Arizona’s Maricopa County is ground zero in the continuing debate over election integrity in the United States. The so-called audit of the 2.1 million votes cast in that county in last year’s presidential election—by the almost comically inept firm Cyber Ninjas—was supposed to arrive at the Arizona Senate this week. But delivery was once again delayed as three members of the five-person Ninja team contracted COVID-19.
The Maricopa “audit” has assumed such mythic proportions among the Trump diehards who insist that their Il Duce won the presidential election that some QAnon believers have insisted that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is a hoax—to distract attention from the allegations of vote-tampering in Arizona. No doubt rumors have begun somewhere in cyberspace that the forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and droughts sweeping across the world are also “false-flag operations” designed by the Biden camp to help them erase evidence of election fraud.
The Trump forces that have taken over the Republican Party regularly fulminate against The Squad, antifa, that “socialist Biden,” and other convenient punching bags. But the real target of their ire is closer to home: Republicans who have refused to join the Trump personality cult.
Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer is a very conservative Republican who supported Trump as his party’s leader. He has also refused to lie for the president. Prior to the release of the Cyber Ninja “audit,” he reiterated that a tri-partisan (Republican, Democrat, Libertarian) hand count of the ballots immediately after the election matched the machine count 100 percent while a live-streamed assessment of the tabulation equipment revealed no manipulations whatsoever.
Bill Gates is an Arizona Republican who serves on the Maricopa Board of Supervisors, which oversaw the 2020 election and certified the results. Gates is one of four Republicans who serve on the five-person board. He and his colleagues resisted calls for the Cyber Ninja audit even as his GOP colleagues in the Arizona Senate unanimously supported a resolution calling to arrest all the supervisors for contempt.
In a telling passage in Jane Mayer’s recent New Yorker piece on the financing of the anti-democratic initiatives of the far right, Gates spoke of the death threats that he received for what would ordinarily be the routine actions of the Board of Supervisors.
Part of what had drawn Gates to the Republican Party was the Reagan-era doctrine of confronting totalitarianism. He’d long had a fascination with emerging democracies, particularly the former Soviet republics. He had come up with what he admits was a “kooky” retirement plan—“to go to some place like Uzbekistan and help.” He told me, “I’d always thought that, if I had a tragic end, it would be in some place like Tajikistan.” He shook his head. “If you had told me, ‘You’re going to be doing this in the U.S.,’ I would have told you, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
Democracy promotion—it was supposed to be a method by which the United States remade the world to look more like us. Thus, the interchangeability of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the above passage couldn’t be more revealing. In traditional democracy promotion, the foreign contexts have been wildly diverse—and largely irrelevant. The important part of the equation has never been the various facts on the ground but, rather, the verities of the American constitutional system.
These verities are now under attack as insurrectionists, vigilante groups, and conspiracy theorists attempt to undermine the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. With Democrats rushing to promote democracy at home, Americans are now getting a taste of our own medicine.
Actually, given the rapid spread of the anti-democratic disease, we’re in desperate need of a full course of antibiotics.
Destroy Democracy to Save Democracy?
After the January 6 insurrection, I wrote about the future of democracy promotion overseas, concluding that the concept was still viable as long as democracy means not only checks and balances but also grassroots efforts to promote racial justice, reduce economic inequality, and address the climate crisis. At the end of the piece, though, I noted that “at some point in the future, we may need to call upon the international community to help us save our democracy as well.”
So, only six months later, how close is America to sending out that SOS? For the time being, much depends on Donald Trump.
In the best-case scenario, Trump exits the political scene as smoothly as he did the White House after one disastrous term. He continues to poll poorly in the country as a whole with a 60 percent disapproval rating (and only 76 percent of Republicans viewing him favorably). Still banned from Facebook and Twitter and largely ignored by the mainstream media, he lacks a platform to appeal beyond his base. And let’s not forget the multiple lawsuits he faces from election tampering, inciting violence on January 6, sexually assaulting at least two dozen women, and engaging in myriad corrupt business practices.
If Trump drops out of political life, his followers in the Republican Party will be left leaderless, though any number of rogues aspire to take his place. Without a broadly popular standard-bearer, the Trump forces would disintegrate and the Republican Party would face the inevitable. America is becoming increasingly multiracial (and the Republican Party isn’t). Climate change is raging across the country (and the Republican Party remains in denial). The United States needs to retool its economy to meet the demands of the global market and the constraints of natural resources (and the Republican Party still has its head in the tar sands).
In this scenario, Trump has been little more than a deus ex machina inserted into the final act of the Republican Party’s story to enable it to escape, momentarily, its self-inflicted marginality. Trump has been the last-ditch effort of America’s version of the Nationalist Party in South Africa, the minority Afrikaner party that presided over apartheid, to preserve white power.
Trump or no Trump, the Republican Party extremists have latched onto an age-old method of maintaining control: voter suppression. Democrats have demography on their side: African-American voters supported Biden over Trump by a margin of seven to one, Latinos by two to one, and Asians by almost two to one. Instead of trying to woo the non-white vote, which is growing every election cycle, Republicans have decided simply to make it as hard as possible for those folks to vote.
So far in 2021, 17 states have passed 28 laws making it harder to vote. Democrats in Texas fled the state to prevent one more such vote from passing, but that looks to be only a temporary gambit. Meanwhile, the omnibus voting rights bill (For the People Act) has attracted exactly zero Republican support in the Senate, which means that it will die without some modification of the filibuster. The narrower bill that just passed the House along party lines, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, faces a similar fate in the Senate.
Then there’s the effort among some Republican extremists to do an end run around the popular vote altogether by empowering state legislatures to pick electors in the Electoral College and thereby determine the outcome of presidential elections. They call it the “independent state legislature doctrine,” and unfortunately it has even attracted some support from four Supreme Court justices. In one 2024 scenario, Richard Hasen writes in Slate, “Republican legislatures in states won by the Democratic candidate could seize on some normal election administration rule created by a state or local election administrator or some ruling from a state court, and argue that implementation of the rule renders the presidential election unconstitutional, leaving it to the state legislature to pick a different slate of electors.”
So, all those careful arguments about Trump’s unpopularity, the divisions within the Republican Party, and the demographic transformation of the United States mean little in the face of a brazen power play by Republican stalwarts who have already demonstrated on multiple occasions that they could care less about rules, law, or the rule of law. Like the U.S. Army units in the Vietnam War that were determined to “save” Vietnamese villages by destroying them, the Republican Party is mission-driven to “save” American democracy in their own special way.
In between the voter suppression laws and ploys like the “independent state legislature doctrine” are the more insidious efforts to call into question the integrity of all elections that produce outcomes that Trump supporters simply don’t like. The spread of insane conspiracy theories undermines not only the impartiality of elections but the verifiability of their integrity. Conservative Republicans have time and again debunked the outlandish claims of “voter fraud” in Maricopa County, but that has not silenced the crazies.
Multiply Maricopa by the hundreds, even the thousands, and U.S. elections will no longer reflect popular will but extremist skepticism. When faith in elections erode, democracy can’t endure.
It would be comforting to report that the defeat of Donald Trump in 2020 has taken the wind out of the sails of the far right around the world. But the success of the far right relies on a globally networked set of ideas—the failures of neoliberal globalization, the perfidy of “globalists” in supporting this failed project, and the perception of immigrants as the foot soldiers of globalization—not any one figure.
In fact, Trump proved to be something of a liability to the global far right. He’s an American (a no-no among the anti-American right), a nationalist (who believes that America is better than everywhere else), and an ignoramus (whose gaffes are so gross as to embarrass the more discerning members of the far right). In America, Trump was the perfect candidate to unite disaffected independents, traditional conservatives, and the American alt-right. As his would-be Svengali Steve Bannon discovered in his failed effort to create a Nationalist International, Trump was not a grand unifier on the international stage.
Without Trump in the White House, the far right continues to prosper. In Europe, right-wing nationalists remain securely in power in Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia. A neo-fascist party leads the polls in Italy, the far-right Sweden Democrats are poised to exercise real power after helping to oust the Social Democratic prime minister, and the extremist Marine Le Pen continues to run head-to-head with Emmanuel Macron in presidential polls (though her Nationalist Rally didn’t do so well in recent regional elections).
Authoritarian nationalists still preside over the largest countries in the world: China, India, Russia, Brazil, Turkey. The Taliban has taken over in Afghanistan, the conservatives have come to power in Iran, and the Saudis are still running their extremist theocracy. In the one Arab Spring success story, Tunisia, Kais Saied just extended the state of emergency he declared last month. Coup leaders continue to control Thailand and Myanmar. It’s hard to find good news on the democracy front in Africa. Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela: all still run by strong-arm caudillos despite significant public protests.
All of this means that the list of countries that can pitch in to save American democracy is a short one. New Zealand and Iceland can teach Americans how gender equality is central to a healthy political system. South Korea can give us some pointers on how to put a Green New Deal at the center of national policy. A number of European countries can provide guidance on the importance of strong social policy for any thriving democracy.
Joe Biden plans to invite these countries to his Summit for Democracy in December. The three pillars of this initiative are reasonable: “defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, advancing respect for human rights.” Given the trends in the world, however, the gathering has a whiff of the desperate. It threatens to be a farewell party: “Alas, poor democracy, I knew it well for it hath borne me on its back a thousand times…”
It would be a different matter if Biden convened the summit as a true listening session. The Summit for Democracy could be an opportunity for America to admit that it has a problem and submit to a 12-step program of self-help, perhaps with a couple sponsors (South Korea, Costa Rica) to keep us on the road to political health.
But that’s just a fantasy. The United States doesn’t listen to other countries. America is like the alpha male who refuses to ask for directions even when he’s dangerously lost.
Right now, America is heading into uncharted political territory. Will any of our leaders ask for directions before it’s too late?
Foreign Policy In Focus, August 25, 2021