Where Do We Go From Here

Bloom Briefing 42: How to Fortify Democracy after a Coup Attempt

Welcome to a new era of The Bloom Briefing, published on a different platform (now with comments!). 

There was an attempted coup this week.  The President sent a mob to the Capitol with intentionally vague but directionally clear instructions to “stop the steal” by marching on Congress.  They stormed the building, overwhelmed the Capitol Police, expressed clear intent to do harm to elected officials, ransacked offices, and murdered a Capitol Police officer. 

We do not yet know how organized this coup attempt was, but we must find out.  Why did the Department of Defense delay sending in the National Guard?  Why were the Capitol Police so ill-prepared?  Were there any conversations between the White House and the Department of Defense or other agencies about how to respond (or not)?  Even if the answers to all of these questions are the most benign possible (no conversations/instructions from White House and simply general incompetence), the fact that armed marauders overwhelmed the Capitol at the President’s urging means that this was a coup attempt, even if it was disorganized and unsuccessful.

The coup attempt was the apotheosis of two long-standing threads of American political life.  The first is Republicans’ recent waning commitment to basic democratic norms.  The second is a belief, dating back to the Constitution, that Black people don’t deserve equal rights in government.  In recent years, as I’ll explain below, these two have become intertwined, but each represents its own distinct strand of American political thought. 

So let’s think back a week ago, before a mob stormed the Capitol, before members of Congress formally objected to certification of the electoral college votes, and before the Senate runoff elections in Georgia.  We were 3 weeks from the inauguration of a new president, and the majority of elected Republicans were still rejecting the notion that Biden was fairly elected the next President of the United States.  Why?

The underlying claims made to assert widespread election irregularities were (and remain to be) all fundamentally baseless.  There is nothing wrong with Dominion voting machines.  Election officials didn’t fabricate exactly the number of votes needed to push Biden over the top at 5 AM on Wednesday morning after the election.  Massive numbers of people didn’t cast ballots for dead relatives (and the small handful who did seem to have done so largely for Trump).  Election officials didn’t dump a bunch of Trump ballots in a river.  These claims are utterly without merit.  And yet, most elected Republican officials continued to recite them. 

Suppose you think it’s all just a political stunt, that none of the officials really believe what they’re saying, and that they’re just saying it to try to hamstring a Biden Administration.  (Again, think about this pre-coup attempt.)  At its core, democracy rests on the notion that the losers of elections acknowledge the winners and let the winners exercise power as they would have done.  Even the absolute most benign interpretation of Republican actions over the two months leading up to the coup attempt suggests that they were not prepared to abide by this bedrock principle of democratic governance. 

Furthermore, this is not the first time in recent memory that Republicans have flouted this fundamental principle.  When North Carolina elected Governor Roy Cooper in 2016, the lame duck Republican state legislature passed two laws severely limiting his scope of power, making his executive appointments subject to approval from the state senate, stripping his ability to appoint members to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, and ensuring equal control of county and local elections boards, a majority of whom had previously been appointed by sole discretion of the governor.  A similar phenomenon played out in both Wisconsin and Michigan in 2018.  Even if you agree with the merits of some of the moves (equal control over elections boards seems reasonable to me), the timing (in lame duck sessions after losing power) makes the hypocrisy clear: Republicans believe in power-sharing when they’re out of power, and exercising total control when they have it.  This is a direct assault on democracy. 

If we go back even further, to President Obama’s election in 2008, a similar phenomenon played out.  Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, so there was little Republicans could do legally, but many (including then reality TV star Donald Trump) repeatedly questioned whether or not President Obama should have been allowed to be president, fabricating uncertainty about the place of his birth. 

The racism of birtherism has been well-documented, particularly since Trump reinitiated this line of attack on California-born Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris during the campaign.  Claiming the first Black President and first Black Vice President can’t serve because they’re not eligible because they weren’t born here is… uhh… just plain racist. 

Untangling Republicans’ belief in the illegitimacy of any Democratic governance from Republicans’ racism is nearly impossible.  Because Democratic governance is fueled by the power of Black voters, racist conspiracies and anti-democratic power grabs usually manifest together.  How else could we explain the fact that Republicans’ focus in Pennsylvania was on Philadelphia County, despite the fact that Biden’s margin in Philadelphia was actually less than Clinton’s four years ago (he won bigger margins in the suburban counties and lost by smaller margins in most rural counties). 

The precedents for all of these 21st-century anti-d/Democratic power grabs are, themselves, rooted in the racial conflict of the nation’s past.  The Reconstruction era was shot through with white ex-confederates refusing to accept Republican governance.  Resistance to national Civil Rights enforcement precipitated the political realignment we have today: as Democrats become the party of civil rights, white southerners jumped ship and became Republicans. And of course, the Civil War itself was precipitated by the same phenomenon: white racists refusing to accept political leadership that advocated more progressive race relations. 

Which I suppose brings us back to this week’s coup attempt.  The defining image for me, more than the videos of violence or smug unmasked insurrectionists looting Nancy Pelosi’s office, was of a man carrying the confederate flag through the halls of Congress.  That is the ideological through-current linking confederates to the anti-Reconstructionists, to the Klan, to the anti-Civil Rights crowd, to birtherism, to neo-Nazism, to QAnon: a belief that racial hierarchy is to be maintained, even at the expense of democracy. 

So as Republican congressional leaders continue to object to the certification of the election after an attempted coup, their arguments aren’t just anti-democratic, and they aren’t just racist.  Whether their racism fuels their anti-democratic impulses or their anti-democratic impulses compel them to racism, the question is whether Republicans are ideologically or “only” instrumentally racist.  Either way, such arguments are an expression of a belief in white power that dates back to the nation’s founding, when the Senate was created as a compromise to placate white southerners worried that without unequal distribution of representation, the country would outlaw slavery.

At two moments in our past, the forces of equality have briefly refused to cave to demands of white supremacists for disproportionate power: during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement.  Both brought progress that proved halting, ephemeral, and unable to survive the backlash.  We must not be so pusillanimous this time.

Trump must be impeached again, regardless of whether the 25th amendment is invoked.  Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and the many Republicans in the House who continued to object to the certification of the election after the violent assault on the Capitol should be barred from public office under the 14th amendment.  And there must be extensive investigations and hearings to determine the extent to which any military or security apparatus were consulted, complicit, or involved.

Our democracy will not survive unless those actively countenancing its violent overthrow are brought fully to justice.