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Littwin: It’s much easier to say that U.S. democracy is under attack than to figure out what to do about it

Atlantic writer Barton Gellman says Trump and his allies are already preparing for the next coup attempt. And that the Jan. 6 insurrection was just so much practice.

I have a young progressive friend who is working toward a Ph.D. and plans to be a professor of something or other.

We’re coffee shop friends, and when we bump into each other, which is often, we usually take time to discuss the issues of the day and typically end our conversation — one nearly always laced with laughter — deeply depressed. 

We agree on most issues. But what he’s seeking from an old sage (OK, if you buy the old, you’ll give me some slack on sage) is a vision, a guide, a path on what the hell to do. Now.

What’s depressing is every answer I come up with.

Mike Littwin

I mean, my best answer is to persuade Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and a few other Senate Democratic holdouts — the ones who have yet to reveal themselves — to carve out an exception to the filibuster rules to allow up-or-down votes on bills advancing voting reform and renewing the Voting Rights Act. 

Time is running out — and I don’t mean that in the way that we talk about, or don’t talk about, the existential threat of climate change. I mean that if Democrats want to counter the voter suppression laws that have been passed in many Republican-led states, they have to do it now. To upend gerrymandering, they have to do it now. 

Republicans are hard at work, uh, amending the voting rules for next time in states like Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, looking to see where Trump fell short in 2020 — besides, you know, the actual votes — and making the fixes.

As it is, Trump is busily hunting down every Republican who didn’t fully back him in 2020. As a prime example, just look at what’s happening in Georgia. There’s Gov. Brian Kemp, a strong Trump ally who nevertheless had the nerve to say his state’s election was fairly held. Now Trump has gotten former Sen. David Perdue to primary him. Also being primaried, of course, is Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia Secretary of State who refused Trump’s request to “find” him 10,000 votes. Trump is happy to destroy the Republican Party, too, if it benefits him.

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Yes, we’re running out of time. In fact, since it’s given that Republicans would challenge in court any election law that Democrats passed, it might already be too late to do anything in time for the midterms in 2022, which could mean it would be too late to do anything until the next census. Or if you look at the Supreme Court we have now, you wonder if anything can be done, ever.

But if it can, it has to be done now. No Christmas recess. No recess of any kind. Nothing moves until two stalled voting rights bills move to Biden’s desk. 

That’s the best I can come up with, and I have a feeling that Hamilton, Madison and the rest of the Founding Fathers, such as they were, would be disappointed.

I just advised my friend to read this stunningly depressing piece in The Atlantic by Barton Gellman on the state of American democracy.

The headline: “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.

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The subhead: “January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election.”

The issue hit the stands — or, in my case, my inbox — just as Biden was about to host the virtual Summit for Democracy at a time when American democracy is in, well, crisis. As leader of the free world, as representative of the shining city on the hill, how do you begin to address that?

Biden repeated pretty much what he said during his inauguration, which you’ll remember, came only two weeks after the Donald Trump-encouraged assault on the Capitol.

“I wanted to host this summit because here is the — here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort,” Biden said Thursday. He then said, risking understatement, “American democracy is an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions.”

So, how do you think that’s going?

The democracy summit was supposed to be about the threat from autocrats in, say, Russia or China, or democracies under assault in places like Turkey and Hungary. Autocracy vs. democracy is the new Cold War. And yet, the subtext of the meeting was Jan. 6 and the likelihood that Trump will run again in 2024. 

If Trump, friend to autocrats, runs again, he will do so — because it’s his lone issue — on the Big Lie that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen from him. If he doesn’t run, it will be someone who presents himself or herself as Trump In Waiting.

And so Gellman writes: “Democrats, big and small D, are not behaving as if they believe the threat is real. Some of them, including President Joe Biden, have taken passing rhetorical notice, but their attention wanders. They are making a grievous mistake.”

As Gellman points out, Biden has said we’re facing the greatest threat to American democracy since the Civil War, so why isn’t he saying so every hour of every day? Why isn’t he demanding that Democrats stop everything to rectify this now? Could it have something to do with his fast-falling voter-approval numbers?

In a special Atlantic issue on the threat to American democracy, editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg says we have to understand this is not one of those both-sides-are-rotten issues. Goldberg writes: “The leaders of the Republican Party — the soul-blighted Donald Trump and the satraps and lackeys who abet his nefarious behavior — are attempting to destroy the foundations of American democracy. This must be stated clearly, and repeatedly.”

It’s up to Democrats to challenge that, and there are only 50 Democrats in the Senate, meaning they have absolutely no margin for error, no margin for Joe Manchin, no margin but to agree that whatever can be done, must be done.

Gellman has bona fides. Before the 2020 election, he wrote a piece in the Atlantic laying out how Trump might, in fact, attempt a coup. Among his predictions were that Trump could “try to maneuver in the Electoral College to persuade Republican legislatures in states that are still in contention to bypass the popular vote and simply appoint electors for Trump.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

And so we had the Jan. 6 insurrection. And we had advice to Mike Pence on how to overturn an election from former CU scholar John Eastman. And so we had, in the night following the Capitol assault, a majority of House Republicans voting not to accept the electors from certain states. And just read the memo that former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows gave the House January 6 select committee before deciding, like many close to Trump, not to cooperate with the committee.

And now Gellman writes: “Technically, the next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect.”

Is this a real possibility? Could something like that happen here, or is it just so much alarmism?  After all, as Joe Biden likes to say, this is America, people.

Yes, it is America. For now. But it looks like we may have just enough time to ask: For how much longer?


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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