Barton Gellman: “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun”

Read Transcript EXPAND

BIANNA GOLODRYGA: Well, earlier in the program, we heard about President Biden’s call to bolster democracies around the world. But our next guest is concerned about the state of democracy in the United States itself. Staff writer for “The Atlantic” was one of the journalists who predicted that then President Donald Trump would not admit defeat if he lost the 2020 election. Well, now, in a new cover story for “The Atlantic,” he says the former president is in an even better position to seize office. Here he is telling Hari Sreenivasan why he thinks democracy will be on trial in the 2024 American presidential election.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Bianna, thanks. Baton Gellman, thanks so much for joining us. Now, Barton, you wrote an article about what you think is likely or could happen in 2024. Basically, this is about the next attempt to overthrow the democracy. And it may not qualify as a coup, you say. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away or millions to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president elect. The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already. So, let’s start to unpack this thesis of yours a little bit in this conversation. First of all, the threats that you’re talking about to the entire system of our democracy, how elections work, how they would be overturned. Where does that begin or how has that already begun?

BARTON GELLMAN, STAFF WRITER, “THE ATLANTIC”: It’s begun with Republican operatives who have studied the way Trump tried to overthrow the results of the last election and looked at all the points of failure. And it’s now methodically going through and fixing those points of failure from its point of view. And so, for example, any state official who refused to go along with the big lie, who refused to manipulate the vote count so that Trump won instead of Biden is being hounded out of office or made irrelevant by new laws that give someone else the power to certify the election. There is stayed (ph) work being done so that Republican legislators in the states can take over the award of electors and give them Trump even if the state votes for Biden. For example, this is because in six or seven of the most important battleground states that Biden narrowly won, the State House and State Senate are controlled by Republicans. And they’re trying to take the power to fire the voters and appoint electors for Trump regardless of the outcome. What my article is there to warn about is that there is a plausible and even inclining toward likely scenario in which he loses a close election. Not in the popular vote only but in the electoral college and is nonetheless, appointed president-elect. And that could happen with the official institutions of the election taken over by supporters of the big lie last time and who will affirm this false victory.

SREENIVASAN: The independent state legislature doctrine, you talk about that in the piece quite a bit. It sounds a little wonky (ph), it sounds a little bit — is this about federalism, et cetera. But kind of break it down into simple terms, why is this tactically important? Why is this strategically important? And why could it be consequential in 2024 if independent state legislators are given more power in national elections?

GELLMAN: Electors, not popular votes are the currency of a presidential election. Whoever gets to 270 wins. Under the constitution, under Article 2, each state legislator shall decide how electors are appointed in the matter of its own choosing. So, when the founders drafted the document, state legislators chose the president, not popular vote of each state. It’s been more than 150 years since that was true. But the Supreme Court has ruled in another case in what’s known as dictive (ph), sort of a side comment, that the states can take back the power from their voters if they want to. And there are Trump supporters who are pushing the argument that the Supreme Court should recognize that legislators can do that at any time and they can even reverse the verdict of their voters to do so. And there are signs that at least four justices on the Supreme Court are friendly to that doctrine.

SREENIVASAN: You said that there is a clear and present danger that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it. Our two-party system has only one party left that is willing to lose an election. The other is willing to win at the cost of breaking things that a democracy cannot live without. And one other mention from your story, Democrats big and small D are not behaving as they believe the threat is real. Some of them, including President Biden, has taken passing rhetorical notice, but their attention wanders. Why do you think that is?

GELLMAN: Well, it’s really quite extraordinary with Biden. He gave a speech that should have signaled the beginning of a massive presidential effort. He went to the National Constitution Center in July and he said that these elections subversion techniques that are being used by Republicans now are being prepared for the next election are the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War. Now, you would expect that means he’s going to pay some close attention to that and do something about it. And since then, there’s been almost no action. And I think there is a combination of a sense of helplessness because the ordinary tools of politics are not equipped to handle subversion like this. And there’s also a sense of disbelief, that this can’t happen here. I can’t happen here that the voters in Pennsylvania or Michigan vote for Biden and the legislature simply says, we’re going to ignore those votes. We throw them away and we’re going to send electors for Trump and get away with it. People just don’t think it can happen here, and it can.

SREENIVASAN: One of the characters that you profile on the piece is a former captain, retired from the Fire Department in New York and he is (INAUDIBLE) Trump supporter and he believes that the election was stolen. How did he come to believe that?

GELLMAN: Well, let’s take video of January 6th. Anyone who has immersed himself or herself in the news of that day should have seen footage of the crowd beating police officers, squashing them in a doorway, hurling metal flag poles in their faces and so on. The images are ubiquitous in the mainstream media and on social media. He had never seen any of those. He’s following the news closely in the places where he follows the news. The only he’s seen is the one in which police officers who were overwhelmed by the number of demonstrators hold back a bicycle barricade and essentially, acquiesced in letting the crowd in because it was vastly outnumbers and had no choice. He said, look, they invited them in. He said, there was it was no violence by the protestors. He was only antifa and U.S. special forces who are part of a plot by Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell together somehow to make the demonstration look bad. And I would ask him for his sources of information. And so, he told me this with special operators and antifa that he relied on the testimony of Retired General McInerney. So, I find McInerney’s videos on Rumble. And McInerney is saying all these truly crazy things, and I called him out. I said, how do you know special forces were there? Well, he said, well, they looked like special forces. How do you know they stole Nancy Pelosi’s laptop? Well, one had something square looking under his coat. I mean, there was — there is no evidence at all. He didn’t even claim to have anything that would count as evidence. But the firefighter I’m talking to doesn’t believe me when I tell him that this evidence doesn’t hold up. He says, well, of course, you know, the government would lie to us and deny it. But he has been, I think, overwhelmed by the volume of propaganda and reinforced so many times by the sources of information he has that I can’t touch him.

SREENIVASAN: One of the most disturbing stats that you have is from a recent poll that was from the Public Religion Research Institute. It said, 30 percent of Republicans asked, they said they believe violence may be necessary to save the U.S. Do the math for us. That’s a lot of people.

GELLMAN: That’s a lot of people. If you — there’s another set of poll numbers that I think puts an even sharper point on them. Robert Pate (ph) of University of Chicago has done polling that says, there is a group of Americans who believe two things. One, that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. And two, that the use of violence is justified to restore Trump to power. Not might be, not we might be coming into a point where the use of violence is justified. That group of Americans numbers about 21 million. 21 million Americans who are part of a mass political movement that is conspiracy minded and supports the use of violence for political ends. We have not been in that place in this country very likely since about 100 years ago, which was the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

SREENIVASAN: Now, when you bring the Ku Klux Klan into it, that makes me think about the relations with race in America. And one of the more disturbing findings that you talk about in this story is about what it is that the supporters who showed up on January 6th had in common. And tell us a little bit about that. These were not uneducated people that didn’t know any better.

GELLMAN: There is a typical profile for political violence all around the world. It is committed by primarily by men in their 20s or early 30s who are unemployed, who have low education, et cetera, et cetera. If you look at the profile of the January 6th defendants, you see a mid-age of 42 years old, which is wildly out of sync with that. They are educated. They are white collar. They are employed. They are well off. And what they have in common is that they’re much more likely to come from a county in the United States, back home, in which the white population is in decline. It is a dreaded fact by many conservatives that the United States by about 2045, whites will no longer be in the majority. And when you poll the 21 million people who believe in violence to restore President Trump to the White House, they agree overwhelmingly with the proposition that the rights of people of color are exceeding those of whites in today’s societies. They believe in the great replacement.

SREENIVASAN: You know, if 68 percent of Republicans, as the polling shows, continue to believe that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, this is a party that is fundamentally different than, say, 10 years ago. I mean, we have people who would not have stood for this who are now OK with it.

GELLMAN: There have always been people after every election who are disappointed, who believe they were robbed. There have always been some number of people who believe that there was fraud. What they did not have was permission from the party elites, from their leaders, from the party leaders to believe those things. They did not have a party leader who told them. It was a fact that the election was stolen. And to have two-thirds of all Republicans who have lost faith completely in the integrity of our election system is a catastrophe for America, and we have not had that, arguably, ever in this country. I make the point in the article that the confederates at the start of the Civil War did not deny that Abraham Lincoln had won the election. It was because he won the election that they wanted to secede. We just haven’t had this kind of mass denial before and it’s very dangerous.

SREENIVASAN: So, tell me, give me an example for — give me an example of states where you see an influence of the strategy or the influence of the former president and how impactful that’s going to be in 2024.

GELLMAN: Well, let’s see what happened in Georgia. Donald Trump famously demanded that the governor of Georgia not certify Biden’s victory after three full counts of vote. He called the secretary of state in a recorded call that we’ve all heard now, if we wanted to, in which he said, you just have to find me enough votes to win after these three recounts. And the secretary of state, who was the lifetime Republican, faithfully stood by his duty and he certified Biden’s victory. What’s happened to him? He’s been censured by the state’s party. He has been removed from the State Election Board in a voting role so that he no longer has the power to certify the next election. He’s been has been primary and Donald Trump has endorsed and the state party has endorsed an opponent who says he would not certify for the last election. And the state legislature, for a good measure, has given itself the power to fire any county election administrator that it deems to be performing poorly. And has done that in the context of a debate about Fulton County, which is the home of Atlanta, which is the home of the bulk of the Democratic vote in the State of Georgia. And so, as about as comprehensively as it can happen, Trump and his supporters have moved to neutralize the person who certified his loss last time. And by the way, Trump has also recruited and endorsed a candidate to run against the governor who certified the election.

SREENIVASAN: Are there other states who are looking at what Georgia has done and revising their own processes?

GELLMAN: There are seven people running for secretary of state in key swing states who are running on Trump’s big lie platform. They want to be in charge of overseeing the election and they claim that Trump won the last time against all evidence. There are — the person running for governor of Arizona, to replace Doug Ducey, is a big lie supporter who said that she would not have certified Biden’s victory in her state. Ducey did so. He was one of two Republican governors who certified the Biden victory. And Trump wants to replace him with a Fox newscaster who basically promises to fix the vote for Trump next time. It’s happening in Wisconsin. It’s happening in Pennsylvania. It’s happening in Michigan. It’s happening all around.

SREENIVASAN: Barton Gellman of “The Atlantic,” thanks so much for joining us.

GELLMAN: Thanks for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

U.S. Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya analyzes day two of President Biden’s virtual democracy summit. Dr. Lekshmi Santhosh explains the scientific facts behind long COVID-19. Deborah Watts, cousin of Emmett Till, reacts to the DOJ officially closing Till’s case. Atlantic reporter Barton Gellman discusses his latest article, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.”