Barton Gelman: “America’s Second-Worst Scenario: So far, cumulative acts of civic virtue have saved the republic. But the constitutional order is still in danger.”

Barton in The Atlantic:

Here is the nub of our predicament. Donald Trump attempted democracide, and he had help. The victim survived but suffered grievous wounds. American democracy now faces a long convalescence in an environment of ongoing attacks. Trump has not exhausted his malignant powers, and co-conspirators remain at large.

I do not mean to be taken figuratively. The president of the United States lost an election and really did try with all his might to keep the winner from replacing him. He did his level best to overthrow our system of government, and tens of millions of Americans marched behind him. But a coup d’état in America had seemed so unlikely a thing, and it was so buffoonishly attempted, that the political establishment had trouble taking it seriously. That was a big mistake.

It is still too soon to assess this moment in historic perspective, but we seem to be living through something like a next-to-worst-case scenario. Trump failed in the end—if we have reached the end—to maintain an illegal grip on power. But his attempted coup made too much headway for comfort, and his supporters are far from finished with their assault on majority rule.

Even so, there is good news to be found in the manner of Trump’s defeat. The system held. Enough officials did the right thing, when it counted, to fend off the overthrow of our government. And in this we can see a path forward….

The same drama played out still more publicly in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, another Republican, defended the state’s election integrity against a ferocious assault by Trump. The president mocked him publicly and threatened him in a telephone call while demanding that Raffensperger “recalculate” the election outcome. Unaccountably, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp—notorious for no-holds-barred voter suppression when he held Raffensperger’s job—backed up his secretary of state, even when Trump threatened to support an opponent in Kemp’s reelection race next year.

“If Brian Kemp had agreed to be completely lawless, he could have called in the state legislature and they could have tried to appoint a different slate of electors,” Richard Hasen, an election-law expert at UC Irvine, told me. “He could have refused to sign the certificate of the electors. I’ve never thought of Kemp as a voting-rights hero … but he was a hero here, stood up to tremendous pressure given the hold that Trump has over the Republican Party right now.”

So why did they do it? Why did Kemp and Raffensperger and Van Langevelde accept Biden’s victory—while nearly two-thirds of the U.S. House Republican caucus voted to overthrow the election? Why did Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, sign the “certificate of ascertainment” of Biden’s win in his state—while the 18 state attorneys general, including his own, asked the Supreme Court to throw away results from elsewhere? Why did state legislators in Pennsylvania not attempt to appoint Trump electors—while signing a letter asking Congress to reject the Biden electors?

“I think it did depend on the personalities,” Kevin Kruse, a Princeton historian, told me. “I think you replace those officials, those judges, with ones who are more willing to follow the party line and you get a different set of outcomes … If enough people do that, if enough dominoes fall, the whole thing falls apart.”

Edward Foley, an Ohio State law professor, likewise told me that old-fashioned “personal virtue” saved the republic. Of Van Langevelde, he said: “There was intense pressure on him, and he looked like a pretty young guy. He really held firm, and the only thing to account for that is character.”

I see a more optimistic explanation, less contingent on the happenstance of personality. During Trump’s attempted coup, political actors did the right thing at the moments when the power of decision was directly in their hands. The Republicans who stayed true to the law, who chose to follow their duty, were the ones who had actual power to move events. Putting your name on a brief or a letter is a kind of performance—“a cheap act of virtue signaling, or vice signaling, depending on your perspective,” as Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor, put it to me. Voting can be symbolic, too, when a resolution has no chance of passage. But when it came to concrete, meaningful steps—when state officials could actually have reversed an outcome by decertifying a vote or appointing Trump electors—there were enough Republicans who would not cross that line….

Baldly stealing the election for Trump could have been costly to men like Raffensperger and Kemp. The backlash in the general public would have been immense. A plurality of their voters, after all, had cast ballots for Biden. Even so, Persily said, “I also want to praise their integrity. I think they realized they had a higher obligation here to the democracy. We shouldn’t pretend that they didn’t pay a significant price. Their political futures in Georgia are really in doubt as a result of this.”

“They weren’t ready to give up on the American experiment,” Hasen said.

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