You can understand a revolution as a time when the unthinkable becomes, suddenly, thinkable. It is a time when the rules that ordinarily govern political life lose their force and conflict takes the place of consensus, a time when the struggle for power is a struggle to define the political order itself.
Sometimes, as with our Civil War, revolutions are loud, violent and disruptive. At other times, as in the 1930s, revolutions are a little quieter, if no less significant.
As the full picture of Jan. 6 begins to come into view, I think we should consider it a kind of revolution or, at least, the very beginning of one. Joe Biden ultimately became president, but Donald Trump’s fight to keep himself in office against the will of the voters has upturned the political order. The plot itself shows us how.
Trump, we know, urged Mike Pence to reject the votes of the Electoral College, with the mob outside as the stick that would compel his obedience. “You can either go down in history as a patriot,” Trump told Pence, as recounted in this newspaper, “or you can go down in history as a pussy.”
When this was first revealed, I assumed that Trump simply wanted Pence to do whatever it would take to keep himself in power. But this week we learned that he had an actual plan in mind, devised by John Eastman, a prominent conservative lawyer who worked with the former president to challenge the election results, a job that included a speaking slot at the rally on the National Mall that preceded the attack on the Capitol.
“We know there was fraud,” Eastman said to the crowd that would become a mob. “We know that dead people voted.”
“All we are demanding of Vice President Pence,” he continued, “is this afternoon at 1 o’clock, he let the legislatures of the states look into this so we get to the bottom of it and the American people know whether we have control of the direction of our government or not!”
These weren’t just the ravings of a partisan. Eastman was essentially summarizing the contents of a memo he had written on Trump’s behalf, describing the steps Pence would take to overturn the election in Trump’s favor.
First, as presiding officer of the joint session in which Congress certifies the election, Pence would open and count the ballots. When he reached Arizona, Pence would then announce that he had “multiple slates of electors” and would defer his decision on those votes until he finished counting the other states. He would make this announcement for six other swing states — including Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — before announcing that “there are no electors that can be deemed validly appointed in those States” on account of election disputes and accusations of fraud.
At this point, Eastman explained, Pence could declare Trump re-elected, because — with seven states removed from the count — the president would have a majority of whatever electors were left, and the 12th Amendment states that the “person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed.”
If, for some reason, this didn’t fly, Eastman went on, Pence could then say that no candidate had won a majority and thus the election must go to the House of Representatives, where each state has a single vote and Republicans controlled a slim majority of state delegations, 26 to 24. If Democratic objections led both houses of Congress to split into their separate chambers to resolve the dispute, then Republicans could obstruct the process in the Senate and create a stalemate that would allow Republican-controlled state legislatures “to formally support the alternate slate of electors.”
As for the courts? Eastman argued that they don’t matter. “The fact is that the Constitution assigns this power to the Vice President as the ultimate arbiter.” If Pence has the power, then Pence should act and “let the other side challenge his actions in court.”
Eastman’s confidence throughout this memo (he dismisses potential Democratic objections as “howls”) belies his shoddy legal, political and constitutional thinking. For one, his argument rests on an expansive reading of the Twelfth Amendment for which there is no precedent or justification. The vice president has never directly counted electoral votes. “Beginning in 1793, and in every presidential election since,” the legal scholar Derek Muller notes in a piece debunking key claims in the memo for the website Election Law Blog, “the Senate and the House have appointed ‘tellers’ to count the electoral votes. These tellers actually tally the votes and deliver the totals to the President of the Senate, who reads the totals aloud before the two houses after the tellers, acting on behalf of Congress, have ‘ascertained’ the vote totals.”
The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, codified that practice into the Constitution. Congress would do the counting, and the vice president would simply preside over the process.
Eastman also asserted that the vice president could disregard the procedure specified under the Electoral Count Act because the law itself is unconstitutional. That, Muller notes, is controversial (and something Eastman himself rejected in 2000, in testimony before the Florida Legislature during the dispute between George W. Bush and Al Gore). And even if it were true, the 117th Congress, on its first day in operation, Jan. 3, adopted the provisions of the law as its rule for counting electoral votes, which is to say Pence had no choice but to follow them. His hands were tied.
Which gets to the politics of this scheme. If Pence were to disregard the rules and the history and seize control of the counting process, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would presumably have suspended the joint session, which relies on the consent of both chambers of Congress. “With a stalled and incomplete count because of a standoff between Pence and Pelosi,” the legal scholar Ned Foley writes in a separate Election Law Blog post, “the Twentieth Amendment becomes the relevant constitutional provision.” Meaning, in short, that at noon on Jan. 20, Pelosi would become acting president of the United States. Pence would lose authority as vice president (and president of the Senate) and the joint session would resume, with Congress putting its stamp of approval on Biden’s victory.
And let’s not forget that a series of moves of the sort envisioned by Eastman would spark national outrage. The “howls” would not just come from congressional Democrats; they would come from the 81 million voters who Pence would have summarily disenfranchised. It is conceivable that Trump and his allies would have prevailed over mass protests and civil disobedience. But that would depend on the support of the military, which, if the actions of Gen. Mark Milley were any indication, would not have been forthcoming.
None of this should make you feel good or cause you to breathe a sigh of relief. Consider what we know. A prominent, respected member in good standing of the conservative legal establishment — Eastman is enrolled in the Federalist Society and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — schemed with the president and his allies in the Republican Party to overturn the election and overthrow American democracy under the Constitution. Yes, they failed to keep Trump in office, but they successfully turned the pro forma electoral counting process into an occasion for real political struggle.
It was always possible, theoretically, to manipulate the rules to seize power from the voters. Now, it’s a live option. And with the right pieces in place, Trump could succeed. All he needs is a rival slate of electoral votes from contested states, state officials and state legislatures willing to intervene on his behalf, a supportive Republican majority in either house of Congress, and a sufficiently pliant Supreme Court majority.
As it happens, Trump may well run for president in 2024 (he is already amassing a sizable war chest) with exactly that board in play. Republican state legislatures in states like Georgia and Arizona have, for example, used claims of fraud to seize control of key areas of election administration. Likewise, according to Reuters, 10 of the 15 declared Republican candidates for secretary of state in five swing states — Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nevada — have either declared the 2020 election stolen or demanded that authorities invalidate the results in their states. It is also not unlikely that a Republican Party with pro-Trump zealots at its helm wins Congress in November of next year and holds it through the presidential election and into 2025.
If Trump is, once again, on the ballot, then the election might turn on the manipulation of a ceremony that was, until now, a mere formality.
Here, I’ll return to where I started. If this happens, it would be a revolutionary change. In this world, the voters, as filtered through the Electoral College, no longer choose the president. It becomes less a question of the rule of law and more one of power, of who holds the right positions at the right time, and especially, of who can bring the military to their side.
On Jan. 20, Joe Biden became president and Donald Trump slunk off to Mar-a-Lago to lick his wounds. But the country did not actually return to normalcy. Jan. 6 closed the door on one era of American politics and opened the door to another, where constitutional democracy itself is at stake.
There are things we can do to protect ourselves — legal experts have urged Congress to revise the Electoral Count Act to close off any Eastman-esque shenanigans — but it is clear, for now at least, that the main threat to the security and stability of the United States is coming from inside the house.
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