Discover more from PREVAIL by Greg Olear
Acting Presidents & Lone Star Sedition (with Ruth Ben-Ghiat)
The dominant political party in the country's second-most-populous state doesn't recognize the authority of President Biden. This is dangerous.
Last June, at the Lone Star State’s Republican convention in Houston, the Texas GOP passed a resolution repudiating the result of the 2020 election. Here is the full statement:
We believe that the 2020 election violated Article 1 and 2 of the US Constitution, that various secretaries of state illegally circumvented their state legislatures in conducting their elections in multiple ways, including by allowing ballots to be received after November 3, 2020. We believe that substantial election fraud in key metropolitan areas significantly affected the results in five key states in favor of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.
We reject the certified results of the 2020 Presidential election, and we hold that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States. We strongly urge all Republicans to work to ensure election integrity and to show up to vote in November of 2022, bring your friends and family, volunteer for your local Republicans, and overwhelm any possible fraud.
The chairman of this political organization, Matt Rinaldi, added: “Texas Republicans rightly have no faith in the 2020 election results and we don’t care how many times the elites tell us we have to.”
When I read about this last year, my first instinct was to mock the Texas GOP—and with good reason. The resolution has all the intellectual heft of a gaggle of spoiled fifth graders insisting that, dadgummit, the Easter Bunny is real. Issuing proclamations denying the existence of gravity doesn’t mean you can fly. And while Rinaldi is using the word “elites” as a shorthand for a litany of things he knows will rile up his benighted base—New York City, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, expertise, reading comprehension, familiarity with the history of the Civil War, basic human decency, and so on—in this case, he’s not incorrect. Yes, Matt, people smarter than you are pointing out that you’re wrong.
And yet, with fascism on the rise in the United States, we cannot laugh off the fact that the dominant political party in the country’s second-most-populous state flat-out refuses to recognize the authority of the duly elected POTUS, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.
“What happens when a party becomes authoritarian—and I want to preface this: the GOP in Texas is one of the most extreme state GOPs. And I think about this, what I’m about to say—I think about this every day—that in the summer of 2022, they passed a resolution that says that Biden is not a legitimate president,” says the fascism scholar Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast. “So they don’t recognize the authority of the president. This is, like, subversive to the max.”
It’s not just subversive. It is the very definition of seditious.
Texas has the third lowest voter turnout of any state in the union; only West Virginia and Arkansas are worse. Part of that is by apathy, but part is by design. The Texas GOP, which has controlled the state legislature for decades, has turned voter suppression into an art form. The result is the most corrupt and ineffectual governor/lieutenant governor/attorney general troika in the United States. And yet even in 2020, with turnout a full six points higher than in 2016, the Lone Star State backed the Republicans. As Shannon Najmabadi and Mandi Cai of the Texas Tribune reported:
Democrats have said for years that Texas is a nonvoting state that could flip blue with massive voter turnout. But although the 2020 presidential election brought more turnout than Texas has seen in almost 30 years, no blue wave washed across the state.
“Texas has changed somewhat, but it hasn’t changed from its basic nature,” said longtime lobbyist Bill Miller. “The more people that vote, the more it will reflect” that.
While Democrats siphoned off historically Republican votes in some cities and suburbs, President Donald Trump won the state with roughly the same percentage of the vote that he won in 2016. A record-shattering number of voters who cast early ballots projected a fervor that did not carry over to Election Day, when just 13% of the total votes were cast at polling locations.
In time, Texas may turn blue. For the time being, the Lone Star State remains ruby red. Which makes the state GOP’s seditious resolution all the more alarming.
“They call him an illegitimate president, and they call him an acting president,” says Ben-Ghiat. “Now, as somebody who studies coups, this freaks me out. Because the ‘acting’ is like, ‘Well he’s not going to be there very long.’”
Indeed, another word for acting, in this context, is disposable.
The first acting president of the United States was John Tyler, who assumed the top job after the death of his top-of-the-ticket running mate, William Henry Harrison. “Old Tippecanoe,” as Harrison was known, initially fell ill at his inauguration. He forsook both hat and coat on that freezing, wet March afternoon, gave the longest inaugural address in history (still), and died on Palm Sunday 1841, exactly one month later, after a short and miserable illness, now believed to be enteric fever caused by bacteria in the White House water supply. (The medical care he received, if we can call it that, was unspeakable.)
At the time, there was no formal presidential succession plan. The language in Article II is a bit vague: “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.” Was Tyler now the president? Or was he still the vice president but with the powers of the president? It was like one of those fourth-century Church debates about the nature of the trinity.
The cabinet met, and after much deliberation, decided that Tyler’s new title should be “vice president-acting president.” Tyler told them to fuck off. He insisted that he was the president, full stop. He immediately took up residence at the White House and began doing president things. And, for posterity, he established a precedent for what happens when the sitting POTUS buys the farm—which would come in handy nine years later, when Zachary Taylor died in office of bad gas (probably also brought on by the contaminated White House water supply).
Tyler recognized in 1841 what the Texas GOP saw in 2022, and what Ben-Ghiat worries about today: the negative, if not fatal, connotation of that modifier, acting. An acting president isn’t real; like a player on stage, he’s just acting. An acting president isn’t permanent; he’s just keeping the seat warm until the real president shows up.
It’s linguistically subtle, but as Ben-Ghiat reminds us, with authoritarians, language matters. “If he’s just acting,” she tells me, “it could be like Allende in Chile. ‘Oh, he’s here, but, like, he’s not going to be staying around very long.’”
Allende, a socialist, was president of Chile for three years; he killed himself on September 11, 1973, after the CIA-backed rightwing coup. For years, it was believed that Pinochet’s men had assassinated him.
“One of the most dangerous things going on,” Ben-Ghiat says, “is that people with real power, like governors and senators, are all converging saying they don’t recognize the authority of the federal government.”
What begins with seditious intent—that is, with the repudiation of federal authority—can too easily escalate to violence. In July, a few days before I sat down with Ben-Ghiat, the far-right podcaster Charlie Kirk—he’s the one with facial tics and the face like an anthropomorphic drawing of the moon—called for Biden to be put to death. And just this week, Tucker Carlson floated the notion that we are “speeding towards” the assassination of Trump, ostensibly because the oft-indicted FPOTUS is a threat to both parties. Injecting that sort of violent talk into the discourse, in this sort of hair-trigger political climate, is irresponsible and dangerous.
John Tyler was a “states’ rights” guy, from a family of wealthy slaveholders, and kind of an arrogant, power-hungry jerk. Voters didn’t even get a chance to show him the door; he couldn’t secure the nomination of his own Whig Party, who despised him, and whose wags gave him the derisive title “His Accidency.”
The signature achievement of Tyler’s presidency, by far, was the annexation of Texas, which he spent most of his 47 months in office lobbying for (and which no one else really wanted). It is ironic that the state that Tyler personally brought into the union, his baby, is the one that has revived a derisive title—acting president—that he deplored.
Thanks to John Tyler, Texas joined the United States in 1844.
It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
In an interview recorded on July 29, Greg Olear talks to fascism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” and the “Lucid” Substack, about the nature of coups, lessons from Berlusconi, the rise of Hitler, DeSantis as fascist, the extremist Texas GOP, secessions, the trucker convoy and the fascist threats in Canada, Meloni in Italy, the Vox party in Spain, and the power of nonviolent protest. Plus: Clash of the titan.
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