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On the evening of December 2, Trump’s disgraced former National Security Advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn– whom Trump recently pardoned after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak before Trump took office– retweeted a news release from a right-wing Ohio group called “We the People Convention.” That release contained a petition asking Trump to declare martial law, suspend the Constitution, silence the media, and have the military “oversee a national re-vote.”
The petition ends with a threat of violence, calling on Trump “to boldly act to save our nation…. We will also have no other choice but to take matters into our own hands, and defend our rights on our own, if you do not act within your powers to defend us.”
University of Texas School of Law Professor Steve Vladeck pointed out that “The Uniform Code of Military Justice defines as ‘sedition’ one who, ‘with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of lawful civil authority, creates, in concert with any other person, revolt, violence, or other disturbance against that authority[.]’”
The following day, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley pointedly distanced the military from talk of a coup. “Our military is very very capable… we are determined to defend the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “No one should doubt that.” A defense official told the Military Times that the idea of Trump declaring martial law and having the military re-do the election is “insane in a year that we didn’t think could get any more insane.”
He spoke too soon. That afternoon the president released a video of himself making a speech he characterized as “maybe the most important speech I’ve ever made.” It was a 46-minute rant insisting, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he won the 2020 election. While he has lost virtually every court challenge he has mounted and his own Attorney General, William Barr, has said there was no evidence of fraud that would change the outcome of the election, Trump continues to insist that there was “massive” voter fraud. He called on the Supreme Court to “do what’s right for our country,” including throwing out hundreds of thousands of Democratic votes so that “I very easily win in all states.”
Joe Biden leads Trump in the popular vote with 80.9 million votes to Trump’s 74 million. Biden has won the Electoral College by 306 votes to Trump’s 232. These results are not close.
Let me take a step back here for a minute to emphasize that this is dangerous, unprecedented… and crazy. The president of the United States is trying to undermine an election, for which there is no evidence there was any irregularity, in order to stay in power. He might be doing so for the money—he has raised $170 million so far on promises to challenge this election—or because he is worried about the lawsuits he can expect as soon as he is not protected by the presidential office.
Or, perhaps, he is simply escalating his rhetoric to continue to grab headlines: he feels the focus of the world slipping away from him and he cannot stand it. For the focus of the world is indeed slipping away from him.
The president has largely ceased to govern, nursing his grievances in the White House and emerging only to golf.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic is burning out of control. A new estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that deaths from Covid-19 are likely much higher than official numbers suggest. Deaths in the United States were 19% higher from March to November of this year than normal. More than 345,000 people than normal have died in that period. This number includes deaths from other causes—drug overdoses, for example—but suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated death rates aside from those caused by Covid-19.
Yesterday, we hit a grim milestone, with at least 2,760 new deaths today from Covid. This is the highest daily death toll in America so far, passing the spring high-water mark. Coronavirus hospitalizations also reached a new high with more than 100,000 people admitted.
Simultaneously, Democrats made a huge concession in their efforts to combat the pandemic recession, dropping their call for a $2 trillion coronavirus package and accepting the new bipartisan $908 billion package as the starting point for negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The new plan calls for $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits from December 1 to at least March; $240 billion in Paycheck Protection Program assistance for small businesses (this will be touchy because we learned today that most of the money from the original PPP went to big businesses, including a number of chains); $160 billion for state and local governments; $51 billion in money for vaccines and healthcare; and a temporary liability provision to shield businesses from lawsuits related to coronavirus.
McConnell has already rejected this bipartisan measure, but Senator John Thune (R-SD), part of the Republican leadership, called the Democrats’ willingness to come so far down from their original ask “progress.” For his part, Biden agreed in a virtual roundtable that Congress must “pass a robust package of relief to address your urgent needs now,” but reminded them: “my ability to get you help immediately does not exist. I’m not even in office for another 50 days. And then I have to get legislation passed through the United States Congress to get things done.”
Still, for all that Trump’s posturing seems like a sign that he sees power slipping away from him as the country confronts the pandemic and the recession without him, his words are a deadly assault on our democracy by a man who swore an oath to defend it. This attack cannot be dismissed as Trump being Trump.
It strikes at the very heart of who we are.
For all that attacking the election might be reality television for Trump, his supporters take it very seriously. At a rally in Georgia, an ally, lawyer Lin Wood, insisted he had seen the “real” results of the election, and that Trump won “over 410” electoral votes. “He damn near won every state including California!” The crowd blamed Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, for the fact that the state’s recount did not go to Trump. “Lock him up!” they chanted.
Yesterday, the Supervisor of Elections in Pasco County, Florida, Republican Brian E. Corley, said he felt compelled to speak out against those attacking the election. “Facts are stubborn things,” he wrote in a statement. It is a lie to say the election was fraudulent, he said, and “[w]ith every deep state conspiracy and illegitimate claim of fraud our democracy sinks deeper and deeper into divisiveness. As the world looks on, the greatest democracy in the world dares to risk the peaceful and orderly transition of power in favor of propagating unfounded claims of ‘rigged elections.’” “The people have spoken, and… the election is over.”
Similarly, the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office tweeted that their elections team had been “threatened with execution by firing squad.” The tweet said: “This has to stop. The wild, unfounded accusations amplified by [Trump] need to stop.”
But much of Republican Party leadership is not denouncing Trump’s behavior. Leaders are staying silent, although they are sidling away from him. It is noticeable that Vice President Mike Pence has been silent about Trump’s reelection accusations—he was on the ticket, too, after all—and although Trump has made it clear he intends to run again in 2024, Trump’s hand-picked Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel has invited about a dozen potential 2024 candidates to a meeting in January, signaling that she too is not wedded to another Trump candidacy.
Meanwhile, Trump’s former lawyer Sidney Powell illustrated the growing divide between Trump supporters and the Republican Party when, after insisting that Trump lost in Georgia because the voting machines there are not secure, she urged voters to boycott January’s runoff Senate elections in the state. Those elections will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
While today’s Republicans are looking the other way as their president undermines our democracy, it has not always been this way. On December 2, 1954, the Senate voted 67 to 22 to condemn the behavior of Senator Joe McCarthy, who lied and bullied and blustered to stay in power until finally, in televised hearings, lawyer Joseph Nye Welsh shook his head at McCarthy’s recklessness and cruelty and asked: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: get your free subscription here.