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Six months ago this week, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, intending to stop the counting of the certified ballots that would make Joseph R. Biden president and Kamala Harris vice president. This attack was unprecedented. It broke our nation’s long history of the peaceful transfer of power.
You know the story of that day. Former president Donald Trump refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, insisting that he had lost only because the election had been “stolen” from him, despite Biden’s decisive victory of more than 7 million votes and 74 electoral votes. He urged his supporters to stop Biden’s election from becoming official.
What has surprised me most in the last six months is how quickly the leaders of the Republican Party turned from establishing oligarchy—a process that the country has undergone in the past—to embracing authoritarianism, which it hasn’t.
Since 1986, Republican leaders have pushed policies that concentrate wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands. In 1986, they began to talk of “voter integrity” measures that would cull Black voters from the rolls; by 1994, after the Democrats passed the Motor Voter Act allowing voter registration at state offices like the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Republicans began to say they were losing elections only because of “voter fraud.” Suppressing the vote became part of the Republican strategy for winning.
But voter suppression has a long history in America. Especially in the 1850s and the 1890s, political parties concerned about losing power cut their opponents out of the vote.
After the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, Republican leaders accepted the support of talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who created a narrative in which Democrats were dangerous socialists, out to destroy home and family. With the establishment of the Fox News Channel in 1996, that narrative, shared not by reporters but by personalities behind sets meant to look like newsrooms, skewed reality for FNC viewers.
But promoting a false narrative through media is not new to the United States. Elite enslavers in the 1840s and 1850s similarly shaped what information their neighbors could hear.
In 2000, Republicans put into office George W. Bush, who had lost the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. The election came down to the state of Florida, where more than 100,000 voters had recently been removed from the voter rolls. A recount there stopped after a riot encouraged by Roger Stone, and the Supreme Court then decided in favor of Bush.
In 2016, Trump, too, lost the popular vote, but the distribution of those votes enabled him to win in the Electoral College.
But installing a president who has lost the popular vote is not new, either. In 1877 and 1889, presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison both took office after losing the popular vote, Hayes by 250,000 votes, Harrison by more than 100,000.
In 2010, Republican leaders used Operation REDMAP (the Redistricting Majority Project) to win control of swing state legislatures and deliver the states to the Republicans by gerrymandering them. It worked. After the 2010 election, Republicans controlled the key states of Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, and Michigan, as well as other, smaller states, and they redrew congressional maps using precise computer models. In the 2012 election, Republicans received 1.4 million fewer votes for the House than Democrats did, but won a 33 seat majority.
Still, gerrymandering has been around for so long it’s named for early Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, whose name a journalist mixed with “salamander” in 1812.
Taken together, all these old tactics, amplified by modern technology, enabled the Republican leadership to lay the foundation for an oligarchy. Beginning in 1981, wealth began to move upward significantly, reversing the trend from 1933 to 1980, when wealth compressed. By 2017, lawmakers who had initially opposed Trump appeared to come around when he backed a huge corporate tax cut and put three originalists who endorsed the Republican vision of America on the Supreme Court.
Then Trump lost the 2020 election.
Before January 6, Republican lawmakers seemed to humor the outgoing president as he refused to accept the outcome. Trump and his people launched and lost more than 60 lawsuits over the election. They tried to pressure election officials in both Georgia and Arizona to change the outcome in those states. They refused to start the normal transition process that would enable Biden and Harris to set up their administration. And Republican lawmakers, trying to court Trump’s help in the Georgia Senate special runoff elections of January 5, kept their mouths shut.
And then January 6 happened. At a rally on Washington, D.C.’s Ellipse, Trump lied to his supporters again and again that the election had been stolen “by emboldened radical-left Democrats.” “We will never give up, we will never concede,” he told them. “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.” He promised (falsely) that Vice President Mike Pence could send the ballots back to the states for recertification in his favor, “and we become president and you are the happiest people.”
“[W]e’re going to have to fight much harder,” he said, “[b]ecause you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated…. And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
“So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
In the ensuing crisis, lawmakers had to be rushed out of the chambers as rioters broke in. Five people died, and 140 police officers were injured. It could have been much worse: the insurrectionists erected a gallows for Pence. Nonetheless, even after the insurrection, 147 Republicans voted against certification of the electoral votes.
Still, at first, many Republican lawmakers appeared to condemn the events of January 6. But they quickly came around to defending the Big Lie that Trump won the election. That lie is behind the voter suppression measures enacted by a slew of Republican-dominated states, as well as the new measures in Arizona and Georgia that enable legislatures to have control over election results.
In the House, the Republicans removed Liz Cheney from a leadership position for her criticism of Trump and rejection of the Big Lie, replacing her with a Trump loyalist, tying House Republicans as a group to the former president. Republicans in the Senate came together to kill a bill to create a bipartisan, independent committee to investigate the events of January 6. Lawmakers and pundits are downplaying the insurrection itself, claiming either that it was not a big deal or that Democrats are using it to suppress rightwing activism.
And now, of the 700 Republicans who have filed paperwork to run for Congress next year, at least a third of them have backed the idea that Trump won the 2020 election.
In American history, the attempt to overturn our election procedures for one man, based on a lie, is unprecedented.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.