On November 22, 2000, a phalanx of chino-clad Republican operatives descended on Florida’s Miami-Dade County polling headquarters, where local officials were scrambling to complete a manual recount of ballots cast in the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Swarming the lobby of the government high rise, the GOP protesters chanted and banged on the glass wall as local officials inside attempted to review ballots. Faced with an increasingly dangerous situation, the county canvassing board abandoned its recount, which had seemed poised to deliver a substantial number of votes for Gore.
The members of what was subsequently dubbed the “Brooks Brothers riot” provided the extralegal support for the challenge being waged in the courts for Bush by the likes of Ted Cruz, John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Brought to the cusp of victory by the wrongful disenfranchisement of black Floridians, the Bush campaign’s coordinated attacks against the recount in the courts and in the streets cemented Bush’s dubious victory.
The lesson Republicans drew from 2000 was that suppression works. “It worked then, and they are thinking it might work well again,” Brad Blakeman, the Bush campaign operative who took credit for the “Brooks Brothers riot” explained to the Miami Herald in 2018.
It’s a lesson that Donald Trump and the GOP have put into full effect this year. Already aided by the anti-democratic structures of the Senate and the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, Republicans have waged a concerted effort in states across the country to suppress the vote by closing polling places, limiting drop boxes, stunting the postal service, throwing out ballots for dubious reasons, and disenfranchising ex-felons, among other tactics.
If all else fails, President Trump has made clear that he expects Republican judges to “get rid of the ballots” that would result in his defeat. At a rally last weekend in Reading, Pennsylvania, Trump goosed up his supporters for a “win on Tuesday or — thank you very much, Supreme Court — shortly thereafter.” His Federalist Society–trained allies in the courts have made clear they’re all too ready to help. In a concurring opinion to a 5-3 decision barring the counting of late-arriving ballots in Wisconsin, Justice Brett Kavanaugh signaled that the Court’s conservative majority may be willing to stop counting votes and declare Trump the winner if a deluge of (disproportionately Democratic) mail-in ballots take too long to count after Election Day. Trump’s game plan is to falsely declare victory on election night, then wait for his allies in the judiciary to subvert the voters’ will.
While it’s become commonplace since 2016 to cast Trump and his disregard for democracy as “unprecedented,” the conviction that the “wrong” people should not be allowed to vote — and, crucially, that Republicans cannot win if they do — has been central to the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement for decades.
As Bill Kristol, one of the many conservatives to attempt a late-in-life “never Trump” reinvention, admitted recently, “We [Republicans] lost faith in democracy. We lost faith that we could compete for votes and win elections. Therefore, you’ve got to start restricting the electorate, and that’s very bad for democratic principles and very bad for a political party.”
But, despite Kristol’s insistence otherwise, this “loss of faith” was no recent occurrence.
From civil rights opponents in the 1950s to the participants in the Miami-Dade protest to Trump Republicans sitting on the Supreme Court today, the GOP has been represented for decades by a parade of well-dressed, superficially respectable conservatives dismissing voter disenfranchisement with the absurd refrain of “We’re a republic, not a democracy.”
When President Trump’s son-in-law-cum-adviser, Jared Kushner, waved away Trump’s struggles to win black voters by complaining that “[Trump] can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful,” he was reciting then-presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comments almost verbatim. The GOP didn’t appeal to the poorest half of the population, Romney told a gathering of rich donors in 2012, because they were “dependent upon government.” “[M]y job is not to worry about those people,” Romney concluded. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
When Trump told Fox & Friends earlier this year that Democrats’ attempts to make voting by mail easier during COVID-19 were “crazy” because they’d create “levels of voting that, if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he was channeling Paul Weyrich, the cofounder of the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, who quipped in 1980, “I don’t want everybody to vote . . . Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
When Republicans level baseless accusations of voter fraud, they’re standing on the shoulders of conservative icons like Ronald Reagan and John McCain. In 1977, Reagan insisted that Jimmy Carter’s modest voting reform proposals “invite[d] wholesale election fraud” by making it easier for “those who get a whole lot more from the federal government — in various kinds of welfare — than they contribute to it.” In 2008, McCain fed a right-wing conspiracy theory by claiming that ACORN was “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
When Utah senator Mike Lee recently tweeted, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are . . . Rank democracy can thwart that,” he was echoing William F. Buckley’s insistence in 1957 that “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.”
And when the Trump campaign mobilizes its “army” of supporters to patrol the polls and intimidate suspected Democratic voters on Election Day, it is drawing on the example of the “Brooks Brothers riot” and the Reagan-era “National Ballot Security Task Force.”
Republicans know it’s unlikely that they could prevail today in a free and fair election. In the longer term, they find themselves besieged by the growing share of socialism-curious young people and left-leaning Latinos and Asian Americans. While it’s always possible for Democrats to squander their demographic advantages, the GOP seems ready to refine and escalate its decades-long campaign of voter suppression and anti-majoritarian machinations in order to maintain its grip on power.
Should the Democrats manage to take control of the White House, House of Representatives, and Senate, their top priority should be preventing future GOP subterfuge by enacting a modern Voting Rights Act, adding states to the union, empowering labor, and using taxation to kneecap the GOP’s plutocratic funders, among other measures. Anything less, and we may enter an era of anti-democratic Republicanism that makes the “Brooks Brothers riot” look quaint.
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