The 2016 presidential election may be remembered as the last one in which the voters on the losing side trusted the result. It used to be the unquestioned norm. But in the era of Donald Trump, norms are like eggs — made to be broken.
The morning after, Hillary Clinton graciously conceded the election, despite getting nearly 2.9 million more votes. While her supporters were stunned by the outcome and exasperated by the Electoral College, they recognized the bitter fact that they had lost according to the rules of the game. No serious effort was made to contest Trump’s victory.
Their resigned attitude was in no way surprising. For more than two centuries, losing candidates almost always took defeat with stoic grace. Some even managed humor. After losing to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Adlai Stevenson recalled Abraham Lincoln’s reply when asked how he felt about an election loss: “He was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”
Even when there were credible allegations of fraud, the candidates and the country moved on. Richard Nixon lost in 1960 by a minuscule margin, and many Republicans suspected that corrupt shenanigans tipped Illinois and Texas to John F. Kennedy. But Nixon firmly rebuffed pleas for him to challenge the outcome.
As vice president, he oversaw the official certification of the result, then congratulated his opponent and praised “the proud tradition of the American people of developing, respecting and honoring institutions of self-government.”
Nothing could be more different from what happened in 2020. Donald Trump did his worst to convince his supporters that Joe Biden won only through a massive fraud. He demanded that Vice President Mike Pence block the certification of the election by Congress.
Those were bad enough. What’s worse is that the efforts by him and his accomplices since then have thoroughly rotted the confidence most Americans once had in their electoral system.
Over the past year, Republicans have mounted an offensive against the people and institutions they blame for Trump’s defeat. Most visible was the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, which aimed at forcing Congress to overturn the decision of the American people.
But less conspicuous steps have been taken with the intention of ensuring that next time, such desperate measures won’t be needed.
In Georgia, where Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rebuffed Trump’s demand that he “find” enough votes to erase Biden’s victory margin, the legislature removed the secretary of state as both chair and voting member of the state election board. It gave itself the power to appoint the majority of the board’s members and authorized the board to suspend county election officials and take over elections in some circumstances. The latter provision is most likely to be used against Democratic county officials.
In Arkansas, a new law authorizes the legislature to take charge of elections in a county if a legislative committee questions the “appearance of an equal, free and impartial election.”
In Arizona, The Washington Post reported, “GOP legislators took away the ability of Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) to defend election lawsuits — but only for her final election in that office, in 2022 — while transferring that power to Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich.”
Similar efforts in other states could produce changes in time for 2024. All this comes on top of a host of laws to curb early voting and mail-in voting, stiffen voter ID rules and reduce the number or hours of polling stations. Georgia and Florida went so far as to make it illegal to give water and snacks to voters waiting in long lines.
All these changes are aimed squarely at Democratic voters. The Republican goal is not so much to win over those Americans as to keep them from voting.
Trump himself has made plain his desire to reduce the number of people casting ballots.
Democratic efforts to promote voting by mail, he said in 2020, could allow “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
He and his confederates have primed GOP voters to treat any defeat as proof the vote was rigged. But the measures they have taken practically guarantee that Democrats will see a Republican victory as thoroughly illegitimate — which it may very well be.
Trump failed to destroy American democracy a year ago. But he has polluted our politics in a way that badly corrodes the public faith our system requires. And rust never sleeps.