True story: I used to be a crazy Civil War buff when I was 5 years old. In the year when most normal kids were getting Beatles records or the latest loud offering from Mattel, I asked Santa for my blue Union soldier uniform. I even made my dad get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike and take me to see Gettysburg on our annual pilgrimage to my Midwestern grandparents. Little did I know back in 1964 that I’d get a chance in my lifetime to write about America’s second War Between the States.
I don’t know what else to call it when 18 U.S. states — that’s seven more than the 11 that seceded in 1861 and formed the Confederacy — go all the way to the Supreme Court to have my votes and about 7 million others here in Pennsylvania, and those of three other states, thrown out for absurd reasons. It can only be read as, we don’t like who won.
Something has clearly gone off the rails when at least 18 people with enough smarts to get elected attorney general of an American state sign onto a lawsuit that managed to be frivolous yet also argued to end democracy as we’ve known it these last 233 years or so. Or when nearly two-thirds of the Republican members of the U.S. House trip over each other to sign on. Or when dozens of state lawmakers in Harrisburg or other capitals fall into line trying to invalidate the results in their own state.
“This party has to stand up for democracy first, for our Constitution first and not political considerations,,” a Michigan congressman, Rep. Paul Mitchell, who voted for Trump last month, said on Monday. “It’s not about a candidate. It’s not simply for raw political power and that’s what I feel is going on, and I’ve had enough.” Mitchell’s words came in a letter announcing that he’s leaving the Republican Party to serve as an independent, but what’s stunning is not that he did this — but how few other GOPers feel the same.
Not surprisingly, few if any of the 126 Republican House members who wanted the Supreme Court to ignore the fact that Joe Biden got the most popular votes and the most electoral votes and install Donald Trump as a kind of a dictator spoke up over the weekend when the right-wing Proud Boys and other pro-Trump brownshirts rampaged in downtown Washington, D.C, stabbing four people in their rage over the 45th president’s plight.
And so 2020 continues to be the ultimate glass-half-empty-half-full Rorschach test when it comes to how one views the health of American democracy. The half-full crowd can certainly point to the record number of citizens who voted, despite both a pandemic and ridiculous voter suppression laws in some states, and a bevy of Republican-appointed judges and state and local GOP election officials who held firm that these votes must be counted.
Personally, I’m feeling a little half-empty these days — even a day like Monday, when Biden was able to claim his official victory in the Electoral College as another milepost on the road to ending Trump’s presidency. That development won’t convince the drunk-on-misinformation majority of the GOP electorate that Trump wasn’t cheated in some massive-yet-invisible voter fraud deal, or call off the violent mob and allow the Biden administration to fix a nation where nearly half the citizens think its president will be illegitimate.
History buffs know that the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” refers to when Julius Caesar violated a Roman order by bringing troops across that river toward the capital city for the staging of a coup (exactly the reason why they didn’t want his army inside the city). The Republican Party, with its leaders’ anti-democratic actions since November 3, has crossed the Rubicon of keeping an American Republic — believing its cause more important than majority rule.
At some point — maybe the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act amid an era of campus unrest, maybe the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president in 2008, or somewhere on the road in between — the Republican Party became less about electing country clerks or getting pork-barrel highway projects and more about preserving a way of life. For them, Democrats weren’t merely their foil in a spirited contest but their enemy in an existential fight, that carries the moral urgency of war.
Sometimes it might seem silly to call it “a war” because in a modern media culture it plays out in such weird ways: a patronizing Wall Street Journal op-ed questioning whether to call Jill Biden a doctor, or a moral panic when Cleveland’s baseball team is no longer called the Indians. But behind those online kerfuffles, America’s conservatives feel a duty to defend a system of authority — with foundational elements of patriarchy and white supremacy — they see as under assault from a more diverse nation and growing demands to share power.
To many of the 74 million who voted for Trump, conceding the election — or the reality that 81 million supported not only a different guy but a different worldview — is an unconditional surrender they can’t abide. And Biden’s main message — delivered yet again on Monday night, about healing America and its divisions now that Trump and his vainglorious bluster will be leaving the White House — is the last thing they want to hear. Here in Pennsylvania, a Wall Street pro-business Republican like Pat Toomey is on his way out, and an anti-mask-wearing conspiracy theorist like state Sen. Doug Mastriano is on his way up.
I’m not sure how this plays out in the 2020s. I don’t think blue and gray troops are going to be massing on the border between Minnesota and South Dakota — not now, anyway — and I have no plans to order another Union Army uniform, 46 years later. I just know things look very different on this side of the Rubicon. It seems pretty clear that the core of the Republican Party won’t see Biden as a legitimate president, but then I and many others now question the legitimacy of 126 House members and those 18 states willing to toss out a free and fair election. That doesn’t feel like a democracy. It feels like something that will get worse before it gets better.
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