutch their copies of Hillbilly Elegy in front of their hearts, murmuring about how they tried to understand the fusillade of economic anxiety bullets hurtling toward them at the speed of sound. They would then surely expire apologetically.
Let's not mince words here: Every minute that Biden and prominent Democrats spend letting the phantasmagoric miasma of total nonsense being peddled by the president float around in the air unchallenged is wasted. Right now they look like the president did when he said we were "rounding the turn" on the coronavirus at the very moment it was about to spiral out of control.
Trump and his preposterous legal machinations have driven nearly every news cycle since election night, by design, while Democrats seem content to count on Republicans privately assuring them that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take office on Jan. 20. Look, Lindsay Graham fist-bumped Harris on the floor of the Senate! There's no way he would betray her after such a gesture, right? Nothing to see here, folks. It's certainly not concerning that 88 percent of Trump voters now believe that Joe Biden and the Democrats stole the election.
It's all par for the course. During the closing days of the campaign, prominent Democrats, mortified as always of their own policy shadows, refused to threaten court packing to stop the norm-obliterating confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court days before the election. The white working class voters they were terrified of offending showed up en masse to cast ballots against them anyway. They lost the Supreme Court seat, they will almost certainly lose the Senate, and they lost seats in the House and state legislative races from sea to COVID-shimmering sea. The lesson they learned from all of this was that while Republicans are trying to overthrow democracy, they should spend their precious time dumping on progressives for not sufficiently disavowing activist slogans over which none of them have any control whatsoever anyway.
None of them, during the campaign or afterwards, could muster a truly sustained and coherent attack on the Republican Party as an institution, even as the president was openly threatening to steal the election in exactly the way that he is now trying to steal the election with the total and cowardly acquiescence of practically every elected Republican in the country. On the contrary, in their infinite wisdom, Democrats used their party convention as an advertisement for how welcome Republicans are in the party. That invitation was disrespectfully declined even as the public continued to view the GOP as a perfectly fine and normal institution.
The word "hopeless" genuinely fails to capture the top-to-bottom uselessness of the Democratic Party's sclerotic leadership.
As a hopeless optimist, though, I still have to try. So here's some free advice to the national leadership of a party that is about to end up on the wrong side of the Reichstag fire: Wake up. Stop treating the president's attempt to overthrow the American government like an unwelcome spam call and more like the existential threat that it truly is. Make Trump's attempted coup the focus of the next 10 weeks of your lives. Worry less about the Georgia runoffs and more about whether there will ever be free and fair elections to win again and if Georgia and Illinois will be part of the same country two months from now. Because that is where this is headed.
After years of Republicans tagging you as "radical" and "sick" and "anti-American," can you really not bring yourselves to call the GOP what it has become: an authoritarian cult, in thrall to the dumbest and least talented aspiring dictator in world history, its elites so terrified of their own primary voters that they won't denounce a conspiracy against the United States? Stop trying to appeal to these unreachable monsters and start thinking about how you will vanquish them using the full power of the state.
Hold more outraged press conferences. Have blue state governors talk about how the theft of a national election will break the union. Start dropping the word "secession" in casual conversations with reporters. Have some adjectives at the ready to put in front of the word "Republican" every time you're forced to utter it: "reactionary," "tyrannical," "anti-democratic," "shameless," "deranged," and so on.
Have Pelosi and Schumer and Biden never made a threat? The Michigan yahoos en route to D.C. today might be interested in hearing what the consequences will be for them should they throw their lot in with an attempt to destroy the union. Biden should announce his pick for attorney general and then have that person mosey up to a podium and read off the names of all the Trump goons he or she intends to indict if they do not back off from this desultory scheme to overturn the results of a democratic election.
Most of all: Stop assuming that some mythical group of responsible Republicans will put an end to this. They have spent more than a decade gleefully entrenching minority rule, devising new ways to stop people from voting, and exercising as much of their ill-gotten power as the Constitution permits. They have protected this president at every conceivable opportunity, no matter his crimes. No one in the GOP, not in the House, not in the Senate, not in gerrymandered state legislatures, has been willing to sacrifice their careers to do the right thing. Why take it as a given that they will do so now?
Democrats need to accept that no one is coming, no institution will save us, and that they have only one way to convince their counterparts that this time is different: Make it clear to Republicans that the consequences of stealing this election will be unbearable for the country, and for them. That they can either recognize Biden's victory or attempt to preside over a smoking ruin.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.