As I've watched the Trump era unfold, I have generally assumed that most elected Republicans were just cowards who hoped the Democrats would save them from the unpleasantness of reining Trump in. They could let the Democrats get rid of Trump in 2020 and then, after the smoke had cleared and his followers had licked their wounds and moved on, they could pretend that everything that had happened was all Trump's fault. They could then return to playing the role of moral arbiters and upright patriots, which they spent years selling to the public, and hope that nobody remembered what sniveling invertebrates they really are.
It turns out they aren't cowards at all. They are craven opportunists who have observed the way Trump has exposed the weaknesses in our system and showed them how liberating the simple act of blatant shamelessness can be. They see how easily power can be seized, and that if the opponent doesn't have a countervailing institutional strength, there is nothing to stop them from keeping it.
On some level, many of them know this is dangerous. Just a little over four years ago party leaders were wringing their hands over the possibility that an ignorant brute like Trump could possibly win the Republican nomination.
He hasn't changed in the ensuing four years. They have. They've been seduced by the knowledge that they can get away with anything as long as they have the institutional power to do it. This week we learned that may includes denying the people their choice for the next president by openly manipulating the election.
They know that mail-in votes are perfectly legitimate. And they know that because their leader is so incompetent that the deadly pandemic is still raging in the country, many people would like to use that method to vote. They don't care. Their actions this week have shown that they are going to go along with Donald Trump's blatant plan to steal an election he almost certainly cannot win legitimately.
Rushing through a Supreme Court nominee, as I wrote on Wednesday, is simply a ploy to ensure that the lawsuits they already plan to file will end up before a court that has with five justices ready to install Trump for a second term. They probably don't need the sixth, but they have the opportunity to give themselves a cushion and they're taking it. That flagrant power play is part of a strategy meant to demonstrate that the millions of Americans who are watching all this unfold with a growing sense horror can't do anything about it. (Recall Trump's words to all 50 state governors in the wake of the protests over the George Floyd killing: "You have to dominate. If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time...." )
Trump was asked this week if he would agree to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the November election. As nearly everyone on the planet now knows. here's what he said:
It's a shocking statement, of course, and Trump was a fool to say that out loud, raising all kinds of fears that he wouldn't agree to leave if he loses. But despite some mainstream media buying into Republican "assurances" that there will of course be a peaceful transition, they largely missed what's really happening, as Dan Froomkin of Salon and Press Watch has pointed out.
Trump plans to "win." As I noted on Wednesday, Trump told his rally audience this last weekend:
Now we're counting on the federal court system to make it so that we can actually have an evening where we know who wins — not where the votes are going to be counted a week later, two weeks later.
Later in the week, he said this:
I think this will end up in the Supreme Court. And I think it's very important that we have nine justices. This scam that the Democrats are pulling — it's a scam — the scam will be before the United States Supreme Court. And I think having a 4-4 situation is not a good situation, if you get that. I don't know that you'd get that. I think it should be 8-0 or 9-0. But just in case it would be more political than it should be, I think it's very important to have a ninth justice.
He couldn't be any clearer about what he expects of his latest appointee if he put it in neon lights on the front of Trump Tower. He wants this election to end up before the Supreme Court and wants them to reappoint him on the basis of his bogus allegations of mail-in voting fraud. And his Republican accomplices did not contradict him.
Sure, they said there would be a peaceful transfer of power. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was weirdly specific about the date of the election in his comment, saying "the winner of the Nov. 3 election will be inaugurated on Jan. 20." Considering that the alleged disputes are going to be all about counting mail-in ballots after Nov. 3, this isn't the definitive statement many in the press took it for.
Indeed, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., introduced a bill on Thursday that would require all votes to be counted within the 48 hours around Election Day. Any votes not counted by then would be thrown out. Scott certainly knows no such bill will pass, which makes it all the more interesting that he would put that out there in the middle of this contentious campaign.
Many senators said that of course there would be a "peaceful transition," but none of them questioned the idea that the president was planning in advance on having the Supreme Court decide the election. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., reassuringly said that "Republicans will stand up if he loses and refuses to leave," as if that were the only question. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, expressed his dismay, but he is either too thick or too cynical to admit that his willingness to install a new justice right before the election is the mechanism by which Trump plans to illegitimately seize another term.
But leave it to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to put the new conventional wisdom about how this election will be decided right out there: "If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Joe Biden, I will accept that result." He later emphasized that "we need a full court" — and we know what that means.
All these Republicans know they could afford to wait until after the election is decided — in fact, under the normal terms of political self-interest, that would probably be smarter. But they are ready and willing to install a new Supreme Court justice before the election for the express purpose of handing Donald Trump a second term. If they succeed in doing so, they will irreparably destroy the legitimacy of the court, and quite possibly the legitimacy of our democratic system altogether.
But they don't care about that. After all, "legitimacy" is unnecessary if raw power is the only currency that matters. It's a shiny new American autocracy, and they're here for it.