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Trump's coup was foiled by key Republicans — but their ranks are shrinking

Trump’s campaign of denial was abetted by his fellow Republicans. What will they do next?
Image: Ted Cruz fist bumps with a house member followed by Josh Hawley.
Senator Ted Cruz fist bumps with a House member during a break in a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021.Erin Schaff / AFP via Getty Images

Until recently, the official website of the St. Croix County Republican Party in Wisconsin bore the words, in Latin and English: "If you want peace, prepare for war." Even after objections following last week's violent storming of the U.S. Capitol, which included the county sheriff's posting a message on the department's Facebook page saying he was "shocked and disheartened" by the tone, members at first refused to remove the slogan. (The site was reported to be down Wednesday.)

What happens next time if that fringe is in a position to determine the outcome of a presidential election?

This may seem like an anecdote from the fringe. But on Jan. 6, two-thirds of the House GOP caucus voted against certifying Electoral College votes from Pennsylvania, and more than a quarter of GOP senators had indicated that they had planned to do the same thing.

What happens next time if that fringe is in a position to determine the outcome of a presidential election?

That is what is at stake in the division breaking out in GOP ranks. Decisions by the likes of Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who voted in favor of the article of impeachment, will highlight the stark choice that Republicans now have to make: Will they put President Donald Trump first? Or their country?

It's not just the future of the GOP that's at stake; the outcome may shape our elections for years. As Trump's presidency disintegrates, now may be a good time to ask some important "what ifs" to best prepare — for whatever comes next.

For instance, what if rioters at the Capitol had turned left instead of right and were able to enter the Senate chamber? What if the assault that resulted in five deaths had turned into a much larger mass casualty event?

According to an FBI memo the day before the Jan. 6 attack, an online thread urged Trump supporters to "be ready to fight": "Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our president or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal."

That was the plan, and we now know how close they came to pulling off.

Law enforcement recovered Molotov cocktails, explosive devices, rifles and zip ties. Democratic House members have been told that future plots could "involve insurrectionists forming a perimeter around the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court, and then blocking Democrats from entering the Capitol ― perhaps even killing them ― so that Republicans could take control of the government."

We’ve seen the potency of the big lie, how it spreads, and how easily Republicans voters were willing to embrace falsehoods.

What if a member of Congress had been held hostage or, worse, murdered on a livestream? The attackers then would have achieved their goal: They would have derailed the counting of the electoral votes and forced Congress into hiding. At least for a time, they would have overthrown the normal functions of government, and Trump would have had the chaos he was counting on to hold on to power.

But the "what ifs" aren't limited to these acts of violence, because the attack on the Capitol was only one aspect of the attempt to overturn a democratic election based on a "big lie."

The lie was, of course, the notion that the election was stolen, that Trump was being denied a second term because of massive fraud. Those allegations were rebutted by Trump's own attorney general and rejected by every court that looked at them. Recounts and audits failed to turn up any significant problems.

Even so, Trump continued to push false claims and conspiracy theories, which were amplified through the right's vast media ecosystem. As a result, roughly three-quarters of Republicans believe President-elect Joe Biden's victory was illegitimate.

For weeks, the vast majority of elected Republicans refused to acknowledge Trump's defeat, even after the states formally cast their votes Dec. 14. In the end, of course, Biden's victory was ratified. But the success of the big lie still raises questions.

What if this election had actually been close? What would Republicans have done if the contest had been decided by a single state, rather than by six swing states? And what if some local Republican officials hadn't been bulwarks of election integrity?

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey refused to take a cellphone call from the White House as he certified the state's votes. In Michigan, Republican legislators rebuffed Trump's pressure to overturn the election results and install a new slate of electors, and a GOP member of the Board of State Canvassers named Aaron Van Langevelde voted to certify Biden's victory.

In Georgia, both Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger resisted Trump's demands to "find" him enough votes to flip the state. Raffensperger and aide Gabriel Sterling — both Republicans — repeatedly refuted Trump's lies about the election.

Again and again, they fact-checked the president while seeking to reassure voters about the integrity of the system. Even after the famous recorded phone call in which the president threatened Raffensperger with possible criminal penalties, he refused demands that he "recalculate" the vote.

In state after state, enough Republicans in key positions protected the election. But those Republicans may be a dying breed.

In state after state, Republicans in positions of responsibility protected the election. But those Republicans may turn out to be a dying breed.

The future may well belong not to Republicans who believe in the rule of law but to Republicans like Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Ted Cruz of Texas — or Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama, Matt Gaetz of Florida or even Elise Stefanik of New York — who have embraced the big lie even after the attack on the Capitol.

Don't assume it can't happen. Because at the grassroots level, Republicans continue to be radicalized.

In Texas, state Republican leaders have openly discussed secession. In Arizona, the GOP promoted a tweet asking whether followers were willing to die for Trump; the party's state chair retweeted a message calling for the president to "cross the Rubicon," a reference to Julius Caesar's act that launched a Roman civil war.

Just days after the Capitol insurrection, the Maricopa County, Arizona, GOP passed a resolution to censure John McCain's widow, Cindy, for failing to support Trump.

What if, instead of Raffensperger, someone like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter, had been in charge of counting Georgia's votes? What if, instead of Kemp, it had been a Trump loyalist like former Sen. Kelly Loeffler who agreed to object to certifying her state's votes? (She later backed off.)

In Arizona, what would have happened if Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, who objected to counting his own state's votes, had been sitting in the governor's chair instead of Doug Ducey?

What if, in the next election, Michigan had a Republican governor who was pressured by right-wing media and the GOP base to void the popular vote based on unproven charges and baseless conspiracy theories?

None of this is fanciful. We've seen the potency of the big lie, how it spreads and how easily Republican voters were willing to embrace it. We also saw the power of lies to influence elected Republicans to reject the results of a free and fair election.

This time, the system worked. We may not be so lucky the next time around.