AUTHOR: Jonathan V. Last
The Autopsy Is Happening Right Now
In the days after Democrats unseated an incumbent president and won unified control of Congress, the victorious party went though a round of self-analysis and recriminations.
The Republicans, who managed a trifecta of losing that hadn’t been accomplished since Herbert Hoover, doubled down. Then they backed up their bets, split 4s, and doubled down again.
People were confused as to why the losing party didn’t conduct an autopsy to try to figure out what went wrong.
Except that they did. It wasn’t a traditional autopsy in the sense that there was no formal committee and the project wasn’t centered around getting more votes in future elections. But it’s clear that Republicans are in the midst of a crowd-sourced attempt to figure out how to win the presidency in 2024.
There are three ways to capture the presidency:
(1) Win a lot more votes than the opposing candidate.
(2) Get fewer votes, but win pluralities in enough states to get 270 certified and counted Electoral Votes.
(3) Get fewer votes and fewer Electoral Votes, but prevent the official counting and certification of the Electoral Votes—and then win a majority of state delegations when the contest is shifted to Congress.
You can win the presidency even while getting blown out in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, provided your party:
Controls the House and Senate.
Constitutes a congressional majority in 26 states.
Has sufficient raw political will.
Five years ago this scenario would have sounded like a nightmare designed to scare children; democracy’s version of the Baba Yaga.
Today it’s just an alternative path to power.
After all, it’s right there in the rules. How could anyone possibly object?
And if you ask Conservatism Inc. they’ll tell you how beside-the-point “democracy” is, anyhow.
The Republican Game Plan
When Republicans conducted their autopsy, they skipped “How to Win Option 1” and went straight to Options 2 and 3—leapfrogging the question of how to get more votes and focusing on how to use institutional leverage to take power even while losing popular majorities.
Option 2—the path of least resistance—is for Republicans to change voting rules at the state level in the hopes that they can drive down the number of Democratic votes cast and win the Electoral College despite being a persistent minority. A lot has been written about these various initiatives, some of which are more grotesque than others.
But the real cutting edge work being done as a result of the GOP autopsy concerns Option 3: Figuring out how a Republican can win the presidency even while losing the popular vote and the Electoral College.
Just go by the numbers: It is likely Republicans will have majorities in the congressional delegations of at least 26 states for the foreseeable future. They have a >50 percent chance of winning the House in 2022 and a pretty good shot at flipping the Senate.
So the first two preconditions for winning the presidency while losing the election are very much on the table.
Which leaves just one project: Mustering the political will to move past both the popular vote and the Electoral College.
In 2020, many elected Republicans lacked the will to use the means that would have been necessary to stop the certification and counting of Electoral Votes:
In Michigan, the election results were certified only because a single Republican member of the state canvassing board, Aaron Van Langevelde, broke party ranks and voted to certify them.
In Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refused direct requests from the president of the United States to change the official tally of the state’s votes.
In Pennsylvania, enough Republicans in the state legislature declined the president’s entreaty to create an alternate slate of electors.
Once the Electoral Votes were sent to Washington, more than half of the Republican members of Congress objected to the counting of the Electoral Votes—but it wasn’t enough to stop the process.
So the key parts of the Republican autopsy have been (1) building the political will to use raw power next time and (2) removing the Republican officials who were not willing to comply last time.
That’s why Republican state parties have censured nearly every Republican who did not participate in Trump’s attempted coup.
That’s why Brad Raffensperger is the target of a primary challenge in Georgia.
That’s why Michigan Republicans replaced Aaron Van Langevelde with a more reliable partisan on the state canvassing board.
That’s why Nevada Republicans are attacking Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, the only Republican to have won state-wide office in 2018. (Even though she is a Republican, Cegavske refused to go along with the attempt to overturn Nevada’s result.)
That’s why Republicans in Arizona have introduced HB 2720. Here’s the relevant section of the bill:
The Legislature retains its legislative authority regarding the office of presidential elector and by majority vote at any time before the presidential inauguration may revoke the Secretary of State’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election.
Ladies and gentlemen: Behold the fruit of the Republican autopsy.
Meanwhile, Conservatism Inc. is doing its part to devalue and delegitimize democracy, seeding the ground for moving past both the popular vote and the Electoral College.
The Big Lie is actually the biggest insight to come from the Republican autopsy. Republicans and their enablers discovered that if they make false, evidence-free claims often and loudly enough, then the vast majority of their voters will believe them.
And then, once Republican voters were onboard, they found that the rest of the party elites would either join them or stay silent. Only a handful of Republicans dared to object. And those figures are in the process of being either defeated or coopted.
By insisting that Trump was the real winner of 2020, Republicans have created a trifecta of preconditions within their base going into 2024:
There is a pent-up demand for retribution.
These voters will not believe that election results unfavorable to them are legitimate.
These voters will be primed ahead of time to demand that elected Republicans satisfy their desired outcome, by any means necessary.
Which is to say: Republicans are already well on their way to marshaling the political will to do whatever the law even theoretically might allow in pursuit of power.
And even though the success of such a gambit is a longshot given all of the various failure points, since political power is derived from their voters, many Republicans politicians will be incentivized to embrace the challenge anyway, since they will gain power within the party from the voters who have been primed to demand such a fight
The difference between the 2020 and the 2024 elections will be the difference between a reactive Republican party focused on trying to flip the Electoral College and a proactive Republican party prepared to move past the Electoral College to the next pathway to victory.
Those are the lessons of the 2020 Republican autopsy. Ignore them at your peril.
This is how authoritarianism starts. A society goes from the rule of law, to rule by law—where the minority gets just enough power to change the laws so that they can amass more power.
And here is a serious question: If Republicans managed enough votes to sustain an objection to counting Electoral Votes, what would our recourse be? Crossing our fingers and hoping that the Supreme Court steps in?
What we are seeing—in broad daylight—is another proof of the idea that democracy runs on the honor system. If you have two parties and one of them is openly attempting to subvert democracy . . . well, good luck.
The time to fight against authoritarianism isn’t December 2024. It’s now.