America Besieged

“America will not be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

– President Abraham Lincoln

If you wanted to ensure that election officials could overturn the will of the voters, you would put in their place loyalists who would be expected to skew votes in favor of your candidate if that person lost the balloting.

That’s precisely what’s happening in several Republican-led battleground states. The goal is to ensure that if Donald Trump loses another presidential election, if he runs, he still may be able to be declared the winner by subverting the balloting, disenfranchising the voters – to do in 2024 what the Trumpists couldn’t accomplish in 2020. Elections could wind up being thrown to the courts.

More than 60 percent of Republicans believe Trump’s biggest, boldest lie — that he defeated Joe Biden for the presidency, that the election was stolen from him, according to a May Reuters/Ipsos poll. It’s very difficult to believe so many people can be duped.

Those believers are installing Trump loyalists in local polling precincts, according to the online news organization ProPublica and other major mainstream publications.

They would be expected to throw away votes for the opposition or “find” nonexistent votes for the former president, who is virtually certain to secure the GOP nomination in 2024.

They’re also going after school boards, city and county commissions and secretaries of state, according to Ron Filipkowsi in an essay in The Washington Post. He is a former federal and state prosecutor, now a private defense attorney. He is investigating Trump activists, who he says are getting support from conservative organizations like The Heritage Foundation.

That makes it a determined conservative movement whose mission is to put Trump and his Republicans back in power.

The step-by-step process of taking over the government, including the failed coup attempt at the Capitol, is the upshot of the never-ending lies told by Trump and his obedient acolytes, elected officials among them. They spin fantasies about a stolen election, minorities, race, ethnicity, books, gun control, vaccines, masks and promote absurd conspiracy theories that millions of people have been deluded into believing.

It’s those millions who put their faith in Trump that keeps elected officials and candidates for office loyal to him.

With Trump at the head, the Republican Party is steering America in the same autocratic direction Hitler took Germany in the 1930s. His first attempted coup, the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, failed. Hitler kept trying until he succeeded becoming chancellor in 1933. Trump hasn’t stopped trying.

How? By limiting voting for minorities, with 33 laws passed in 19 Republican states; by packing the courts with more than 200 right-wing judges so they could agree to right-wing demands; by gerrymandering Democrats out of the running; and by installing loyalists at polling places and in local offices that have a say in elections.

Shifting into gear the machinery to ensure election victory by the rogue Republican Party has been underway for about a year, certainly since the failed Jan. 6 attempted coup. It’s not an exaggeration to say its success could be the death knell of our democracy.

“. . . Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response,” staff investigative reporter Barton Gellman wrote for the January-February issue of The Atlantic.

The “precinct strategy” is the newest belligerent right-wing attempt by Trump loyalists to try to restore him to power by packing local election precincts with his supporters in a bid to take over the Republican Party at its lowest level, where people vote, ProPublica reported in September. The strategy is spelled out on its own website.

It’s a strategy concocted by far-right political hit man Stephen K. Bannon, a frumpy, unshaven, pot-bellied onetime White House adviser who is under indictment for defying Congress by refusing to testify about plans for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Because the Republican Party sold out Trump, Bannon charged, the way around it “was to seize control of the GOP from the bottom up” by swarming “into the lowest rung of the party structure: the precincts,” ProPublica said.

“We’re going to take this back village by village . . . precinct by precinct,” it quoted Bannon as saying in a podcast. He is bent on destroying the “administrative state,” which he once said Trump was planning to do. He nearly succeeded.

The “precinct strategy” went viral, seen by millions on pro-Trump websites, heard on talk radio and encountered on other right-wing outlets, ProPublica said.

“Suddenly, people who had never before showed interest in party politics started calling local GOP headquarters or crowding into county conventions, eager to enlist as precinct officers,” ProPublica reported.

Forty-one Republican leaders in 65 counties contacted by ProPublica “reported an unusual increase in signups since Bannon’s campaign began,” it said. “At least 8,500 new Republican precinct officers (or equivalent lowest-level officials) joined those county parties.”

“We can take over the [Republican] party if we invade it,” Daniel J. Schultz, a conservative Arizona activist said on Bannon’s podcast in February, ProPublica reported.” I can’t guarantee you that we’ll save the republic, but I can guarantee you this: We’ll lose it if we conservatives don’t take over the Republican Party.”

As an example, Republicans purged one of their longtime canvassers in Flint, Michigan’s Genesee County because she backed the legality of Biden’s victory in 2020, The Washington Post said in an editorial.

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state, told The New York Times the Republican campaign to assert more control over election systems “is a five-alarm fire.”

“If people in general, leaders and citizens, aren’t taking this as the most important issue of our time and acting accordingly” she said, “then we may not be able to ensure democracy prevails again in ’24.”

The Democrats, who have been asleep during the long-running Republican efforts to control the levers of power at the state level, including legislatures, must wake up and combat the GOP strategy before they wind up not only out of office but responsible for handing over our obvious fragile democracy to an authoritarian government. It can happen here.

The Senate must pass the House-adopted voting rights bill that overrides state limitations on the right to vote. Republicans deployed the filibuster to vote against it three times. Kill the godforsaken filibuster rule. There’s no longer any choice; there’s too much at stake.

And federal laws must be tightened to prevent monkeying with the democratic process, including banning weirdly drawn partisan congressional district boundaries. Candidates for precinct offices and poll workers must be vetted.

The problem getting corrective state laws passed: Republicans are in full control of 23 states, Democrats 15. In the legislative branch, the GOP has full control in 30 states, the Democrats 18.

If Republicans win back Congress in the ’22 midterms and overwhelm state legislatures, they could control electors who would choose the election victor. That’s what they’re aiming for.

“We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War,” Biden said July 13 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “That’s not hyperbole. I’m not saying this to alarm you. I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.”

The president and the Democrats must hammer on this theme in the coming months to prevent the scenario he outlined in July from happening. It would be the height of irresponsibility to allow one political party to control our voters, our democracy, our future.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.