For worried residents of the District of Columbia, President Trump’s flailing efforts to overturn the results of a free and fair election that he lost no longer seem quite so funny. With the prospect of unrest in the nation’s capital when Trump’s loss is formalized on Wednesday, Republicans have run out of excuses for continuing to indulge Trump’s anti-democratic rants.
Not a single state or federal court has accepted the preposterous conspiracy theories floated by Trump and his supporters to explain his loss, ranging from zany stories of North Koreans smuggling ballots into Maine to supposed Sharpie malfunctions in Arizona. No election has been as thoroughly scrutinized as the 2020 vote, and even Trump’s own Justice Department acknowledges it couldn’t find any serious fraud, much less the vast plots of Trump’s imagination.
To their credit, state Republican officials in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, and other states rejected those fictions. National Republicans, from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on down, have (belatedly) also acknowledged Joe Biden as the victor. In fact, the election wasn’t especially close: Democratic candidate Joe Biden won by more than 7 million votes, and with an Electoral College margin identical to Trump’s 2016 victory.
But the president remains immersed in his conspiratorial fantasyland, careening from one delusional idea to another, apparently in hopes that one fringe theory will finally pay off, a deus ex whackina that changes the ending of the 2020 election.
And on Wednesday, when Congress meets to formally certify Biden’s victory, Trump has called for his supporters to descend on Washington for a protest he said would be “wild.”
Of course, protesting is any American’s right. But especially considering the way the last gathering of Trump supporters in Washington descended into violence, lawmakers need to stop giving oxygen to his efforts and firmly reject expected challenges to the vote-certifying on Wednesday. Trump’s fellow Republicans have mostly indulged him by treating his complaints as plausibly legitimate. But that’s only emboldened what would otherwise be a crackpot fringe. By doing so, they’re risking a greater likelihood of trouble on the streets of Washington in the short term, and more lasting damage to trust in democracy in the long term.
Certifying an election is a ministerial job, not a policy decision; it’s not Congress’s job on Wednesday to say whether they like the results of an election or the way that states conducted their votes. Still, if even a single House member and a single senator object to a state’s electoral votes, it triggers a mandatory two-hour debate in Congress and then a vote on whether to accept the state’s votes. As of Saturday, eleven GOP senators and senators-elect had pledged to join House members in objecting to some states’ electoral votes. Trump and his supporters had been pushing members of Congress to object to states Biden won, and demanding that Vice President Mike Pence — who will preside over the count in a ceremonial capacity — switch Biden states to Trump, which he does not have the power to do. (In another dead-end lawsuit, some GOP lawmakers tried to change the law dating back to the 19th century to give Pence the authority to override voters.)
Seeking to avoid a debacle, McConnell lobbied Republican senators not to raise objections to Biden’s victories, apparently unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, according to a top aide, Pence supports the GOP lawmakers’ egregious plan to legitimize the president’s conspiracy theories on the floor of Congress.
Ever since election day, Republicans have generally defended Trump’s challenges to the outcome as within his legal rights. Likewise, insisting on a floor debate on individual states’ presidential votes is perfectly legal. But what is legally permissible and what is right for a polarized and frazzled country aren’t the same.
The country needs to turn the page not just on Trump, but also the toxic brand of conspiracism that he’s mainstreamed into American politics. That won’t be easy. But members of Congress ought to do their part by publicly rejecting Trump’s conspiracy-laced demands to subvert the electoral count, and recognizing Biden’s clear victory. Those who do not don’t deserve to be in public office in a democracy.
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