Gabriel Sterling, a Georgia election official and longtime Republican, held a news conference this week in which, with barely contained rage, he excoriated Donald Trump’s lies about voter fraud and the threats of violence those lies inspired.
He railed against Trump’s campaign lawyer, Joseph diGenova, who called for the shooting of Christopher Krebs, a federal cybersecurity official fired by Trump for saying that the election wasn’t rigged. (DiGenova later claimed he was joking.) Sterling described a “20-something tech” involved in the vote tabulation who was getting death threats.
The next day, Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, expressed his support for Sterling. “It’s about time that more people were out there speaking with truth,” he said. His office had asked Trump to “try and quell the violent rhetoric being born out of his continuing claims of winning the states where he obviously lost,” he said, to no avail. Trump’s language, said Raffensperger, was creating a “growing threat environment for election workers who are simply doing their jobs.”
Along with many other state-level Republican election officials, Sterling and Raffensperger have shown admirable commitment to the rule of law. Their refusal to participate in Trump’s attempted autogolpe helped avert a constitutional crisis. Yet it’s hard not to notice that their outrage is a bit selective.
There is nothing new about Trump inciting harassment against private citizens, or of his lackeys calling for violence against the president’s opponents. In 2015, after an 18-year-old college student asked Trump a question he didn’t like at a political forum, he targeted her on Twitter, and she was deluged with graphic, sexualized threats. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, a man named Cesar Sayoc sent homemade pipe bombs to Trump critics; he’s been sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In September, Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide who was put in charge of communications at Health and Human Services, said in a Facebook video, “When Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin.”
Yet Raffensperger voted for Trump. On Thursday, he told CNN that he supports the president still. The fact that Trump has openly sought to undermine the 2020 election, or that he delights in siccing his followers on his perceived enemies, was not a deal-breaker for Raffensperger. If he is now incensed, it’s because he and his colleagues have become Trump’s targets.
Since Trump’s defeat, the MAGA revolution has begun devouring its own. As it does, some conservatives are discovering the downsides of having a president who spreads malicious conspiracy theories, subverts faith in democracy and turns the denial of reality into a loyalty test. As the internet meme goes, people voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party, and now the leopards are turning on them.
Historically the American left, more than the right, was known for circular firing squads and excommunications. By turning the Republican Party into a cult of personality, Trump changed that. As the archconservative Jeff Sessions learned years ago, even a lifetime of ideological service is no defense when you’ve displeased Dear Leader.
People and institutions that get involved with Trump often end up diminished or disgraced. Since the election, this is happening faster than ever. The president is reportedly thinking of firing Attorney General Bill Barr because, for all Barr’s obsequious toadying, he has declined to repeat Trump’s fantasies about widespread electoral cheating. Much of the MAGA-verse has turned on Fox News, because its news programs aren’t pretending that Trump won.
Both Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona have been slavishly faithful to Trump, but stopped short of breaking the law by refusing to certify the vote in their states. For that, they’ve been at least temporarily cast out of Trump’s movement. “What is going on with @dougducey? Republicans will long remember!” Trump tweeted. At a berserk Georgia rally on Wednesday, the pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood led the crowd in a “lock him up” chant against Kemp.
In concert with the recently ousted Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, Wood called on Georgians to boycott the Jan. 5 Senate election runoff unless state officials do more to help Trump cling to power. Speaking of Georgia’s senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, Wood said: “They have not earned your vote. Don’t you give it to them. Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election, for God’s sake!”
Naturally, Republicans who understand that Trump lost and are worried about Senate control in a Joe Biden presidency aren’t happy about these antics. But what disconcerts these Republicans isn’t, by and large, that Trumpist lawyers are spewing demented misinformation. It’s that this misinformation might, for once, work against Republican power.
“At best, Wood-Powell are distracting from the GOP message in the races, and at worst, they are convincing persuadable Georgians that it is the Republican Party that needs to be checked, not Joe Biden,” wrote Rich Lowry in Politico. At worst! Republicans would almost certainly be fine with Wood and Powell eroding confidence in American democracy if it didn’t threaten members of their party.
“The Republican establishment, and also the conservative establishment, has always made this bet that it could open Pandora’s box and close it on command,” Rick Perlstein, a historian of American conservatism, told me. They could activate tribalism to achieve power, while maintaining a modicum of respectability. They could create an alternative reality but keep people enclosed within it. But with Trump “having pried Pandora’s box open, that becomes impossible,” Perlstein said.
Republicans helped Trump unleash countless civic evils. They shouldn’t be surprised when those evils don’t spare them.