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The GOP’s post-Trump lesson: Power isn’t dependent on voting

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) serves as Republican Conference chair, the party’s third-highest leadership position in the House. She earned that position in part by doing what her predecessor, former Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney, wouldn’t: endorse Donald Trump’s false claims about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

It’s useful to remember that process following Stefanik’s weekend interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The authority she enjoys derives from Cheney’s willingness to speak electoral truth to Trump’s power — and the Republican Party’s eagerness to side with Trump rather than that truth. Since the election, and even after the violence that unfolded at the Capitol three years ago (the culmination of one thread in Trump’s ploy to retain power), Republicans see more political value in rejecting the will of voters that year than in respecting it.

This is perhaps the apex of a pattern that’s been in place since Trump first announced his candidacy in 2015: norms are flimsy barriers against accruing power, and voting/the counting of votes are just another norm.

“Meet the Press” host Kristen Welker asked Stefanik whether she would commit to respecting the results of the 2024 election. Stefanik said she would not.

“We will see if this is a legal and valid election,” she said at one point. “What we’re seeing so far is that Democrats are so desperate, they’re trying to remove President Trump from the ballot.”

This is a reference to state-level efforts to block Trump’s candidacy based on his efforts to reject his 2020 loss. The issue will be considered by the Supreme Court next month.

Stefanik noted — boasted, perhaps — that she voted against accepting Pennsylvania’s submitted electors in the hours following the Capitol riot. She argued that what happened in that state was the sort of thing that would give her pause about certifying in 2024.

“I voted not to certify the state of Pennsylvania,” Stefanik said, “because, as we saw in Pennsylvania and other states across the country, that there was unconstitutional acts circumventing the state legislature and unilaterally changing election law.”

This would be a fascinating argument if it weren’t both disingenuous and dangerous. The reality is that, in Pennsylvania, there was no such question. The claim that Pennsylvania conducted its general election illegitimately was contrived after the fact to give cover to those who wanted to align with Trump’s rejection of his loss in that state but not have to claim that rampant voter fraud occurred, since it obviously didn’t.

The argument was first elevated nationally by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) a few days before the riot. He claimed that legislators changed the law to allow mail-in ballots in violation of the state constitution. What he didn’t mention was that this change was made by the Republican-led state legislature in 2019, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Nor did he note that the state Supreme Court had rejected the argument in November 2020, with justices noting both the lack of evidence of fraud and the severity of throwing out all mail-in ballots that had been cast in good faith. (Another challenge came before the court in 2022; it, too, was rejected.)

Stefanik and other Republicans wanted Trump to retain power and latched onto the Pennsylvania argument as a way to do so. It was not, as she argued on Sunday, the other way around.

This wasn’t the only moment in which Stefanik picked up Trump’s rhetoric about the election.

“I have concerns about the treatment of January 6th hostages,” Stefanik said, parroting a term used by Trump in a clip that aired shortly beforehand. “I have concerns — we have a role in Congress of oversight over our treatments of prisoners. And I believe that we’re seeing the weaponization of the federal government against not just President Trump, but we’re seeing it against conservatives.”

This runs parallel to her we-can’t-be-sure-the-election-was-legit line of argument: It’s a rationalization of the actions of the Jan. 6 rioters, people who used violence to try to help Trump preserve the power he had fooled them into believing he deserved. Stefanik’s words are a deliberate diminution of that effort and, in effect, a tacit approval of it.

You can see why she does it. Trump wants to present his various indictments as one part of a broad effort to target the right rather than as a specific response to his actions. And Stefanik is eager to continue to ingratiate herself with Trump — and to help Trump regain power for their party. But the effect is to shrug at a process by which people attempt to make presidential power dependent on physical power.

That Trump’s been doing the same thing is not new but is notable. There is a new manifestation of Trump’s indifference to respecting the outcomes of elections, though. In Illinois, candidates have been asked for decades to voluntarily commit not to endorse overthrowing the American government — a relic of the Red Scare era. In 2016 and 2020, Trump signed that pledge. This year, he did not.

The campaign released a statement over the weekend.

“President Trump will once again take the oath of office on January 20th, 2025,” spokesman Steven Cheung said, “and will swear ‘to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”

Cheung raises a good point, though he didn’t mean to: Getting Trump to commit to faithfully execute his presidential duties and respect the Constitution is a hollow commitment.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party in Michigan is in turmoil following a vote by members to oust Kristina Karamo as party chair. Karamo earned that position after losing her bid to serve as Michigan’s secretary of state, having earned the nomination in part thanks to her vocal embrace of Trump’s election-fraud rhetoric. She lost by 14 points but, true to form, refused to acknowledge her loss.

Her response to the vote to remove her from her position? The vote was illegitimate and she was still the party’s chair.

There are other examples of how Republicans have fought to combat election results, from the arrest of county officials in Arizona for refusing to certify 2022 results to the nearly three dozen Republicans indicted or sanctioned for participating in the 2020 fake-electors plot — the effort that was linked to Stefanik’s post-riot vote on Pennsylvania. All of it downstream from Trump’s attempt to stay in power.

This doesn’t mean that Trump was necessary for this shift. The GOP has long attempted to elevate the idea that elections are riddled with fraud, creating an opening for legislation that might make it more difficult for traditionally Democratic voters to cast ballots.

Trump picked up that rhetoric and used it for his own purposes. Then he took it far further, challenging not just the vote margin in close races but building and rewarding a universe in which any loss could be treated as dubious. He and his allies refused to see Nov. 7, 2020 — the day the race was called — as the end point of their effort. They refused to see Dec. 14, the day electors met, as the endpoint. They refused to see Jan. 6, 2021, as the endpoint.

It’s a full-court press on democracy that extends beyond the 2020 presidential election. The rationalizations of Stefanik and the opportunism of Karamo show how it persists. The rhetoric of Trump and Stefanik shows its most acute dangers.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post