The wall of Republican appeasement and enabling cracked big-time on Tuesday, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared he was through with supporting President Trump's crusade to subvert American democracy by discrediting the election he lost.
It took 38 days after the outcome became clear for McConnell, who will be the most powerful Republican in the nation next year, to publicly accept the will of the people with the words, "Today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden."
The senator said his unprecedentedly long wait — which has fueled the baseless but impassioned view of tens of millions of fellow Republicans that the contest was stolen — was ending because "the Electoral College has spoken" and finalized the result Monday evening.
"As of this morning, our country has officially a president-elect and a vice president-elect. Many millions of us had hoped the presidential election would yield a different result, but our system of government has processes to determine who will be sworn in on Jan. 20," McConnell said as the Senate convened.
McConnell had congratulated Trump a day after the 2016 election, but he had repeatedly refused when pressed to publicly acknowledge Biden's win this time.
Only hours before, the defeated incumbent continued to deny the outcome and urge leaders of his party to stick with him. "Many Trump votes were routed to Biden," the president baselessly claimed on Twitter. "This Fake Election can no longer stand. Get moving Republicans."
And less than half an hour after the Kentucky Republican spoke, Trump tweeted: "Tremendous evidence pouring in on voter fraud. There has never been anything like this in our Country!"
McConnell's declaration may open a floodgate of public Republican acceptance of Biden's win, until now dammed up behind the extraordinary way Trump has held GOP officials in Washington and around the country in his thrall. For more than a month, only a dozen or so congressional Republicans have been willing to call Biden the next president.
No matter how baldly Trump has lied about the integrity of the election and other basic democratic norms, thereby fomenting intensifying spurts of violence from his supporters, a lopsided majority of rank-and-file Republicans have declined to call him out — unwilling to cross their base supporters or risk presidential retribution by tweet.
McConnell offered a tribute to Trump's presidency, using the past tense, before congratulating Biden — noting "he is no stranger to the Senate," where he represented Delaware for 36 years, and "has devoted himself to public service for many years." He also congratulated his Senate colleague Kamala Harris of California, saying, "Beyond our differences, all Americans can take pride that our nation has a female vice president-elect for the very first time."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — who had berated Republicans on Monday for creating a "national embarrassment" with their delayed acceptance of Biden's win — said that now that McConnell has spoken, "enough is enough."
With McConnell's move, the most influential Republican who has yet to acknowledge the reality of Biden's win is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
The other top members of the Senate GOP leadership — John Cornyn of Texas, Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Thune of South Dakota — only came around to conceding that Biden had won on Monday, and all of them used somewhat convoluted rhetoric.
"In the end at some point you have to face the music," Thune said.
"Once the Electoral College settles the issue," he added, "it's time for everybody to move on."
The turnaround comes beyond the midpoint between Election Day and Inauguration Day, which is five weeks from Wednesday.
And three weeks from Wednesday the final formal act of the election will play out: the tabulating by a joint session of Congress of the 306 electoral votes for Biden and the 232 votes for Trump — with Vice President Mike Pence called on to preside.
A handful of House Republicans have vowed to challenge the votes from some battleground states Biden won, but have not yet divulged what rationale or evidence of alleged malfeasance they will offer. Their complaints will go nowhere unless one senator agrees to join them, but in the end the Democratic-majority House will have the power to squash to the shenanigans.
But the damage to the nation's faith in the electoral system will have been locked in, many historians and election officials have warned, pointing to the significant share of voters — and lopsided majorities of Republicans — who have said in poll after post-election poll that they buy Trump's unfounded claims of vote fraud.
His legal team continues to press an array of legal challenges, some in states he lost badly, hoping to throw out millions of ballots returned by mail or deposited in drop boxes. Attorney General William Barr, who abruptly resigned Monday, has said there is no evidence of cheating big enough to alter results. The same message has been delivered by both Republican and Democratic state election officials from coast to coast. And the Supreme Court has declined to even take up both of the two Trump-backed challenges that have landed on its doorstep.
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Two extreme long-shot lawsuits are still sitting at the Supreme Court, a day after it waited just minutes before dismissing the first challenge to the presidential election it looked at.
There was not a word of dissent, from President Trump's three nominees or any of the other justices, as the court declined Tuesday evening to consider a bid by Pennsylvania Republicans to overturn Joe Biden's clear victory in the state.
Hours later came the deadline set by federal law for states to lock down their election results, and their assignments to the Electoral College, and make them almost totally immune from further challenges. While that essentially locked in Biden's election as the 46th president, it did nothing to stop Trump from continuing to falsely claim he won another term — or to prevent almost all his fellow Republicans in authority from appeasing the unprecedented effort by a president to delegitimize democracy with baseless conspiracy theories about voting fraud.
All but one state appears to have entered the so-called safe harbor on time, which means Congress must accept the electoral votes cast next week when they arrive for tabulating at a rare joint meeting of the House and Senate, to be held Jan 6.
The exception is Wisconsin, which has seen as much election turmoil as any since the pandemic upended voting and spurred a wave of litigation starting this spring. The state has been delayed because lawsuits by Trump allies, in several ways similar to the one from Pennsylvania that got spurned Tuesday, are on appeal to the Supreme Court and in the state courts.
The other suit before the justices, filed only Tuesday, is a claim by Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas that the state's citizens' political rights were unconstitutionally limited when rules for mail-in voting were relaxed in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and two other battlegrounds Biden carried, Georgia and Michigan. All of them have Republican-majority legislatures. They account for 62 of the 306 electoral votes Biden can legitimately claim, but Texas says all those votes should be disallowed.
The high court has the power, but is not required, to decide lawsuits one state brings against another.
Attorneys general from the defendant states dismissed the Texas case with an array of colorful language.
But Trump on Wednesday said he would put lawyers to work arguing the Texas side of the case, declaring on Twitter: "We will be INTERVENING in the Texas (plus many other states) case. This is the big one. Our Country needs a victory!"
He offered no other details, such as whether he would ask his campaign attorneys or the Justice Department to get involved.
A Wisconsin appeals court will hear arguments Thursday on a long-odds suit alleging the state Elections Board permitted the finalizing of election results despite claims of irregularities in Milwaukee and Madison — and that as a result the statewide result should be tossed and the GOP Legislature should get to pick the electors.
Missing the safe harbor deadline does not nullify Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes, but it will make them slightly more vulnerable in Congress, where GOP Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama says he will mount a challenge he has not detailed. Still, it's essentially inconceivable the Democratic-majority House would vote to throw out any slate of Biden electors.
Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes, which Biden carried by 80,000 votes, were locked down Tuesday by a single, 18-word sentence ending with the word "denied."
The appeal, by Republicans led by Rep. Mike Kelly, argued that a state law enacted last year (with just one GOP "no" vote) allowing all Pennsylavnians to vote by mail without an excuse violated the state Constitution — and so all 2.5 million mailed ballots, mainly cast by Democrats, should be thrown out. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, argued in his brief to the justices that their getting involved in such a purely state matter would be "one of the most dramatic, disruptive invocations of judicial power in the history of the republic."
Meanwhile, almost all GOP members of Congress are declining to commit themselves publicly to the correct answer to the question: Has Biden won the election? Some say they may do so after the electors meet across the country Monday, while others say they will wait until Congress counts their votes in four weeks.
Meantime, their refusal to agree on the facts is furthering the undermining of voter confidence and putting a cloud over the peaceful transfer of power and the onset of the Biden administration.
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All six states where President Trump contested his defeat have finalized results showing he lost, fair and square. Forty lawsuits have gone nowhere for lack of evidence anyone cheated. The administration's top election security official was willing to sacrifice his job for concluding this "election was the most secure in American history."
And now the Cabinet member most influentially loyal to the president the past two years, William Barr, has reported that his Justice Department has not uncovered any evidence of the widespread voter fraud Trump alleges — and has seen nothing that might alter the outcome of an election clearly won by Joe Biden.
Under any normal American democratic circumstances, such a clear conclusion from the attorney general delivered four weeks after Election Day would be the belt encircling the suspenders holding up the elastic waistband pants. Instead, the ousted president declared Wednesday: "We will win!"
Trump's dogged pursuit of his fantastical theories could be ignored altogether from now on. Or else they might get noted only as sideshow evidence of a sore loser who's so intent on attacking every available presidential norm that he's considering announcing a 2024 comeback bid on Biden's inauguration day.
But Trump will remain the most powerful person on the planet for seven more weeks, with the overwhelming majority of fellow Republicans holding power continuing to acquiesce to his out-of-bounds behavior. First among them is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has refused to acknowledge Biden's victory while referring obliquely to legislative negotiations next year with a new administration.
"More and more on my side are at least approaching a public acknowledgement of the reality of the situation," Trey Grayson, a former GOP secretary of state of Kentucky and a co-chairman of the advisory board for the Secure Elections Project, said Wednesday. "But some real damage has been done."
Grayson pointed in part to the threats of violence against officials who have overseen the vote in states Trump lost, which neither the president nor most top Republicans have been willing to condemn. One of those officials, Gabriel Sterling, a Republican and Georgia's voting system implementation manager, excoriated the president and other members of his party on Tuesday for their silence.
"It has to stop," said Sterling, who has worked on two recounts affirming Biden's win in the state. "This is elections. This is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It's too much."
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The president did not reply. Instead, after using Twitter to predict his victory one more time Wednesday, Trump tweeted out messages advancing a discredited set of reports about voting irregularities and mistreated GOP poll watchers in Michigan.
The issues they have pointed to are typical in every election: problems with signatures, secrecy envelopes and postal marks on mail-in ballots, as well as the potential for a small number of ballots miscast or lost.
By midafternoon he was also remaining silent about what Barr told the Associated Press on Tuesday: that while federal prosecutors and FBI agents have been working to follow up on a range of specific complaints and information they've received about voting malfeasance, "to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have affected a different outcome in the election."
That comment, which did draw a rebuke from Trump's attorneys, is especially notable given how Barr has been among the president's most ardent and important allies — including by repeatedly making unsubstantiated warnings about the vulnerability of mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
While Trump has permitted the transition to a Biden administration to begin, he has deviated from all other modern presidents by refusing to concede.
His next formal opportunity to do so comes in a dozen days, when members of the Electoral College across the country convene to cast their ballots. The people have given Biden a solid claim on 306 of those votes, to 232 for Trump.
It's up to Congress to tabulate the results and announce the winner. Such a joint session, set for Jan. 6, is normally a news-free ceremonial affair. But federal law provides the president's GOP allies at the Capitol an opening to seek to disrupt if not derail Biden's final step toward the presidency — by challenging the validity of some electoral votes and making their House and Senate colleagues vote on the matter.
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McMahon is an adjunct associate professor of applied economics and political science at the University of Vermont and an international democracy and governance consultant.
Many of my fellow Democrats have spent the past three weeks aghast at the reality that more than 73 million of our co-citizens saw fit to vote for the re-election of Donald Trump. "How could they do that?" we ask. After four years of his presidency, there is no longer any question of how manifestly unfit he is to lead this country. How could our fellow Americans have voted for a feral autocrat, a misogynistic racist, a narcissist, a liar and a cheat? The list could continue. What could possibly have motivated them to make such a choice?
Of course we know the answer on one level. His pugnacious personality and anti-establishment schtick strike a chord outside the Beltway, the big cities and the two coasts. And he offers policy pronouncements that sound appealing.
But the full answer lies deeper. It has to do with how threatened people are by change.
Let's take a clue from history. Consider Hitler's accession to power in Germany in the 1930s, the war criminal Slobodan Milosevic's rise toward the presidency of Serbia in the 1980s and the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s. What made so many people in those countries support leaders who sought to eliminate certain sectors of society? What could possibly have motivated them to have undertaken the unspeakable act of exterminating other human beings?
Was it because these people were subhuman, totally amoral individuals? Of course not. They were human beings whose sense of identity was manipulated by demagogues such that they believed that they were facing an existential threat from another group; in the countries above it was the Jews, the Muslims and the Tutsi.
What connection might all this have to our own election? Other autocratic populists use fears of a false or overblown and distorted existential threat to garner popular support, which is what Trump did. These autocrats don't care who the alleged threatening group is; he — and it always has been a he — just has to make his potential constituency feel like there is one.
And, as with other populist autocrats before him, Trump discovered and manipulated a special sauce of resentment based on class and identity. By using that, he succeeded in creating in his target constituency feelings of dependency and subservience, which bypassed fact-based analysis.
These feelings find their basis in the very human phenomenon of existential fears — fueled, for example, by calls from some Democrats to defund the police. Note what the anti-Semites chanted in Charlottesville in 2017: "Jews will not replace us." Apparently those Unite the Right marchers saw this as a question of survival, if not literally on an individual basis then at least in a collective sense.
It is, of course, important for us to recognize that not all Trump supporters go so far as the Proud Boys and their ilk. Many of these supporters would insist they do not harbor such prejudices. And the election results, in which Trump significantly increased his support, including among African Americans, show it's too simplistic to ascribe Trump's appeal as being simply overt racism. It includes a more viral, partly class-based populism, in which Trump plays upon and inflates the grievances of those who believe they are not getting a fair shake out of the system. This includes not only many less- educated and lower-income Americans, but also others who focus on single issues such as abortion or religion. It also includes those who see themselves as the victims of reverse prejudice.
How ironic that Trump has pitched his appeal toward identity-based politics, while the same time heavily critiquing the Democrats' perceived use of it.
So if this dynamic is correct, what can be done? Thankfully the self-correcting mechanism in American democracy is functioning, and Trump will have to leave power. Trumpism won't go away, however.
We can take heart from President-elect Joe Biden's calm and patient approach to the election, and to governing. Calm and patience need to be a hallmark of his administration, as the entire country seeks to salve its wounds and look to the future.
But we must go farther, putting ourselves in the shoes of the Trump supporters and seeing the world through (what are to us) their oddly tinted glasses. We should understand they feel disenfranchised by globalization and its effects, and threatened by the bogeyman of "socialism." We have to recognize they question whether there is a future for them in a non-Trumpian world.
Take the question of America's energy dependence. Four years ago Hillary Clinton foundered when she was seen as calling for an end to dependence on coal, no matter its effects on employment in coal-producing areas. Biden, by contrast, was nuanced on the future of fracking, emphasizing he was not calling for its immediate end and urging a transition to renewable energy.
Trump's supporters thus need to be encouraged to feel comfortable with and accepting of, as did for example the vast majority of white South Africans, the reality that respecting and embracing diversity and economic and social justice is actually in their own self-interest, and that the alternative — opposition to change — will be very disadvantageous to them in the long run.
We should applaud and call for the continued statesperson-like approach taken by such leading progressives as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. After all, during the campaign they lowered the ardent tenor of their understandable demands for a more just and equitable society. It is vitally important this approach continue, because blunt calls for reparations or quotas or radical redistribution of wealth will simply feed the perception of Trump supporters' that they are under an existential threat.
We need to drain a significant amount of the venom out of our body politic. This is a responsibility which is as incumbent upon us, my fellow Democrats, as it is to others.
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