Last week, as North Carolina’s Board of Elections was coming to grips with what increasingly resembles a case of genuine election fraud in the state’s 9th congressional district, House Speaker Paul Ryan was talking at an event in Washington.
He was speaking of election results in California, where Republican candidates were wiped off the map of traditionally Republican Orange County, Ryan called the results “bizarre” and in defiance of “logic.” He said:
“We were only down 26 seats the night of the election and three weeks later, we lost basically every California race. This election system they have — I can’t begin to understand what ‘ballot harvesting’ is.”
Ryan has run a longstanding, uncannily successful con in Washington, where he has voted for trillions in debt under Republican presidents while making an obstreperous, high-dudgeon ruse of fiscal hawkishness. But Ryan has side-stepped the seediest elements of his party’s moral collapse. Unlike his even more cynical Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, Ryan occasionally voices objection to some grotesque display of racism or moral turpitude by his party’s leader in the White House.
When I asked Ryan’s office why he was joining in the efforts of his party’s least credible members, including President Donald Trump, to undermine confidence in the integrity of the vote — without a shred of evidence that something’s awry — a spokesman pointed me to a previous statement delivered to the Hill newspaper, saying Ryan “did not and does not dispute the results of the election.”
Good to know that when the speaker of the House pours kerosene on conspiracy theories, he’s not rooting for the republic to burn down.
Ryan’s spokesman didn’t respond to an emailed question about North Carolina, where the state is investigating whether a local Republican operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, helped Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris win a narrow victory by collecting, and possibly disposing of, Democratic mail ballots.
An analysis by North Carolina political scientist Michael Bitzer showed a pattern of suspicious results for mail ballots, especially in Harris and Robeson counties, which make up less than 2 percent of the state’s population but combined for 18 percent of mail ballots that were requested but never turned in. Black voters there have said their ballots were collected and then seemingly disappeared.
The daily crisis that is Trump’s presidency often obscures the extended crisis that is the Republican Party. In Michigan and Wisconsin Republican legislators are seeking to steal not votes but their meaning. Having lost statewide elections in November, the Republicans, many representing intricately gerrymandered districts, intend to rob incoming Democrats of the powers of their offices, voters be damned. They are smashing the peaceful transition of power without which democracy instantly fails.
The Trump era combines the criminality of Watergate with the demagogy of McCarthyism. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been doing his best on the Watergate front, rolling up the criminal network that has surrounded Trump, from his haplessly crooked personal lawyer Michael Cohen to his dangerously crooked campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
But Mueller, a Republican of the old school, can’t save democracy from the demagogy of the new school. The sick irony of the emerging scandal in North Carolina is that if GOP election fraud is indeed proved to have taken place, Republicans will soon have the evidence they lacked for so long. Future voter suppression will be justified on the grounds that Republicans must protect the sanctity of the vote from themselves. (That the scandal has nothing to do with voters committing fraud would be conveniently forgotten.)
As Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin are proving, even clear election victories are not guaranteed to secure majority rule or a consensus that the winning candidates have the power to govern. Paul Ryan is deemed a leader of the party’s sane forces. Yet his jaundiced commentary on the midterm elections would appear thoroughly unhinged in a rational, responsible, democratic political party. The GOP, thrashing the democracy that gave it life, is none of those things.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.