Coup It Again
As an attempt to subvert the results of a national election, January 6 was not an isolated incident. It was a sequel.
On January 6, Trump loyalists launched an attack on our democracy. The insurrection was unique in the annals of American history because, first, it was violent—and, second, because it failed. As an attempt to subvert the results of a presidential election, January 6 was not an isolated incident. It was a sequel.
Donald John Trump lost the 2016 election by 2,864,974 votes—almost two full percentage points (48.2-46.1). Voters decisively rejected him. He only captured the White House through chicanery. He won on a technicality. Some 77,000 votes in a few key swing states turned his way at the last minute, as if by magic, and he was able to game the Electoral College to achieve the desired result. Thus a tool of the Russian mob—a racist and a rapist, a clear and present danger in a cheap red hat—was sworn in as President of the United States, and 2,864,974 voters were effectively disenfranchised.
There is plenty of circumstantial evidence suggesting that Trump’s victory in 2016 was shall-we-say fishy. Certainly his whoremasters in Moscow used every means at their devious disposal to install their guy in the Oval Office. Both Hillary Clinton and the 17 agencies comprising the U.S. Intelligence Community warned us that this was happening, in real time. That Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, was besties with a Russian intelligence officer—a snake in the grass who specializes in election fuckery—should have been a clue.
Collusion or not, the plot to install Trump in the White House would not have worked without the arcane mechanism by which we elect our presidents. Absent the Electoral College, Trump loses. As we look ahead to 2024, the Electoral College may well be the greatest threat to the security of our presidential elections—and to the future of our democracy.
That clunky Constitutional anachronism was established as a compromise between small-d democrats, who wanted the president elected by popular vote, and elitists, who did not trust the masses with the responsibility and preferred Congress do the job. In practice, the Electoral College has always been a tool of institutionalized racism that tilts the balance of power toward the Southern states. The Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar, author of Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, explained this in a recent interview:
[W]e have lost sight of the fact that after the Civil War—and particularly after 1880–1890, when African Americans were driven out of politics in the South through force, and then more or less by law—Southern states were left in possession of what you might call “the five-fifths clause.” That is, African Americans counted 100 percent towards representation in Congress and towards electoral votes, but they still could not vote. That gave white Southerners substantially more influence in presidential elections than they would have had under a national popular vote. There were dramatically fewer votes cast in Southern states than in Northern states during the period, but it didn't affect electoral vote totals, so Southern states became staunch opponents of even considering a national popular vote.
The Electoral College is one instance where the Founders got it dead wrong. The small-d democrats lost, because every vote is not equal. Nowadays, Pennsylvanians and Floridians are more important than New Yorkers or Oklahomans. The elitists also lost, because their fear that outsourcing presidential voting to the masses would one day result in a manifestly unsuitable candidate winning the presidency came to pass. If the Electoral College cannot prevent an obvious criminal and popular-vote loser from taking office, it has outlived its usefulness, if indeed it ever had one.
In 2000, Al Gore won 48.4 percent of the vote to George W. Bush’s 47.9 percent, in a much closer election than ‘16 or ‘20. That contest came down to a few hundred votes in Florida. Knowing that Bush was probably toast if the votes were actually hand-counted, professional ratfucker Roger Stone organized the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot, a sort of proto-insurrection, where “50-year-old white lawyers with cell phones and Hermès ties,” as a Wall Street Journal columnist phrased it, descended on a meeting of election canvassers in Miami-Dade County. They said they were there to protest the recount, but the actual objective was to intimidate the canvassers enough to delay the process, so the deadline would be missed.
Stone’s gambit worked. The recount was shut down. And then the Supreme Court handed Bush the White House, effectively disenfranchising 543,895 voters.
At the time, this seemed like a historical curiosity. There were lots of articles in the newspapers about Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes. But it wasn’t a quirk; it was a template. Roger Stone and his Republican comrades correctly understood that the Electoral College enabled the GOP to “win” elections it had actually lost.
Without the Electoral College, needless to say, none of that happens. Without the Electoral College, the will of the people is not subverted. Without the Electoral College, hundreds of thousands of voters are not disenfranchised. Without the Electoral College, there is no Bush fils presidency, with its trillion-dollar tax cuts combined with its trillion-dollar wars. Without the Electoral College, there is no Trump presidency, and most of the million Americans who died of covid are still alive.
So why does this anti-democratic, antebellum vestige remain? Historically, because of white supremacist sentiment among members of the Senate, especially in the South. As the historian Keyssar notes, “In the process of writing the book, one of the conclusions I reached was that the conventional wisdom that the small states had blocked electoral reform forever and ever was simply not true. A closer approximation to the truth—although it doesn’t by any means capture the whole story—is that, for much of our history, Southern states interested in maintaining segregation and white dominance have blocked reform.”
Despite the many Republicans quoting Dr. King yesterday, the GOP is totally cool with racism. Disenfranchising people of color is, for all intents and purposes, part of the party’s platform at this point. But there is also a strategic component in Republican opposition to the abolition of the Electoral College. They know that they can’t win without it—not without changing the entire ethos of the party to make it appeal to a broader coalition of the voting public. There are so many more Democratic citizens in the country that the GOP lives and dies by low voter turnout. This was obvious 40 years ago, when the rightwing strategist Paul Weyrich said the quiet part out loud: “I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” This is (likely) why almost all Republicans, even anti-Trumpers like Liz Cheney, oppose the voting rights bill.
Even Trump was able to grasp the concept. On Fox & Friends in March of 2020, he sounded off on voting reform: “The things [Democrats] had in [the bill] were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again. They had things in there about election days and what you do and all sorts of clawbacks.”
Some of these “clawbacks” are in the current voting rights bill, the one now in the Senate, the one Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are trying to kill. The bill makes Election Day a national holiday. It imposes a uniform standard on voting, so there is less discrepancy from state to state. It establishes early voting. It increases access to the ballot box. It cuts down on wait times at the polls. Basically, it makes it easier for citizens to vote. Which, as a democracy, we should all want, regardless of political affiliation. Those who oppose this bill are the functional equivalent of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the hidebound MLB commissioner who refused to allow baseball to integrate: like Paul Weyrich, Landis didn’t want everyone to participate.
To win elections, Republicans depend on the plethora of voter suppression laws in various states—looking at you, Texas—as well as the Rube Goldberg voting contraption that is the Electoral College. These provide the GOP with opportunities to
cheat win on technicalities—the only way they can prevail in presidential elections especially.
“Losing the popular vote but winning in the Electoral College” is an outcome we’ve been trained to accept without question. After all, it’s in the Constitution. But that doesn’t make it right, and that doesn’t make it fair. Gaming the Electoral College to subvert the will of people and disenfranchise millions of voters is not how democracy is supposed to work.
And that’s what I mean, when I say January 6 was a sequel. Having “won” in 2016, despite losing the election by almost three million votes, Trump believed that he could do the same kind of thing in 2020. So what if he lost by more than seven million this time around? His legal brain trust would find something to push him across the finish line, just like it did the first time. If not the Electoral College, some other underhanded alternative could be had.
That’s what the “Green Bay Sweep” appeared to be: a scheme to steal the election and subvert the will of the people on a technicality. The goal, best as I can tell, was to indefinitely delay the Senate’s certification of the vote, scheduled by law for January 6, in the hopes that the lack of certification by that date would somehow cast into doubt the actual result. (It would not have done so, experts say.) If Trump loyalist Peter Navarro is to be believed, the march on the Capitol was not supposed to be violent; its purpose was to draw attention to what is, historically, a dull formality, and to put pressure on the Republican Senators in the chamber to do Trump a solid by delaying certification. Its antecedent was the aforementioned Brooks Brothers Riot, which used similar methods to achieve similar aims.
What nobody seems to be saying is that presidential elections should never be decided by technicalities. That’s Iron Curtain bullshit. The will of the people should never be thwarted—especially when the popular election result was an unequivocal ass-kicking. Biden won by more then seven million votes. Unlike many election winners, he won a healthy majority of the vote, not just a plurality. Again: the American people repudiated Trump. They voted overwhelmingly to throw him out. The outcome of the 2020 election was never in doubt—as the courts have shown, over and over again. Despite the deranged rantings of the pillow salesman with the clown mustache, there is nothing remotely controversial about the result. The election was not “stolen” from Trump. To the contrary, the Defeated Former Guy got his diapered ass handed to him at the polls.
Even so, Biden’s victory last November did not save democracy; it merely stayed democracy’s execution. If the voting rights bill does not pass, Republicans can continue to do their level best to depress voter turnout, especially among people of color—the same thing conservatives have been doing since the end of the Civil War. It would take an amendment to the Constitution to retire the Electoral College, which is unlikely to happen. But that racist vestige, that codified piece of anti-democratic garbage, must be abolished. Until the Electoral College dies, GOP authoritarians will make use of it to disenfranchise voters, and our democracy will always be in danger.
Photo credit: Victoria Pickering. Roger Stone leaving the courthouse after the hearing on the request for a new trial (he's sucking a candy, hence his facial expressions), February 25, 2020.