Column: The high price of ‘alternative facts’ is now clear

For the Valley News
Published: 1/23/2021 10:20:04 PM
Modified: 1/23/2021 10:20:03 PM

In his inaugural address on Wednesday, Joe Biden proclaimed that “democracy has prevailed” over insurrection. But to preserve our democracy, we must never again let those in power spout “alternative facts” or play by “very different rules.”

Four years ago, right after the inauguration of Donald Trump as our 45th president, White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that, in spite of what photographs plainly showed, the crowds drawn by the new president had been much bigger than those drawn by the previous one. Two days later, when presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway was asked to explain why Spicer would “utter a provable falsehood,” she replied that Spicer was simply stating “alternative facts.”

Trump himself proved a geyser of such “facts.” During his years in the White House, The Washington Post Fact Checker’s database calculates, he made more than 30,000 “false or misleading claims.” But none of them matches in impact the claim he repeatedly made after losing the last election. To the thousands that he summoned to his rally on the morning of Jan. 6, he trumpeted, “We won in a landslide.”

Unfortunately, unlike nearly all of the other false claims he made during his presidency, this one was not just provably wrong but downright dangerous — because it led directly to the most dangerous of all claims ever made by a U.S. president. After admitting at the rally that the Constitution did not allow him to reject electoral votes certified by the states, he stated: “Well, I say, yes it does, because the Constitution says you have to protect our country and you have to protect our Constitution, and you can’t vote on fraud. And fraud breaks up everything, doesn’t it? When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules.”

In the name of the Constitution, then, Trump made his own rules, which are quite simple: to correct a fraud or “stop the steal” of an election, you can storm the Capitol and stop the constitutionally mandated counting of electoral votes submitted by the states. And God help anyone who stands in your way — and not just Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi but even Vice President Mike Pence.

By obeying the Constitution, which gives him no power to reject electoral votes or return them to the states, Pence broke Trump’s rules and thereby committed a capital crime. Minutes after Pence had been whisked off the Senate floor for his own safety as the Capitol was stormed by rioters, Trump tweeted that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” A man who had faithfully, even abjectly, served Trump through every day of his presidency was thus thrown to the wolves, who promptly started chanting, “Hang Mike Pence.”

Fortunately, Pence escaped the rope.

In the evening, after the rioters had been removed from the Capitol, Pence officially confirmed the election of Joe Biden as our 46th president. But he did so over the objection of 147 Republican lawmakers: eight senators and 139 members of Congress. Not to mention the millions Americans who still believe the election was stolen.

Déjà vu all over again

Believe it or not, I know just how they feel. In the year 2000, when the presidential election ended up nearly tied in Florida, its returns gave George W. Bush such a narrow lead over Al Gore — 537 votes — that state law required a recount. But after Republicans did everything possible to obstruct it and took their case to the Supreme Court, the court stopped the recount in a 5-4 decision and the electoral votes made Bush the winner.

Like the millions who voted for him, including half a million more than voted for Bush, Gore must have felt — how could he not? — that the election had been stolen from him. So what did he do? Once the Supreme Court had issued its ruling, he conceded the race and presided over a joint session of Congress that certified Bush as the winner. Painful as it was, he played by the rules of the U.S. Constitution. As he said recently, “there is no intermediate step between a final Supreme Court decision and violent revolution.”

Gore is right. Yet even after Trump ignited a violent revolution by refusing to accept the court’s ruling in his own case, Republican lawmakers who voted to reject the electoral votes certified by all 50 states do not grasp this simple fact. They do not realize how easily their rejection could be forged into a sword that would cut any one of them down.

‘Different rules’

Suppose Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley — the first senator to announce that he would challenge the certified results — is himself challenged in the next election by a candidate we’ll call Danny Dem. When Hawley wins, Dem demands a recount, which confirms the original result. But since Dem says he believes that many of the votes for Hawley were cast illegally, he takes his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which rejects it. On the first day of Hawley’s new term, however, Dem still insists the election was a fraud, which he says gives him the right to play by “different rules.” So after he and a gang of armed supporters break down the door of Hawley’s office, Dem tells Hawley to choose: Concede the election or be hanged.

What then does Hawley say?

Now that a duly elected president of the United States has taken office, every Republican lawmaker who doubts his legitimacy should ponder that question.

Whether lawmakers or just plain citizens, all those who believe the election was stolen from Trump are perfectly entitled to their feelings. But the only way they can legally assuage those feelings is by starting work now on the next election.

A little over two years ago, Stacy Abrams ran for governor of Georgia against Brian Kemp, who was then Georgia’s secretary of state. During his eight years in that office, Kemp appears to have done everything legally possible to suppress Democratic votes: He put 53,000 voter registrations — 70% of them Black voters — “on hold.” His office canceled more than 1.4 million registrations as part of a legally permitted “voter roll maintenance” effort. And he encouraged county officials to merge polling places, which resulted in 214 of them closing during his tenure.

He ended up beating Abrams by about 55,000 votes.

Like Al Gore, Abrams must have felt that she had been robbed. But instead of storming the state Capitol, she and Latosha Brown, a leader of the Black Voters Matter movement, just kept on doing what they had already been doing for years: getting out the African American vote. And on Jan. 6, the very day violent insurgents attacked the U.S. Capitol, their two candidates — Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the first Black man ever elected to the Senate from Georgia — both won seats.

That’s the kind of revolution the Constitution makes regularly possible — for all those who play by the only rules we have to keep us truly democratic.

James Heffernan lives in Hanover.

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