One of the curious things about Donald Trump's presidency is how often he seems to accidentally highlight the admirable qualities of otherwise unsympathetic figures. Jeff Sessions was a terrible attorney general, sidelining police accountability and facilitating Trump's war on undocumented immigrants, but he got fired for doing the right thing by recusing himself from the Russia probe. Mitt Romney probably would have gone down in history as the "47 percent" guy, but he has been genuinely steadfast in opposing the president's anti-democratic excesses. It doesn't take a lot to be a hero right now — just an iota of integrity.
This is how I find myself in the odd position of rooting, if only temporarily, for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
Kemp, a Republican, has not heretofore been on my list of admirable public figures. As Georgia's secretary of state, he presided over his own, narrow election to governor with a series of ethically dubious moves — problems that could have been avoided had he simply recused himself during the campaign. And his decision in April to be one of the first governors in the nation to back off the coronavirus lockdowns seemed to owe more to Trumpist politics than science.
On the other hand, he is now standing firm against pressure from Trump to overturn the will of Georgia's voters — and, well, that's not nothing.
According to reports, Trump called Kemp on Saturday morning — ostensibly to offer condolences on the death of a family friend, but really to pressure Kemp into calling the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature into session for the purpose of overruling that state's voters (a majority of whom voted for President-elect Joe Biden) and giving Georgia's electoral votes to Trump instead. This was an outright attempt to steal the election. Kemp declined.
Good for him. And good for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, another Republican who literally ignored Trump's phone call while certifying Biden's victory in his state. Good, too, for lesser-known GOP officials, like Michigan's Aaron Van Langevelde and Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers who have done their duty by defending the integrity of their states' votes against Trump's anger and conspiracy-mongering.
"We've never found systemic fraud — not enough to overturn the election," Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told ABC on Sunday. He added: "I'm a conservative Republican, and I'm disappointed, but those are the results."
Good for him, too.
This shouldn't be extraordinary. But contrast the behavior of these men against GOP members of Congress: According to a Washington Post survey, just 27 out of 249 members in the House of Representatives and Senate were willing to acknowledge that Biden won the election. Just as alarming, only 32 were willing to affirm they would accept Biden's legitimacy if — and when — the Electoral College certifies his victory.
The obvious difference between GOP elites in Congress and the above-named Republicans who are defending the integrity of the election is that the latter group is composed, to a great degree, of people who are doing the grunt work of democracy by supervising the elections and counting the votes. For them to go along with Trump's false allegations of fraud would be to confess either to their own dishonesty in running those elections, or their utter inability to protect the vote from corruption. So they are acting in their own interests by staying the course. What is more, some — like Kemp — have spent much of their careers making it more difficult for Democratic constituencies to vote. These guys aren't Jimmy Stewart gone to Washington, standing up for righteousness in soft focus. In just about any other context, I'd find their politics dismal and disappointing.
Compared to the up-is-down utter dishonesty of the MAGA-verse, though, these guys are straight arrows. You take what you can get.
What we have, for now, is a thin red line in defense of American democracy. It probably isn't sustainable — officials like Raffensperger have received threats for doing their jobs, and Trump's criticism might mean their political careers are effectively over. A party that requires good people to court danger and demotion while bad people are free to advance their interests by inciting potential violence is not a party that can long expect good people to keep doing the job.
So those of us who are interested in the survival of self-government must cheer on these few honest Republicans. It is not a new observation that this country needs a functioning center-right party. Their politics are not my own, but America's many conservatives are no less deserving of democratic representation than anybody else. That party — whether it is the GOP, or some other entity that comes to replace it in the post-Trump era — owes it to the rest of us to respect election results, instead of just wiping Democratic votes off the slate when it proves convenient. Otherwise, the so-called "American experiment" will fail at long last.
Republicans like Kemp offer a seed of hope that democracy, so badly damaged these last few years, can survive to the next generation. I doubt there is much else I'll ever find to praise about Kemp. But for now — as long as he continues to defend the election results, at least — I am rooting for him to succeed.