How a ‘mass movement’ based on election lies is threatening American democracy

As President Joe Biden and international leaders discuss the decline of democracy around the world, some political watchers are concerned that the survival of American democracy is also at risk. The Atlantic magazine's cover story, “January 6 Was Just Practice for Trump and His Allies,” argues the threat to the U.S. is coming from within. Staff writer Barton Gellman joins Judy Woodruff with more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As President Biden and international leaders discuss the decline of democracy around the world, some political watchers, as we have said, are increasingly concerned about the survival of American democracy. They think it's also at risk.

    The newest cover story of "The Atlantic" magazine is titled "Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun. January 6 Was Just Practice."

    It argues that the threat to the U.S. is coming from within, as Republicans aligned with former President Trump work to upend a core of our democracy, that the president is chosen by the will of the voters.

    "Atlantic" staff writer Barton Gellman wrote the piece. And he joins me now.

    Barton Gellman, welcome back to the "NewsHour." We appreciate your being here.

    I have to say, the — this article is full of eye-popping information, but the title alone catches us up short. What do you mean by Trump's next coup?

    Barton Gellman, "The Atlantic": I mean that January 6 was not an isolated event, that it was part of a coherent plan and conspiracy to overthrow the results of the last election that went on for considerable time before and after January 6, and that Republican operatives working on Trump's behalf are now methodically looking around at all the places where Trump's first plot failed, and looking to reinforce them, looking to remove obstacles that prevented Trump from succeeding last time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what are some examples of that that you go through in this piece?

  • Barton Gellman:

    Well, one example is that they're seeking out all of the public officials, some of them elected officials, some of them nonpartisan administrators, who said no to the coup last time, who said, no, we won't change the vote count, we won't flip the outcome, Joe Biden won our state.

    They're taking those people, and they are either hounding them out of office or they are making them irrelevant by passing new laws that take the power away from that office.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, it's — you pull this together, Bart Gellman, and it is alarming.

  • You write:

    "The prospect that the actual winner of the next election — there is a prospect that that person will be declared the loser, and that the loser will be certified as the president-elect."

    What makes you believe at this point that these efforts by people who support, who are allies of President Trump could actually pull this off?

  • Barton Gellman:

    The whole currency of presidential election is electors. Each state has its own share of electors.

    And Trump's strategy last time and the strategy that is being laid out now for the next time is to ask state legislatures controlled by Republicans in states that Biden won to change the electors, to simply say, we're not going to count the electors that were chosen by the voters. We are going to put forward electors for Trump, because we, the Republican legislature, say so.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we saw you mention — and we know that states like Wisconsin, Georgia, and maybe even Michigan were in a position to make these kind of challenges.

    I want to specifically zero in on what's happened in Georgia since the election. And, there, you have the authority for overseeing the election taken away from local officials in Fulton County, which surrounds Atlanta, and turned over to the state legislature.

    How does that play into the point you're making here?

  • Barton Gellman:

    Well, let's go through the list of everything that's happened in Georgia with respect to elections.

    You had a Republican governor and a Republican secretary of state, both of whom certified that Biden had won the election. That was their job, faithfully to reflect the actual count of votes in Georgia.

    For this crime against Trump, the former president has declared war on the Georgia governor, has recruited a candidate to try to replace him. The Georgia legislature has removed the secretary of state's power over elections, so that, next time it comes along, he won't be the one capable of certifying or decertifying an election.

    They have changed the rules, so that a board appointed by the Republicans in the legislature can fire the election officials in counties like Fulton County, where Atlanta is and where most of the Democratic votes are.

    And so they have gone systemically through all the things that prevented Trump from stealing the Georgia election after losing the vote, and they have changed them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You also — Bart Gellman, I mean, there's so much to ask you about here, but you spent a lot of time trying to understand who the people are who believe that the former President Trump won reelection, who don't believe that Joe Biden was lawfully elected.

    And you point out that these are not lone wolves, that these are people who are part of ordinary communities around the country.

  • Barton Gellman:

    That's right.

    There was — a typical profile for politically violent people in the past has been young and male and unemployed and low education, among other things. Look at what happened on the January 6 insurgency. Look at the defendants in those cases.

    There are lots of women. The mean age is 42 years old. So these are middle-aged people, well-off, white-collar jobs, own their own businesses. They are not small cells of violent predators, and they're not lone wolves.

    What they are is part of a mass movement that believes that Trump was robbed of victory and believe that violence is justified to restore him to power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how many people do you believe fit into that category?

  • Barton Gellman:

    Well, the best research on this I know of is done out of the University of Chicago.

    And they have found that there are about 21 million Americans who agree with two propositions. One is that Biden is an illegitimate president, and the other is that violence is justified to put Trump back in power. That's 21 million adult Americans, and that is a very sad number for our political enterprise.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is.

    And what is your sense, Bart Gellman, of how deeply held these beliefs are, how possible it would be to change minds among these people?

  • Barton Gellman:

    You know, I have often wondered that.

    And I decided to dig deep and just find one angry Trump supporter who believes that the election was stolen and believes that January 6 was a nonviolent, peaceful protest against a stolen election, and to see what are the sources of this belief, and whether I could affect his beliefs by giving him empirical facts.

    And this is a firefighter from New York. And so he told me, for example, that it wasn't the patriots on January 6 who committed acts of violence. It was agent provocateur, it was special forces units disguised as Antifa who conducted the violence.

    And I asked him, well, how do you know that? And he said, well, I heard it from this general on Rumble, the right-wing video site.

    So, I called up the general, and I asked him a few questions and discovered that he had no information at all. He was — he was basically making it up and surmising it.

    And I went through the whole conversation with the firefighter, explained that the Pentagon had put out statements saying that there was no such special forces and so on.

    And he just didn't believe me. I could bring him the facts on a platter, but he wasn't buying them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so what does that mean for our country if — in terms of what the White House can do, what people who are in a position of authority, and the news media?

    What do you see is possible to address this alarming picture that you're painting?

  • Barton Gellman:

    I don't have a great answer for that.

    I think we have a — you could almost call it an epistemological crisis here, in which we don't seem to share as a country any common foundation of basic facts, of basic truth, black is black and white is white.

    And you can be a — you can be closely following the news, as this firefighter is, and be fluent in all the talking points of your political team, and have no idea whether what you're hearing is true, because you're not watching PBS, and you're not reading "The Atlantic."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the result for the country is, we will see what happens between now and the next elections.

    Barton Gellman, writer for "The Atlantic," we appreciate it. Thank you very much.

  • Barton Gellman:

    Thanks for having me.

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