I was born in 1980. I came of age believing that I lived in the most stable, durable democracy in the world. But the last six years have shaken that faith. Since Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for President in 2016, I’ve watched our democracy start to unravel. And my party, the Republican Party, has done much to hasten that unraveling, and little to stop it.
I was startled by the realization that so many Americans wanted someone like Trump. But after doing more than 100 focus groups with Trump voters, I understand why they did. They didn’t necessarily want an authoritarian. They wanted a non-politician, someone who talked and sounded like them. Americans were tired of career politicians, which is exactly what Hillary Clinton was. They saw her as uniquely corrupt and deceitful. They felt unmoored in a fast-changing culture, often saying they didn’t recognize their own country. They loathed elites whom they blamed for starting and losing “endless wars” and for sending their jobs overseas. So they reached for the bluntest weapon they could find.
They wanted something different, and Trump offered them that. Time after time, he said things that no one else would ever say, or even imagine saying. Whether it was lambasting John McCain as “not a war hero” or refusing to be “politically correct,” he addressed topics that other politicians ignored and talked about them in ways that no one else did. To many Americans, it was refreshing.
Even before the 2016 election, Trump was laying the groundwork for election denialism, saying that the election was rigged (this, of course, was when he thought he was going to lose). Then the unthinkable happened: Trump won. On one hand, his tenure as President showed how precarious our democracy was. On the other hand, how durable.
As President, Trump waged an all-out war against American institutions. He attacked the Department of Justice mercilessly and said he had the “absolute right” to tell it what to do. Not only did he fire James Comey, but he called the FBI’s top officials “scum.” He did everything he could to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, which he labeled a “hoax” and a “phony witch hunt.” Trump called the press “the enemy of the people” and even pilloried individual journalists by name, putting their lives in jeopardy. He attacked the courts—not just their decisions, but also individual judges and justices. He called U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar of California “an Obama judge.” He attacked Judge Amy Berman Jackson after the Roger Stone case. He called Chief Justice John Roberts an “absolute disaster” and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit “a terrible, costly and dangerous disgrace.”
When he wasn’t ignoring the Constitution, he was reinterpreting it for his own ends. He said that Article II gave him “the right to do whatever I want as president.” He sure acted like it.
The years of his presidency saw the GOP grow increasingly authoritarian. In 2019, the Republican National Committee pledged its “undivided support” to Trump—before he was the party’s official nominee—in an attempt to scare off primary challengers. We saw a glimpse of the party’s burgeoning authoritarianism when it canceled primary elections in four states. All of this was done to shield Trump from competition. The party had become monolithic and undemocratic. It was a sign of what was to come.
We all know what happened next: Trump lost the 2020 election. His defeat was a necessary but insufficient way to arrest our democratic backsliding. After he lost, he refused to concede. Instead of paving the way for a peaceful transfer of power, Trump attempted a violent seizure of power, which culminated in the January 6 insurrection.
A functioning democracy has winners and losers. But democracy cannot function when candidates refuse to concede elections they’ve lost. And the GOP has an abundance of those. Trump, obviously, is the prime example, and many of his acolytes are following his lead. In Arizona, Republican secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem said he would not concede the election if he lost. Kandiss Taylor, who received just 3.4 percent of the vote in the Republican primary for governor in Georgia, refuses to concede. She employed Trumpian language after her defeat, claiming the election was “rigged.” Joey Gilbert, who lost the GOP primary race for Nevada governor by 26,000 votes, also refuses to concede.
But Democrats haven’t been perfect on this front, either. In 2005, a group of congressional Democrats objected to the certification of George W. Bush’s reelection, alleging “irregularities.” Then, in January 2017, when Congress met to count the Electoral College votes certifying Trump’s victory over Clinton, seven House Democrats challenged the count, a tactic that Republicans would adopt after Trump lost to Joe Biden. The next year, Stacey Abrams refused to concede her loss to Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial election.
When you refuse to concede, you refuse to abide by the rules and conventions of democracy. Some of these anti-concession candidates are minor figures, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are establishing a norm in the Republican Party, one that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of elections that Team Red loses. Now, election denial is spreading to Republican primaries, with candidates like Taylor and Gilbert who don’t recognize the legitimacy of their losses to other Republicans.
If you look at the Republican candidates in this year’s midterm elections, you see MAGA authoritarians everywhere. Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, used campaign funds to charter buses to the U.S. Capitol on January 6. An election denier through and through, he claimed it was “statistically impossible” for Biden to have won and blamed it on “vote dumps.”
Jim Marchant, the Republican secretary of state nominee in Nevada, is the leader of a group called the America First Secretary of State Coalition, which Marchant said will work “behind the scenes to try to fix 2020 like President Trump said.” Marchant said he would not have certified Biden’s victory if he had been Nevada’s secretary of state in 2020 because, according to him, Trump was the “legit” winner. He advocated sending an alternate slate of Trump electors to Congress and said he would do so in 2024.
The Arizona Republican Party has its own extreme slate of candidates. Kari Lake, a former Phoenix TV anchor and Republican candidate for governor, said she would not have certified the 2020 election had she been governor. Finchem, the secretary of state candidate, tried to decertify Arizona’s 2020 election results. His campaign ran an ad saying that “Donald Trump won” the 2020 election. Then there’s Trump-endorsed Senate candidate Blake Masters, who released an ad saying, “I think Trump won in 2020.”
If these extremists win, the consequences will be severe. The winners will have control over future elections, and they will be able to overturn them if they don’t like the outcomes.
The 2020 election showed the importance of local officials who oversee elections. This year in New Mexico, county commissioners voted against certifying primary election results. One commissioner who lost the Republican gubernatorial primary voted against certifying his own loss. The New Mexico Supreme Court had to order the all-Republican Otero County Commission to certify the results. Another commissioner who voted against certification cited conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines and said his “gut feeling and intuition” told him there were irregularities. It’s a mess at the local level.
Where the existing election administration system hinders Republican efforts to control elections, they’re pushing to change the system itself. For example, Wisconsin has one of the most decentralized election administration systems in the country, with little power concentrated in the elected office of the secretary of state. All three Republican Wisconsin secretary of state candidates want to dissolve the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission and invest the secretary of state with the authority of overseeing elections. In short, they want to be able to overturn the 2024 election if the Republican doesn’t win.
It’s imporant to keep in mind that Republicans think they’re defending democracy even as they assail it. Sixty-six percent of Republicans believe that American democracy is under attack, and they certainly don’t think they are the ones attacking it.
At a meeting of a conservative group called the Council for National Policy (CNP) in August 2020, Brent Bozell, the founder of the Media Research Center, said the left wanted to “steal this election.” “And if they get away with that, what happens?” he asked. “Democracy is finished because they usher in totalitarianism.”
“This is good versus evil,” CNP’s executive committee president, Bill Walton, said. “We have to do everything we can to win.” If you believe you are on the side of angels, you will use any means to accomplish your ends. This is how January 6 happened.
But the authoritarian transformation of the GOP didn’t happen out of nowhere.
Over the last six years, I have observed what I call the “Republican Triangle of Doom.” It consists of right-wing infotainment, Republican primary voters, and Republican elected officials. Each reinforces the others. The infotainers, everyone from Tucker Carlson to Ben Shapiro to obscure YouTube personalities, feed their audiences a steady diet of hate, resentment, and conspiracy theories. Their audiences, in turn, make up the base of the Republican Party. In primaries, they tend to vote for the most extreme candidates.
The Republican Triangle of Doom doesn’t reinforce conservative ideas or policies. Its function is to reinforce fealty to Donald Trump. A study in the American Political Science Review found that the term “conservative” now has less to do with policy positions than with loyalty to Trump. “Senators with very conservative voting records were sometimes perceived as less conservative if they did not support Trump,” authors Daniel J. Hopkins and Hans Noel wrote. This confirms what we already knew, which is that the GOP is not a vessel for any particular ideology but is simply a cult of personality.
Cults of personality are anathema to democracies. History is rife with examples of cults of personality that emboldened authoritarian rulers. They were all based on the same things—lies, pledges of loyalty, and intolerance of dissent. Shades of all of these can be found in Republicans who push the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
It isn’t just Republican politicians who push the Big Lie. The right-wing infotainment complex amplifies it constantly. Steve Bannon said, “If Democrats don’t cheat, they don’t win.” He’s not the only one. The New York Times surveyed conservative radio hosts around the country who say the same thing. A radio host in Omaha said, “What are they going to do? They’re going to cheat.” Another in Houston said, “The Democrats will hold on to the House and the Senate and the gubernatorial races, where they’ll be able to cheat in the 2024 election. That’s the plan.” And in Fargo, a host said, “They’re going to do everything they can to cheat in the election.”
When people hear this nonsense on a regular basis, their perspective changes. They become less interested in policy and instead become obsessed with culture wars, their own grievances, and conspiracy theories. It’s no wonder, then, that most Republican officials are uninterested in solving problems. Because of the Triangle of Doom, they have no incentive to.
Thanks to the influence of the conservative entertainment complex on Republican primary voters, bringing home bipartisan achievements with real benefits to their voters is now an afterthought. Republican elected officials are incentivized to stoke cultural grievances and to get 30-second clips of themselves on Fox News. After all, that’s how Trump got elected. And it’s what happened during the confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson. Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley behaved like demagogues by repeatedly questioning Jackson about her supposed leniency on child porn cases for no other purpose than to annoy her and to get their comments broadcast on Fox News. Bad incentives make for bad governance.
The problem isn’t just that the Republican Party has a bunch of nuts, authoritarians, and conspiracy theorists in it. It’s that the national, “mainstream” Republicans refuse to repudiate the nuts, authoritarians, and conspiracy theorists. They accommodate them instead. This happened when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Rep. Liz Cheney a “special case” and backed her primary challenger. He did not, however, rebuke Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene for any of her countless lunacies.
What is the lesson to be drawn? It’s that you can be safe in the Republican Party if you espouse conspiracy theories and promulgate the Big Lie. But you’re not safe if you stand up for democracy and the Constitution, as Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have done on the January 6 Committee. That is why our democracy is in peril: One party simply rejects those who defend democracy.
Some Republicans did the right thing after Trump’s defeat—Mike Pence, Doug Ducey, Brian Kemp, Brad Raffensperger, Bill Barr, and officials at the Justice Department—and they deserve credit. But it’s a bad sign for democracy when the only thing saving it from being overthrown is a handful of individuals. We can’t always count on there being the right people in place next time, especially when so many of the right people are being excised from the party.
It’s doubtful that we can “fix” the Republican Party for the foreseeable future. As long as the GOP is in thrall to Trump and leaders who emulate him, it will be an anti-democratic party. The first order of business is to banish Trump from public life for good. But even if that happens, it won’t solve the central problem, which is that one of our two major parties is fundamentally hostile to democracy.
Unless and until we can make the GOP more democratic, our only option is to keep anti-democracy Republicans as far away from the levers of power as possible. That’s going to require Democrats to be more popular with a broader coalition of voters. Many current Democrats are pursuing progressive policies, whether it’s the Green New Deal or forgiving student loan debt, that alienate centrist voters. If you’re serious about saving our democracy, your priorities must be in order. It’s incumbent on these Democrats—and on all of us—to put our policy preferences aside for the greater good. Defending our democracy must be paramount, above and beyond any policy objectives either side prefers.
But defeating anti-democracy Republicans isn’t enough. We must also support and elect pro-democracy Republicans. That is the only way to make the Republican Party hospitable to democracy. One thing the January 6 hearings have shown us is that leadership is important. We need the right leaders. Leaders like Liz Cheney.
We ultimately elect the leaders we want to elect. If the threats to our democracy posed by Trump and others like him are going to be stopped, Americans will have to defeat them using the very system they want to dismantle.