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The recent failure of the Senate to approve a proposed Jan. 6 commission and the removal of National Guard troops from the Capitol have returned attention to the events of that day, as has the back-and-forth between congressional Democrats pushing the federalization (and loosening) of election rules and Republican state legislatures around the country seeking to tighten those same rules.

Two broad narratives are at play. Most Republican officeholders (though not former President Trump) have abandoned the “stolen election” line in favor of the notion that what happened on Jan. 6, though regrettable, has been blown out of proportion for partisan reasons. Democrats, on the other hand, see Jan. 6 as a crime against democracy, the blame for which rests entirely at the feet of Donald Trump and the Republicans.

Bipartisan Mayhem

Democrats are right that Republicans are in denial about the true character of Jan. 6. In essence, the president of the United States spent two months alleging a stolen election without sufficient evidence to carry his case, then encouraged a large crowd to march on the Capitol in hopes of forcing Congress and/or the vice president to forgo their constitutional duty in what is normally the pro forma counting of the electoral votes. Whether or not Trump intended the riot that ensued, it was a profoundly disturbing display of presidential demagoguery and narcissism.

However, Democrats are wrong that they share none of the responsibility for the fiasco. In fact, there are five distinct ways that they or their allies contributed to the intensity of the post-election dispute. Whether one acknowledges that fact makes a great deal of difference to how one perceives H.R. 1 and Republican efforts in the states.

Jan. 6 and the whole train of events leading to it are best seen as a perfect storm, the culmination of years of growing polarization and mutual partisan mistrust in which neither side was innocent. Donald Trump was, to be sure, the primary actor. Starting on election night, Trump made incendiary claims that he and his legal team could not support. When those claims failed in court and the certified electors met to vote 306-232 for Joe Biden, Trump refused to concede, taking a series of steps that threw fuel on the fire. These included suggesting that Republican legislatures appoint alternate electors, entertaining Michael Flynn at the White House as he proposed that the president institute “limited martial law,” pleading with Georgia’s secretary of state that “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” and demanding that Vice President Mike Pence use a discretion he did not properly possess to refuse to count electoral votes from disputed Biden states.

Trump supporters rally on the Ellipse as Congress prepares to certify Joe Biden's victory.

Had Trump been baying by himself, nothing would have happened. As it turned out, millions of his supporters believed him. According to surveys, more than half of Republican voters thought the election was stolen. Democrats and their allies in the media and academia have a simple, self-serving, explanation: Republicans are just plain stupid. Or evil. Or both.

In reality, Democrats did much over many years to assure that Trump would have a receptive audience among ordinary Republicans.

First, as many Republicans pointed out in the days leading up to Jan. 6, Democrats had already blazed quite a trail for those questioning the validity of presidential election results. In fact, in the three previous Republican presidential wins — 2000, 2004, and 2016 — one or more Democratic members of Congress objected to the counting of electoral votes. If they didn’t cite the Florida recount, it was Diebold machines in Ohio; if not Diebold machines, allegations that Trump had colluded with Russian election interference. Indeed, unwillingness to accept Trump’s election led to riots in numerous cities on election night 2016, more riots in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day 2017, and a two-year-long investigation of Russian interference that turned out to be, to use a phrase much repeated in late 2020, “baseless.” Trump’s victory was never accepted as legitimate by his opponents.

If one wishes, one can go back earlier than 2000. In 1988, Democrats did not formally object to electors, but widely blamed their loss on George H. W. Bush’s “racist” campaign highlighting the convict Willie Horton, though it was Al Gore who first brought Willie Horton into the conversation in the New York Democratic primary. For a time in the early 1990s, Democrats blamed Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory on a secret deal his campaign made with the Ayatollah Khomeini to delay release of the Iran hostages, until an extensive House investigation concluded the allegation was, again, baseless. Some even tied George McGovern’s loss to Watergate, as if a 49-state wipeout could be explained by a wiretap of the Democratic National Committee that stopped operating nearly half a year before Election Day. The last Republican presidential winner whose legitimacy was not challenged by at least some Democrats was Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

Opportunity and Motive

Democrats then left a door wide open to Republican suspicions by championing emergency COVID voting changes that reduced the barriers to potential fraud. In some cases, this meant mailing ballots to every registered voter, loosening deadlines for the return of ballots, eliminating or reducing signature-verification requirements for mailed ballots, permitting “ballot harvesting,” and permitting or requiring unsupervised drop boxes for ballots. Sometimes federal or state courts demanded such changes and sometimes Republican legislatures or election officials participated in these moves, but there was little question that Democrats were the primary drivers. Most Democrats undoubtedly saw their own motives as pure, but Republicans had to ask: Why are Democrats so anxious to eliminate measures that ensure ballot security?

Republicans did not accept blithe assurances that fraud is simply a non-issue, and they were right not to. As recently as 2018, a congressional election in North Carolina was vacated and re-run due to fraud, and it is likely that mail-ballot elections are in fact more vulnerable to fraud than other methods. Whatever the actual incidence of fraud in 2020, there can be little doubt that conditions conducive to greater fraud were created by the 2020 voting reforms.

Of course, if the political temperature had been lower, the existence of greater opportunity for fraud would not necessarily have led Republicans to be more willing to believe it actually happened. Unfortunately, Democrats had spent the previous four years raising the volume to 11, effectively convincing Trump supporters that their foes would stop at nothing to hurt him. From the dubious Russia investigations to the transparent smear executed against Brett Kavanaugh to the first impeachment, Democrats gave the appearance of allowing no scruples to interfere with the goal of tearing down Trump or his initiatives. Democrats extolled this scorched-earth opposition as “the resistance.” Republicans saw it as “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” a state of mind that could easily lead Democrats into further extremes.

Unbalanced Media and Rationalized Riots

Fourth, the Democratic-leaning press — that is to say, 95% of the mass media — had become so flagrantly unbalanced during the Trump years that ordinary Republicans had lost all trust in it. If in 1968 Walter Cronkite had told them that an election was not stolen, they would likely have believed him, but by 2020 the New York Times and CNN had given Republicans no reason to take their word for it and every reason to expect that they were shading the truth. It is essential for the media to play it straight and not openly pick sides, and there are few better examples proving the point than in late 2020. When the country badly needed a respected media to help establish a baseline of agreed-upon facts, it was nowhere to be found. One can blame Fox News, and some blame would not be misplaced; but, in the end, Rachel Maddow was as much the problem as Sean Hannity. The Times and CNN may have been right about Trump’s “stolen election” claims, but it was hard for ordinary Republicans to see that truth, buried as it was under the rubble of retracted Russiagate “scoops,” the 1619 Project, and television reports describing summer 2020’s “mostly peaceful protests” while city blocks burned in the background.

Anarchy in the summer of 2020 helped seed the ground for the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

Altogether, Democrats had long established the precedent of refusing to accept the legitimacy of unfavorable presidential elections, had systematically reduced barriers to fraud, had demonstrated no ethical compunctions about using every tool at their disposal to bring down Trump, and had suborned the bulk of the media so successfully that most Republicans found it completely untrustworthy. The final ingredient needed for the conflagration was the support given by the Democratic Party, the liberal media, and the progressive academy for the insurrectionary violence that consumed major American cities last summer. To refresh the memory, that violence led to two dozen deaths, over $1.5 billion in property damage, a siege of the White House, a nightly attack on the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., and the creation of an “autonomous zone” in Seattle. Unfortunately, lawlessness is a contagion not easily confined once let loose. Moreover, widespread rationalization and embrace of lawlessness on the left not only gave a sort of permission for lawlessness on the right but also provided it a motive by giving an existential cast to the political conflict of 2020.  

None of this absolves Donald Trump from his responsibility for exploiting the situation. Without Trump’s demagoguery, there would have been no crisis following the election of 2020. But without Democrats and their media allies aggressively setting the stage, Trump’s demagoguery would have had a much smaller audience. To put it another way, Trump provided the post-election supply of demagoguery, but Democrats had already done a great deal to stoke the demand.

Andrew E. Busch is Crown Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. He is co-author of “Divided We Stand: The 2020 Elections and American Politics” (Rowman & Littlefield).

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