Stephen Ayres was drawn to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021 by Donald Trump’s outrageously false claims that the presidential election had been stolen.
“I felt like I had horse blinders on,” the soft-spoken cabinetmaker from Ohio told the Congressional committee investigating the events of that day. “Take the blinders off, make sure you step back and see what’s going on before it’s too late.”
Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesman for the far-right group Oath Keepers, echoed Ayres’ warning: “I do fear for this next election cycle because who knows what that might bring.”
This is the most important lesson taught by the Jan. 6 panel. The real issue is the future, not the past. It’s 2024, not 2020. The country has to “take the blinders off” and realize that the Stop the Steal movement Trump instigated after the last election is morphing into a Start the Steal conspiracy that threatens to undermine democracy itself.
As Trump moves closer to announcing his candidacy for a second term, election expert and law professor Richard Hasen warns in the Washington Post: “Any attempt to subvert the next presidential election is likely to be far more efficient and ruthlessly targeted than the last effort.”
“The truth is that as bad as 2020 was, it could be worse next time around,” insists Michael Waldman, who heads the Brennan Center at NYU School of Law, which closely tracks threats to election integrity. “Trump’s coup try was clownish, incompetent, chaotic. ... Since then, the professionals have taken over,” Waldman wrote in a post for the center’s website.
Trump failed to overturn the 2020 results in large part because a cadre of officials, many of them Republicans, bravely resisted his tantrums and rejected his lies. Those resisters ranged from Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Bill Barr to governors and secretaries of states, local legislators and election officials, federal and state judges.
The system worked. The firewalls held. Democracy survived.
But now that system is under assault. Those firewalls are deliberately being weakened. The website FiveThirtyEight is tracking the views of every Republican candidate for statewide office and concludes, “we can say definitively that at least 120 election deniers have won their party’s nomination and will be on the ballot in the fall.”
This campaign of chaos continues. Take Arizona, a critical battleground in 2020 and likely to be one again. GOP Gov. Doug Ducey, who stood valiantly against Trump’s lies, is term-limited, and a leading candidate to replace him is Kari Lake, a former TV anchor who is endorsed by Trump and totally embraces his falsehoods and fantasies.
“Kari Lake is misleading voters with no evidence,” Ducey, who has endorsed Lake’s opponent in the Aug. 2 primary, said on CNN. “She’s been tagged by her opponents with a nickname, ‘Fake Lake,’ which seems to be sticking and actually doing some damage.”
If Start the Stealers like Lake take office, predicts Waldman, “they would not hesitate” to use their power to try “to block certification” of election results that go against Trump.
Republican-controlled legislatures are joining the plot. “New laws in Arkansas and Georgia recently gave state authorities the power to remove and temporarily replace local election officials,” reports Waldman. “They could, for example, remove election officials in Fulton County, Georgia, on a pretext, install their own candidate, and throw out ballots in the Atlanta area.”
This threat only begins with public officials. Other conspirators are seeking jobs as election overseers, and many of those slots are opening because Start the Stealers are making life miserable for local administrators who refuse to swallow Trump’s lies.
“The harassment and death threats haven’t stopped against those who have pushed back against the false claims,” reports PBS. “The threats have contributed to an exodus of election officials across the country, particularly at the local level, and made recruiting poll workers even harder — adding to the challenges of conducting smooth elections in the fall.”
Yet another threat to “smooth elections” comes from the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear a case next term from North Carolina that challenges the authority of state courts — which often stood firm against Trump’s tirades in 2020 — to oversee election disputes. Yet one more firewall could be in jeopardy.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is preparing legislation to clarify and strengthen protections against some of these threats to ballot integrity, and that would certainly be an important advance. But it’s primarily the voters who have to “take the blinders off” and thwart Trump and his Start the Steal movement.