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Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) speaks during a Senate Budget Committee hearing on February 10, 2021. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The Ongoing GOP Attack on Democracy

Trump lost by more than seven million votes, but his false claim that Democrats stole the election from him isn't just about 2020 anymore.

Steven Harper

On March 28, 2022, a federal judge found that former President Donald Trump and attorney John Eastman engaged in "a coup in search of a legal theory." The court concluded that, more likely than not, their efforts to overturn the presidential election were federal crimes.

Knowing that Trump lost the popular vote in Wisconsin, Johnson echoes Gableman's recommendation that the Republican-controlled legislature replace the state's bipartisan Election Commission in overseeing federal elections.

The coup continues.

Trump lost by more than seven million votes, but his false claim that Democrats stole the election from him isn't just about 2020 anymore. It's about conditioning GOP voters for the ultimate Trump loyalty test: rejecting future elections that Trump or his designees lose. Sowing distrust in the system, Trump and his allies are proceeding state by state, one voter at a time.

"Look at Wisconsin"

On the eve of Wisconsin's annual Republican convention in June 2021, Trump issued a statement filled with his standard "pants-on-fire" lies. Although he lost all recounts and legal challenges seeking to reverse his 2020 loss, Trump threatened the state's GOP leaders with political annihilation if they didn't spread his Big Lie by pursuing an unwarranted post-election "audit" of Wisconsin votes.

Trump scared them into submission. The next day, State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced to the convention that he had appointed retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to oversee an investigation into the 2020 presidential election. On January 9, 2022, Vos told an interviewer that he talked to Trump periodically about the investigation "just to keep him up-to-date to make sure he understands what's happening but to know we are doing our very best."

Two days later, when NPR's Steve Inskeep confronted Trump about his persistent Big Lie, Trump denied, dissembled, and deflected: "Take a look at what's going on in Wisconsin. You just take a look."

Ok, let's take a look.

Michael Gableman

Hours after news networks had called the election in favor of Joseph Biden on November 7, 2020, Gableman attended a pro-Trump rally in Milwaukee.

"I don't think anyone would be here if we all had confidence that this was an honest election," he said.

Addressing the crowd and lacking any evidence to support his claim, Gableman declared, "Our elected leaders—your elected leaders—have allowed unelected bureaucrats at the Wisconsin Elections Commission to steal our vote."

Gableman's GOP ties run deep. He's a former chair of his local county Republican Party. He relied on GOP support to win a state supreme court seat in 2008. And he's an avid Trump fan.

Immediately after Speaker Vos announced Gableman's appointment to head the 2020 election investigation, Gableman told the GOP convention audience, "I'm glad to be here—glad to see so many friends."

On March 1, 2022, Gableman presented his report to the Wisconsin Assembly's election committee. It included bogus claims and false conspiracy theories some from a pro-Trump website that has for years trafficked in misinformation.

But Gableman's most dangerous ideas were legislative recommendations that would transfer electoral power to partisan political hacks. They included moving oversight from the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission to "a politically accountable body," taking "a very hard look at the option of decertification of the 2020 Wisconsin presidential election" (which is a legal impossibility), and establishing on the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly or Senate yet another post-election forum in which a losing candidate could air false claims of fraud in an effort to overturn the popular vote after exhausting all legal challenges.

Ominously, Gableman added, "This is just the beginning of the investigation." The Republican-led legislature gave him a $676,000 taxpayer-funded budget and extended his probe to the end of April.

Trump promptly seized on Gableman's dubious testimony and bogus conclusions, falsely labeling Wisconsin's 2020 election corrupt. Two weeks later, John Eastman was taking his "coup in search of a legal theory" to Wisconsin, where he pressured Vos to nullify the 2020 election and reclaim the electors awarded to Biden.

The Assembly's Republican majority leader, Jim Steineke, isn't seeking re-election, so he was having none of it, declaring:

"I have ten months remaining in my last term. In my remaining time, I can guarantee that I will not be part of any effort, and will do everything possible to stop any effort, to put politicians in charge of deciding who wins or loses elections…

"In a world where partisan divides are deep & seemingly anything can be justified as long as it results in retaining power, handing authority to partisan politicians to determine if election fraud exists would be the end of our republic as we know it."

Ron Johnson

Trump and Gableman have an important Wisconsin ally, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. In April 2021, nine months before Johnson had even decided to seek reelection, Trump endorsed him to run again. The reasons are self-evident

On December 16, 2020, the courts had uniformly rejected Trump's election fraud claims. But as then-chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Johnson convened a hearing that amplified Trump's lies. Likewise, in February 2021, Johnson repeated the false claim that "fake Trump supporters" caused the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. And in May, he said, "By and large, it was peaceful protest."

But at a GOP event in August when Johnson thought that he was speaking to a fellow Republican, he admitted, "I think it's probably true that Biden got maybe seven million more popular votes. That's the electoral reality. So to just say for sure that this was a stolen election, I don't agree with that."

Knowing that Trump lost the popular vote in Wisconsin, Johnson echoes Gableman's recommendation that the Republican-controlled legislature replace the state's bipartisan Election Commission in overseeing federal elections. Johnson said that Gableman's report "raises severe issues regarding the 2020 election that need to be taken seriously. The goal of our efforts moving forward is to restore confidence in our election system."

Other than Trump himself, few people in Wisconsin have done more to undermine voter confidence in the nation's election system than Michael Gableman and Ron Johnson. Along with Trump allies throughout the country, they're succeeding. According to a recent Marquette University Law School poll, three-fourths of Republicans nationwide are "not confident that the votes were accurately cast and counted in the 2020 presidential election."

Danger Ahead

The long-term consequences of the Big Lie and its spawn are far more profound than specious cries to "decertify" the 2020 election.

"If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer," Hannah Arendt said in a 1974 interview. Arendt was a German-American philosopher who studied the origins of totalitarianism and wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which was an attempt to explain how ordinary people became participants in evil totalitarian systems.

Arendt continued: "And with such a people you can then do what you please."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper is an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of several books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He has been a regular columnist for Moyers on Democracy, Dan Rather’s News & Guts, and The American Lawyer.

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