President Joe Biden’s early success in getting Americans vaccinated, pushing out stimulus checks and generally calming the surface of American life has been a blessing for the country. But it’s also lulled many into thinking that Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen, which propelled the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, would surely fade away and everything would return to normal. It hasn’t.
We are not OK. America’s democracy is still in real danger. In fact, we are closer to a political civil war — more than at any other time in our modern history. Today’s seeming political calm is actually resting on a false bottom that we’re at risk of crashing through at any moment.
Because, instead of Trump’s Big Lie fading away, just the opposite is happening — first slowly and now quickly.
Under Trump’s command and control from Mar-a-Largo, and with the complicity of most of his party’s leaders, that Big Lie — that the greatest election in our history, when more Republicans and Democrats voted than ever before, in the midst of a pandemic, must have been rigged because Trump lost — has metastasized. It’s being embraced by a solid majority of elected Republicans and ordinary party members — local, state and national.
“Denying the legitimacy of our last election is becoming a prerequisite for being elected as a Republican in 2022,” observed Gautam Mukunda, host of Nasdaq’s “World Reimagined” podcast and author of the book “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Mattered.”
“This is creating a filter that over time will block out anyone willing to tell the truth about the election.” It will leave us with “a Republican Party where you cannot rise without declaring that the sun sets in the East, a Republican Party where being willing to help steal an election is literally a job requirement.”
This is not an exaggeration. Here is what Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of the few Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, told The Hill about the campaign within the party to oust Rep. Liz Cheney from her House GOP leadership position, because of her refusal to go along with the Big Lie:
“If a prerequisite for leading our conference is continuing to lie to our voters, then Liz is not the best fit. Liz isn’t going to lie to people. … She’s going to stand on principle.”
Think about that for a second. To be a leader in today’s GOP you either have to play dumb or be dumb on the central issue facing our Republic: the integrity of our election. You have to accept everything that Trump has said about the election — without a shred of evidence — and ignore everything his own attorney general, FBI director and election security director said — based on the evidence — that there was no substantive fraud.
What kind of deformed party will such a dynamic produce? A party so willing to be marinated in such a baldfaced lie will lie about anything, including who wins the next election and every one after that.
There is simply nothing more dangerous for a two-party democracy than to have one party declare that no election where it loses is legitimate, and, therefore, if it loses it will just lie about the results and change the rules.
That’s exactly what’s playing out now. And the more one GOP lawmaker after another signs on to Trump’s Big Lie, the more it gives the party license at the state level to promote voter suppression laws that ensure that it cannot lose ever again.
Kimberly Wehle, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of the book “How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” writing in The Hill on Monday, noted that “as of late March, state legislators have introduced 361 bills in 47 states this year that contain limitations around voting, a 43% increase from just a month earlier.
“The measures include things like enhanced power for poll ‘monitors,’ fewer voting drop-boxes, restrictions on voting by mail, penalties for election officials who fail to purge voters from the rolls, and enhanced power in politicians over election procedures.”
Although GOP supporters of these bills insist that they are about election integrity and security, Wehle added, “the lack of actual evidence of fraud and mismanagement in the American electoral system totally belies those cynical claims.”
This is the equivalent of lighting a fuse to a bomb planted beneath the foundations of our democracy.
Imagine if all or many of these measures are passed — and in 2022 and 2024 Republicans manage to retake the House, Senate and White House with, say, only 42% of the popular vote, effectively establishing minority rule. Do you know what will happen? Let me tell you what will happen. Disenfranchised Democratic voters will not sit idly by. They may refuse to pay their taxes. Many will take to the streets. Some might become violent, and our whole political system could become paralyzed and start to unravel.
Yet, this is precisely the path that Trump’s GOP is setting us on.
Personally, I have reservations about where the left of the Democratic Party is pulling Biden on some economic, immigration, foreign policy and education issues. But Biden and his party are putting forth real ideas to try to address the real challenges that an increasingly diverse 21st-century America needs to address to become a more perfect union. The best tool for keeping the Democratic Party close to the center-left on more issues is a healthy Republican Party that hews to the center-right.
We don’t have that. We have, instead, a GOP trying to cling to power by leveraging a Big Lie into voter suppression laws that leverage the party back to power by appealing solely to a largely white 20th-century America. Trump’s GOP is making no effort to offer conservative alternatives to the issues of the day. Its whole focus is on how to win without doing that.
Which is why it is incumbent on every American to support in every way possible the few principled Republican legislators fighting this trend from the inside — like Liz Cheney, Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Sen. Mitt Romney.
What I learned covering the struggle for the future of the Arab-Muslim world post-9/11 is that the war of ideas inside is everything. Sure, it is important for outsiders to condemn bad behavior, but their voices have limited impact. Real change happens only when the war of ideas is won by insiders, working from the roots upward.
On Monday, CNN quoted Cheney as telling Republican donors and scholars at a retreat for the American Enterprise Institute in Sea Island, Georgia: “We can’t embrace the notion the election is stolen. It’s a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy. … We can’t whitewash what happened on Jan. 6 or perpetuate Trump’s Big Lie. It is a threat to democracy. What he did on Jan. 6 is a line that cannot be crossed.” A “peaceful transfer of power must be defended.”
She could not be more right. And without a war of ideas inside the party, one that is won by principled Republicans, we run the real risk of a political civil war in America over the next election.
Things are not OK.
Unless more principled Republicans stand up for the truth about our last election, we’re going to see exactly how a democracy dies.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is a columnist for The New York Times.