The seditious act of violence at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was an assault on the very heart of American democracy. And though political violence has a long history in our country, what happened in Washington, D.C., was unique in one important way — the person at the top of our government instigated the insurrection.
It was the culmination of weeks of presidential lies and provocations about the outcome of the November election.
Had the rest of the political class disavowed President Donald Trump’s efforts to subvert the election, had they acknowledged reality and countered the disinformation, Trump would have found himself isolated and ineffective. To be sure, the true believers among his supporters still would have been willing to storm the Capitol when encouraged to do so. But the president would not have been emboldened to ramp up his rhetoric if he had been roundly and swiftly criticized for his actions.
Such criticism ought to have started well before November, when the president said he might not accept the results of the election. When he said, repeatedly, that the only way he could lose is if the election were rigged, every elected official in the country should have issued a public statement saying that the election would not be rigged and that the results would be legitimate. They should have said that the president was playing a dangerous game by undermining faith in our electoral system. Indeed, they should have said this as far back as 2016, when Trump falsely asserted that he would have won the popular vote but for millions of fraudulent votes cast for his opponent.
Unfortunately, too few elected officials issued such statements. In fact, many joined Trump in questioning the validity of our elections. Despite failing to provide any credible evidence of malfeasance, despite the fact that the president’s legal team lost more than 60 court cases in which Trump and his allies alleged election misconduct, those backing the president continue to sow doubt about the election results.
Included in this group are some of our own elected officials in Lancaster County.
Did any of them object to Trump’s Jan. 2 phone call to the Georgia secretary of state in which he pressured, and at times threatened, the secretary to “find” enough votes to declare Trump the winner? Quite the contrary.
Two days before the joint session of Congress in which electoral votes were to be counted, Republican state senators from Pennsylvania — including Lancaster County Sens. Scott Martin and Ryan Aument — sent a letter to GOP leaders of the U.S. House and Senate calling on them to delay certification of the electoral votes from Pennsylvania. Citing the “inconsistent and questionable activities” of election officials, they asked for more time while yet another long-shot appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was made.
Eight of the nine Republican U.S. representatives from Pennsylvania, including Congressman Lloyd Smucker, issued a statement of their own on New Year’s Eve. In it, the representatives described November’s elections in the commonwealth as “a free-for-all with no oversight” and maintained that the “state’s official certification of electors was based upon a flawed system and an inaccurate vote count.” Never mind that the signatories to this statement were elected under the same supposedly “flawed system” and in the same “free-for-all.”
All eight of these representatives, including Rep. Smucker, voted early Thursday morning to reject Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, as did another 130 Republicans (or 65% of the House Republican conference).
What, precisely, was the goal of this escapade? Rep. Smucker told LNP | LancasterOnline that he knew the Republicans’ objection would fail; he was simply seeking “to register legitimate concerns by my constituents on how this election was conducted.”
The vote to object to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes was not, in fact, an innocent act of giving voice to constituent concerns. From where did those concerns arise? Could weeks of rhetoric about “flawed” and “stolen” elections have contributed to them? And how legitimate were those concerns when, as Smucker himself said, “the Trump team was unable to show widespread fraud in Pennsylvania”?
The argument, to the extent that there is a coherent one, is that alleged irregularities with the way the election was conducted make the true outcome of the election uncertain. But even Smucker acknowledged that these irregularities “may or may not have affected the outcome.”
Had this objection been successful, it would have disenfranchised nearly seven million voters in Pennsylvania. Was it really launched because some inconsistencies may, or may not, have had an effect?
A few inconsistencies, which occur in all elections and rarely alter the outcome, do not justify nullifying the results of the election.
Not a partisan matter
Could it be that Republicans don’t really believe the election was stolen? If they did, wouldn’t they be doing more than simply objecting to electoral votes? Wouldn’t they be calling for mass demonstrations to “stop the steal,” as Trump’s most zealous supporters put it? Perhaps these elected officials are trying to thread a political needle by placating a base — which has gone all-in on election conspiracy theories — while not fully acting on the implications of their own political rhetoric. Despite the caution they may think they’re exercising, they simply will not be able to control the mob, as they now should know, if they didn’t before Wednesday.
Let’s be very clear about one thing: None of this should be read as a partisan critique. Faith in elections and the peaceful transfer of power are not, or should not be, partisan issues. Indeed, 74 Republicans in the U.S. House voted against the objection to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes and only seven Republican senators voted in favor.
Pennsylvania’s Republican senator, Pat Toomey, took to the Senate floor to demolish the arguments of those challenging our state’s electoral votes. And the Republican Party’s last presidential nominee before Trump, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, maintained, “The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership. The truth is that President-elect Biden won this election. President Trump lost.”
Those who invaded the Capitol, and those who are in solidarity with them, are not going anywhere. They now make up a sizable faction of the Republican Party. Trump will continue to stoke the flames of their discontent for four years of the Biden administration and beyond. The result is likely to be an ongoing insurrection.
I’ve made the case in these pages before but it cannot be repeated enough: Because the threat emanates from their party, Republicans face a vital choice. Either they reject Trumpist authoritarianism in unequivocal terms or they are complicit in the behavior of those who would undermine American democracy.
There is no middle ground.
Stephen K. Medvic is The Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College.