In the wake of the 2016 election, the North Carolina GOP faced a problem: Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost reelection, even as Donald Trump handily carried the state. McCrory’s loss to Democrat Roy Cooper threatened the party’s aggressive efforts to entrench permanent control over the state. So Republicans launched a campaign to overturn the election by raising false claims of mass voter fraud, then asked the GOP-dominated legislature to install McCrory for a second term. After Cooper’s margin of victory proved too big to erase, Republicans stripped the incoming governor of his constitutional authority, restructuring their state government by transferring executive powers to the legislature. Over the next few years, Democrats won the governorships of Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and Wisconsin, four more states with Republican-controlled legislatures. Each time, GOP legislators ran the North Carolina playbook, seizing power from the executive branch to prevent the new governor from actually governing.
When Trump, aided by 147 congressional Republicans, sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election, they were not breaking any new ground for the GOP. They were simply building upon the foundational principles of the modern Republican Party: Only Republican votes should count, only Republicans can legitimately win elections, and only Republicans can govern. When hundreds of Trump supporters violently stormed the Capitol, they, too, were building upon this principle: They believed that Trump, as a Republican, has the only valid claim to the presidency; his rule must be restored—by force, if necessary—to prevent Democrats from destroying the United States. “You will never take back our country with weakness,” Trump said during the speech that fomented Wednesday’s insurrection. His crowd—which would soon injure dozens of police officers and kill at least one—evidently agreed.
There is obviously a difference between amassing power through (arguably) legal means and seizing it through violence. But when a political party seeks to hold on to power by any means necessary, its adherents will take note. Republicans have spent years casually crossing every line without suffering consequences. They have told their followers that it is not only legally acceptable but existentially vital that the GOP use any tool at its disposal to stay in power. And they have flouted the established rules of the game so defiantly that their followers understand they are playing an entirely different game now. Cheating is justified because Democrats are cheating, through widespread voter fraud or worse.
Trump understands that his followers need a hero narrative to rally around. That is why, on Wednesday, he repeatedly framed himself as the defender of democracy rather than its foe. “We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s capital for one very, very basic and simple reason: to save our democracy,” he declared. A few minutes later: “Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy.” And again: “Today, for the sake of our democracy, for the sake of our Constitution, and for the sake of our children, we lay out the case for the entire world to hear.”
The Republican politicians who asked courts to invalidate millions of votes deployed this language in their failed filings. They echoed it in Congress just minutes before the rioters broke in. “We are gathered at a time when democracy is in crisis,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz intoned when objecting to the Electoral College certification. The mob making its way into the building at that moment was chanting “USA!” Many of them seem to have genuinely thought that they were saving the nation by sacking the seat of American democracy to halt one of its oldest rituals.
This belief flows from the position that a democracy led by Democrats is no democracy at all. In statehouses and Congress, Republicans act upon this conviction by manipulating the machinery of government to lock Democrats out of power. The attacks on governors in Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin were extreme examples of this phenomenon: Dissatisfied with the outcome of a gubernatorial race, Republicans siphoned powers from the governor into the legislature. Partisan gerrymandering has similar roots: “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” said one North Carolina lawmaker in charge of redistricting, “so I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”
Americans have been trained to believe that there’s a bright line between such subversion of democracy through the legal process and the riot at the Capitol on Wednesday. And many lawmakers who have pushed baseless narratives of voter fraud and indulged Trump’s futile efforts to overturn a democratic election are now trying to tiptoe back over that line, denouncing the rioters. But maintaining that line requires each political party to acknowledge the other’s legitimate electoral victories—and, by extension, its right to govern.
Over the last two months, Republicans have abandoned this commitment in droves: not just the 147 members of Congress who rejected Biden’s win, but the multitude of lawmakers in statehouses around the country who tried to nullify their own state’s election results. In Pennsylvania, 64 GOP legislators asked Congress to throw out their state’s electoral votes, a move that would disenfranchise every single resident who cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential contest. These legislators aren’t just rejecting the outcome in that race, either. On Jan. 5, as hundreds of protesters outside the Pennsylvania Capitol urged legislators to overturn the presidential election, Republicans refused to seat Jim Brewster, a Democratic state senator who narrowly won his race. Both the secretary of state and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have affirmed Brewster’s victory, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman—a Democrat who presides over the state Senate—sought to seat him. Republicans responded by removing Fetterman from his presiding post.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Republican, led these battles to reject the 2020 elections. One day later, he traveled to Washington on a bus trip he organized to protest Congress’ Electoral College certification. At the event, Mastriano was seen with Rick Saccone, a former Pennsylvania GOP lawmaker who narrowly lost a congressional race in 2018. Saccone praised rioters for “swarming the Capitol,” commended them for seeking to “run out all the evil people in there,” and boasted that he broke into the building to “save this nation.” A chastened Mastriano now claims he did not participate in the insurrection, merely the events that immediately preceded it. But he has given no sign that he will reverse course on Republicans’ anti-democratic power grab in the Pennsylvania statehouse.
Mastriano was far from the only state legislator to attend the event. Republican lawmakers have joined forces with the most extreme portion of their rank and file, but without Trump, they no longer have control over them. After inflaming supporters for their own political gain, these politicians have insisted that the rioters took them too literally. Republicans assumed, wrongly, that their followers would never follow their theory of the election to its logical conclusion. They did not realize their mistake until a violent mob was banging down the chamber door.
Wednesday’s horrific events were unprecedented, but they should not have been unexpected. The GOP has spent years conditioning its members to reject Democrats’ right to win elections, to appoint judges, to enact policy, to govern the nation. The party has decided that saving democracy means undermining it whenever the other party wins. Republican elites translate this philosophy into midnight power grabs that stop Democrats from passing or executing laws. The Republican base has taken up cruder means to achieve the same goal.