Win or lose, California recall embodies the GOP's embrace of Trump's anti-democracy politics

Republicans can't win fairly, so they turn instead to cheating, trickery, and, of course, hyping the Big Lie

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published September 14, 2021 1:12PM (EDT)

Larry Elder and Gavin Newsom (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Larry Elder and Gavin Newsom (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The stakes of the California recall election of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom couldn't be higher. Voting, either by mail or in person, ends Tuesday, and if Newsom is recalled, the bluest state in the country will not just have a Republican governor, but Larry Elder, a right-wing talk radio host who is a loon even by the standards of the party that elected Donald Trump.

If Elder wins, he threatens California's fragile recovery from the pandemic, since, like most Republicans these days, he's running interference for the virus. Plus, he would have the power to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is literally 88 years old, if she were to leave office — and one name that's being floated is Elder's protege and white nationalist former Trump advisor Stephen Miller. 

In a normal circumstance, someone like Elder — he suggested Women's March participants are too ugly to rape and argued that it's the descendants of slave owners and not slaves that deserve reparations — would never have a chance of winning the governorship of a deep blue state like California. Unable to win in a free and fair election, however, Republicans in the state have turned to dirty tricks and shenanigans. The entire Republican strategy is built around suppressing voter turnout through confusing and demoralizing the public. The recall ballots are confusing, and may lead voters to not understand that voting yes on recalling Newsom automatically means voting yes on his replacement being a Republican. Republicans are also counting on pandemic-induced disillusionment to keep Democratic voters from bothering to mail in ballots at all. 

In other words, the California recall is a microcosm of what has become the GOP's national strategy. 

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Republicans have given up entirely on the basic premise of democracy. They no longer think that politicians should try to appeal to a majority of citizens to win power. Instead, their focus is entirely on finding ways to circumvent public will and gain power anyway. In some states, this manifests as gerrymandering, outright voter suppression and even a new slate of laws meant to allow Republican officials to simply vacate the results of elections they don't like. In California, it's about forcing an off-year election in the most confusing way possible, hoping to hoodwink voters into accidentally giving themselves a Republican governor. 

Regardless of the state-specific method, what holds all of this together is a widespread rejection within the Republican Party of the right of the people to choose their own leaders. Republicans feel entitled to rule, no matter what, and therefore feel entitled to lie, cheat, and steal their way to power. The technical legality of the California recall election doesn't change this reality. The spirit of the whole enterprise is driven by a willingness of Republicans to find some backhanded way to force a governor on the state that they know very well the majority of Californians do not want. 

Ultimately, it comes down to the increasingly rigid Republican belief that most Americans are not legitimate citizens and therefore have no right to vote Republicans are bound to respect. This belief manifests most commonly in the Big Lie, which is metastasizing beyond Trump's false claims that he lost the 2020 election due to "fraud". Already, right-wing pundits and Republican politicians are prepping their followers for the possibility that Newsom survives the recall with an updated version of the Big Lie, claiming the election is "rigged" and that Newsom will only win through "voter fraud."

No real evidence of actual fraud that could swing an election is ever produced with these relentless Big Lie claims, but then again, it doesn't need to be.

"Voter fraud" is not really a literal belief among Republicans, but more a code phrase to convey the larger belief that most legal voters shouldn't have the right to vote at all. To call these legal voters "frauds" is to contest the legitimacy of their citizenship. It functions in the same way as conspiracy theories about Barack Obama's birth certificate did, as a way for conservatives to signal to each other a belief that the first Black president is not a "real" American. With the Big Lie, the group of people who conservatives refuse to admit are legitimate citizens has grown to encompass pretty much anyone who votes for the Democrats. 

This notion that most Americans aren't "real" Americans and therefore are "fraud" voters has become a majority belief among Republican voters. A recent CNN poll, which found that 6 in 10 Republican voters said that affirming the Big Lie — which again, is code for the belief that Democratic votes are inherently illegitimate — is an important part of being a Republican. We see this in the support for the January 6 insurrection that has been quietly solidifying among the GOP base. It all goes back to a belief that if Republicans can't win a fair election, they should be able to cheat their way into power — or, if that fails, use violent force. 

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As Igor Derysh reported last week for Salon, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is facing down a similarly sleazy power grab by Republicans in Michigan. Republicans in the state legislature are trying to pass an anti-voting bill to keep those voters they see as illegitimate — particularly urban residents and Black voters — from casting ballots. To get around Whitmer's veto, they're using the same tactic that California Republicans used to force a recall, exploiting an ill-advised loophole that allows a shockingly small number of petitioners to force the issue. In this case, it's not a recall, but even worse, the ability simply overrule the decision of a duly elected governor. Democrats in the state are accusing Republicans of using a "playbook of losing, lying, and attempting to cheat their way into office."

It's not just a fair accusation, but such an obvious observation that it's verging on banal. It's the playbook that fueled Trump's failed coup and is currently fueling Elder's attempt to seize the California governor's office through the back door. Elections are increasingly not going to be contests of two candidates trying to appeal to voters, but a Democratic candidate appealing to voters while a Republican candidate tries to find some way to get around that pesky "democracy" problem. Newsom will probably survive this recall effort, but the country is going to have a much harder time surviving the relentless GOP assault on democracy. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Big Lie California Recall Capitol Riot Commentary Donald Trump Gavin Newsom Larry Elder