To protect democracy, we need to rely on more than Republican incompetence in overthrowing it
Last night in Michigan, Republicans tried to steal the election in plain sight. Joe Biden won the state on Election Day by 150,000 votes, or about 3 percent. That gave Biden all of the state’s 16 electoral votes, a key piece of his national Electoral College victory of 306 to 232.
But Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, the two Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, weren’t about to let democracy or the rule of law stand in their way. They knew that their county, which includes Detroit, represented Biden’s whole statewide margin of victory and then some.
So with just hours to go before a state deadline, they voted not to certify the county’s election—deadlocking with the two Democratic board members, throwing out the votes of 587,074 predominantly Black Michiganders, and setting up the state to be awarded to the loser, Donald Trump.
Despite Trump’s cheers on Twitter, the gambit failed under a torrent of local and national criticism. Palmer and Hartmann both changed their votes at the last minute.
But democracy’s narrow escape in Wayne County is just a reminder of the extent to which the entire Republican Party, from top to bottom, has adopted the fascist attitudes of its leader—and the fact that, if it wasn’t so comically incompetent, its efforts to overthrow democracy might very well succeed.
The Long Version
To dispense quickly with this question: Yes, Trump is trying to force a coup d’état. Joe Biden won the November 3 election, overwhelmingly. The only way Trump can stay in office past January 20 would be to somehow get the results of the election thrown out, or ignored completely. That, in short, is a coup.
Some scholars might quibble with the use of the term. But those scholars can’t even agree on whether the formal definition of a coup includes attempts to overthrow “just” the chief executive but not the rest of the government, or whether coups must involve the military, or if a military takeover that doesn’t technically violate a country’s written laws would count as one.
It reminds me of the endless debate over definitions of “fascism” as a generic term, some of which are so restrictive that not even Nazi Germany qualifies. If an eighteen-wheeler is coming at you, that is not the time to debate whether the whole thing is technically a “truck.” You just get out of the goddamn way.
Whatever you call it, what is happening right now is unprecedented at this level in American history. No losing major-party candidate for the presidency has ever attempted to convince state governments, the courts, military, or mobs on the streets that the election was illegitimate. Every single losing candidate since 1898 has conceded formally to the victor within about a day of the results being announced. The only even partial exception to this was Al Gore in 2000, who conceded immediately after the Supreme Court (speciously!) rejected his request for a full recount in Florida.
Even Andrew Jackson didn’t urge his supporters to rebel in 1824—which they probably would have—after the House of Representatives declared John Quincy Adams the winner despite Jackson’s clear advantages in the popular vote and Electoral College. (Jackson hadn’t won enough electoral votes to win in a four-man race; he got his revenge at the polls by romping in a landslide four years later.)
So no matter how stupid and chaotic the attempt seems to be, this is new in our society and deserves to be taken seriously—even as we laugh, tentatively, at the results.
Trump doesn’t have a grand strategy here. Like always, he’s just trying to create as much confusion as possible: lying in tweets, making dictator-in-a-limo-style visits to neofascist street marches, and pressing forward with lawsuits that are so ridiculous on their face that his lawyers keep quitting on him.
There’s no indication that the Trump campaign is coordinating with local officials like Palmer and Hartmann. Just as Trump inspired acts of terror—such as the mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Cielo Vista Walmart in El Paso—by putting out murderous rhetoric and letting radicalized men do the rest, he’s just stirring the pot with baseless accusations of voter fraud and seeing what happens. Call it “stochastic voter suppression.”
Yet, all this dangerous flailing around has the support of the entire institutional Republican Party. Yesterday, Ted Cruz restated his position that the election is not be finished until “the legal proceedings are over.”
Nevermind that the lawsuits are themselves fraudulent: His latest courtroom lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has resorted to trying to get the judge to just throw out every single ballot and declare Trump the winner of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes by fiat. Apparently, his lawyers in Nevada are trying the same thing. They’re just running out the string to see how far they can go.
Lindsay Graham has apparently been freelance voter suppressing, calling officials in key states and encouraging them to throw out ballots. The Republican head of the General Services Administration, Emily W. Murphy, is just unilaterally refusing to allow Biden to begin his legal transition. It’s like a free jazz jam session, except everyone in the Republican Party is trying to figure out new and creative ways to screw as many voters as possible.
When Palmer and Hartmann made their move, the Michigan Republican Party released a statement from their chairman, Laura Cox, saying: “I am proud that, due to the efforts of the Michigan Republican Party, the Republican National Committee and the Trump Campaign, enough evidence of irregularities and potential voter fraud was uncovered resulting in the Wayne County Board of Canvassers refusing to certify their election results.”
The Michigan Rag
In fact, no actual fraud was even alleged by the canvassers. As the Detroit Free Press reported, Palmer and Hartmann’s argument hinged on a few technical discrepancies between the number of absentee ballots recorded in each precinct’s poll book as having been “cast,” and the total number of ballots counted.
It gets worse from there. Just a quarter of Detroit’s precincts and absentee voting boards showed any discrepancies at all; and the vast majority of those were of three votes or fewer, according to the Free Press. The discrepancies amounted to a total of 387 cases, out of roughly 250,000 votes cast in Motown. And bear in mind: Those aren’t even necessarily 387 votes. If a ballot got counted in the wrong precinct, it could show up as two discrepancies—as an extra vote in one precinct and a missing one in the other. To call it a bullshit pretext for tossing out over a million valid votes is an insult to the bull.
As criticism began pouring in, Palmer first suggested just throwing out the votes from Detroit, leaving the majority-white suburbs votes intact. “You have extracted a Black city out of a county,” an enraged Rev. Wendell Anthony, the head of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP responded. “Shame on you. Shame on you for leading to this level of corruption. You have disavowed your right to even sit in the seats that you occupy. You are a disgrace.”
As midnight approached, the online meeting deteriorated even further. Hartmann said he would refuse to call on speakers whose names he couldn’t pronounce. Abed Ayoub, a Wayne County native and a director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, tweeted out a series of Hartmann’s past social media posts defaming Muslims, including one that called Barack Obama “our ‘Imperial Muslim President.’”
It isn’t clear what convinced Palmer and Hartmann to reverse course at the last moment. It is possible that Palmer realized belatedly that national attention would backfire on her: She is already facing allegations of conflicts of interest involving her board seat. Both could well be forced to resign in any case.
Relying on shame alone is a dangerous game, especially when confronting a party and a president who have made shameless a superpower, and are on their way toward making opposition to democracy a core organizing principle.
As long as archaic, undemocratic loopholes like the Electoral College remain intact, the odds are good that a future election overthrowing attempt—no matter how ridiculous—will succeed.
This election should never have come down to a handful of states—and really a smaller handful of counties in those states, namely Wayne, Maricopa, Philadelphia, Fulton, and Clark. That it did has succeeded in making the election seem far closer than it really was, thus justifying in the minds of millions of Americans for extralegal, if not violent, measures to rectify it.
If we make it to January 20 without a constitutional crisis, we owe it to ourselves to make sure that next time it won’t be so easy to attempt an overthrow of the democratic process—and that all those who participated in this one will be held accountable.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book will trace the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.