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A protester holds a Trump 2024 flag in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol on February 27, 2021. (Photo: Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A protester holds a Trump 2024 flag in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol on February 27, 2021. (Photo: Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Fears Mount That GOP's Big Lie on 2020 Just a 'Test Run' for What Comes Next

With Republicans set to block a commission to probe the January 6 attack, progressives warn "the insurrection never actually stopped."

Jessica Corbett

With Senate Republicans expected to use the filibuster on Thursday to block a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol instigated by former President Donald Trump, fears are mounting that his "Big Lie" about the 2020 election was just a "test run" for future GOP assaults on American democracy.

"If Democrats don't make some changes to our election laws and if they lose some races that they really need to win in 2022 and 2024, then we're in real trouble."
—David Faris, Roosevelt University

As Ryan Cooper lamented Wednesday in a column at The Week, "The truth is that the insurrection never actually stopped."

"What happened on January 6 was just one part of a huge effort to overturn the 2020 election—through the courts, bullying local officials, and finally an outright putsch—that is ongoing to this day," he wrote. "In Arizona a collection of right-wing conspiracy theorists are conducting a fraudulent 'audit' of the 2020 ballots."

"Key figures in the attempted election theft are now running for election oversight offices in Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan," he continued. "The national-level Republican Party has swung hard against the proposed congressional investigation to investigate the putsch, and Senate Republicans are likely to filibuster it."

Though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has continued to promise that the upper chamber will vote on a House-approved bill that would create a 9/11-style commission to probe the Capitol attack, which resulted in five deaths and Trump's historic second impeachment, Democrats lack the requisite 10 GOP votes.

If Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) maintain their opposition to killing the filibuster, efforts to pass not only the commission bill but also other key priorities for Democratic lawmakers and President Joe Biden—including legislation on gun control, infrastructure, labor protections, and voting rights—could be fruitless.

Meanwhile, since a right-wing mob stormed the Capitol in January, Republican state legislators have proposed, and in some cases passed, voter suppression bills that critics warn could impact ballot access in key states for next year's midterms and the elections that follow. And as vaccine rates rise across the country, Trump—who is banned from major social media platforms and facing multiple criminal investigations—is gearing up for the return of his infamous rallies and another possible run for president.

"Trump is confiding in allies that he intends to run again in 2024 with one contingency: that he still has a good bill of health," Politico reports of the 74-year-old, citing unnamed sources close to him. As for 2022, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) aim to retake both chambers; McCarthy has made clear that members who criticize Trump will be ostracized, while McConnell is making the commission fight about the midterms.

In 2018, Roosevelt University political scientist David Faris told Vox's Sean Illing that since the 1990s, "we've seen a one-sided escalation in which Republicans exploit the vagueness or lack of clarity in the Constitution in order to press their advantage in a variety of arenas—from voter ID laws to gerrymandering to behavioral norms in the Congress and Senate." He warned that "Democrats have to recognize the urgency of the moment and act accordingly."

Illing, in a follow-up interview with Faris published Thursday, said that "it feels like we're sleepwalking into a real crisis here, but it's hard to convey the urgency because it's not dramatic and it's happening in slow motion and so much of life feels so normal."

"The most destructive thing that Trump did on his way out the door was he took the Republicans' waning commitment to democracy and he weaponized it, and he made it much worse to the point where I think that a good deal of rank-and-file Republican voters simply don't believe that Democrats can win a legitimate election" Faris said. "And if Democrats do win an election, it has to be fraudulent."

Recent legal proceedings for alleged members of the mob that attacked the Capitol have highlighted the effectiveness of the Big Lie—that the 2020 presidential election was "stolen" from Trump—among voters.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for D.C. wrote in an opinion Wednesday that releasing defendant Cleveland Meredith Jr. from jail could endanger the public. Meredith, who allegedly was not at the Capitol but brought weapons to the city and texted that he wanted to shoot House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on live television, has pleaded not guilty.

As the judge put it: "The steady drumbeat that inspired [the] defendant to take up arms has not faded away; six months later, the canard that the election was stolen is being repeated daily on major news outlets and from the corridors of power in state and federal government, not to mention in the near-daily fulminations of the former president."

CNN on Thursday compiled other examples of judges reaching similar conclusions.

To Faris, the GOP's embrace of Trump's Big Lie in 2020 "felt like a test run."

"The plot to overturn the 2020 election never had a real chance of working without some external intervention like a military coup or something like that, which I never thought was particularly likely," he told Illing. "But the institutional path that they pursued to steal the election failed because they didn't control Congress and they didn't control the right governorships in the right places."

"It was a test run for a way to overturn an election with the veneer of legality," he explained. "You have to give Trump and Republicans some kind of dark credit for figuring out that this is really conceivable. I think they now know that, even though it would cause a court battle and possibly a civil war, that if they can't win by suppressing the vote and the election is close enough, they can do this if they control enough state legislatures and the Congress."

As the lack of Senate Republican support impedes federal legislation like the For the People Act, a sweeping bill of pro-democracy reforms that would thwart some of the GOP's state-level voter suppression measures, Faris warned that "if Democrats don't make some changes to our election laws and if they lose some races that they really need to win in 2022 and 2024, then we're in real trouble."

Faris is far from the only political expert worried about future U.S. elections.

Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger won widespread praise earlier this year for refusing to bow to Trump's demands that he "find" more than 11,000 votes to reverse Biden's November victory in the Peach State—and the ex-president's action provoked a criminal investigation into the matter.

However, Raffensperger has also defended the new voter suppression measure signed into law by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp in March and the secretary of state's lengthy interview with the New York Times, published Wednesday, has increased alarm about the long-term consequences of allowing yet another inspection of 2020 ballots in Georgia's populous Fulton County spearheaded by a known conspiracy theorist.

While Raffensperger claimed that the effort will help restore "voter confidence" in the 2020 results, Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent pointed out Wednesday that the Georgia Republican faces a primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, "who has been endorsed by Trump on the specific grounds that he'll use his official power to subvert future election results that Republicans hate, in a way Raffensperger would not. This is Hice's whole rationale for running!"

Sargent also consulted a scholar of democracy:

Harvard historian Daniel Ziblatt notes that Raffensperger's travails echo a historical dilemma for conservatives. Those who want their party to accept despised election outcomes often contend with radical elements to their right who reject the core legitimacy of those outcomes.

That leaves those conservatives in a position of trying to "appease" those radicals by flirting with their hostility to democracy, but it often proves a fool's errand, Ziblatt said.

"The purpose of this is not to give the election a clean bill of health," Ziblatt told me, referring to the Georgia effort. "It's to further undermine its credibility." Ziblatt said such recounts are a "dress rehearsal for 2024."

According to Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic, "Anxiety is growing among a broad range of civil rights, democracy reform, and liberal groups over whether Democrats are responding with enough urgency to the accelerating Republican efforts to both suppress voting and potentially overturn future Democratic election victories."

"Virtually all Democrats and activists I've spoken with agree that Manchin is unlikely to move forward on voting rights unless Biden personally persuades him to do so," he wrote Thursday. "Which is why, even as they express unease about the flagging Democratic response to the Republican red-state offensive, so many activists are willing to give Biden more time to see whether he can steer new voting protections into law."

Although Biden "does have an obligation as president to do everything he can in his power to unite the country," Fernand Amandi, a longtime Democratic pollster, told Brownstein, at some point he will need "to look into the mirror, acknowledge the stark existential threat that the Republican Party represents [to democracy], and make the decision about whether or not it's time to talk turkey with the American people."


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