Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Pennsylvania GOP’s Anti-Democratic Maneuver Is a Warning

The nakedly cynical—and perfectly Trumpian—ploy in the state senate.
January 6, 2021
Pennsylvania GOP’s Anti-Democratic Maneuver Is a Warning
Protesters gather at the Pennsylvania State Capitol during the demonstration. Supporters of President Donald Trump urged legislators to decertify the election during the "Hear Us Roar" rally at the Pennsylvania State Capitol. (Photo by Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

An appalling maneuver by Republicans in the Pennsylvania state senate on Tuesday shouldn’t be buried in the avalanche of other news this hectic week. It ought to be understood in three ways: as a direct result of Donald Trump’s own reality-denying post-election fight; as a profoundly anti-democratic action by state legislators in violation of their oaths of office; and as a harbinger of things to come.

Let’s start, as we so often must when discussing the tumultuous state of our democracy, with President Donald Trump. In the two months since the election, he and his supporters have become increasingly deliberate in their attempts to overthrow the democratic will of the American electorate. While some of the legal efforts on his behalf were dubbed “the kraken,” his legal team rather resembled a hydra, with new heads popping up whenever one was lopped off. The Trump team and its allies lost about five dozen post-election lawsuits in state and federal courts.

Meanwhile, the president himself has disputed Joe Biden’s victory via every means possible: nonstop tweets, public remarks, rants at last night’s Georgia rally—and most egregiously, the phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to berate and threaten him for not indulging in Trumpian conspiracy theories and somehow delivering the votes needed to flip the state’s results in Trump’s favor. This pressure campaign on Georgia’s leadership, mind you, happened weeks after the Electoral College met and voted; lawyers for the state of Georgia were right to call it a “thirteenth hour” effort.

Not only are President Trump’s actions wrong, they set a terrible precedent and incentivize bad behavior. His two-month campaign strikes at the already weakened foundation of our democratic republic. And his assault on truth, and the very idea of self-governance will have consequences. Just look at what happened on Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania’s state senate’s new session began Tuesday, with Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a Democrat, presiding over largely clerical matters such as seating members. Jake Corman, the Republican majority leader for the last six years, decided to toss aside the Josh Hawley Book of Congressional Theater in favor of a copy of Authoritarianism for Dummies. He and his Republican colleagues ejected Fetterman and, upon electing Corman president pro tempore, refused to seat Democrat Jim Brewster from Pennsylvania’s 45th district.

Some background: After Brewster, a ten-year incumbent, narrowly won re-election and his win was certified by state officials, his Republican challenger, Nicole Ziccarelli, filed a lawsuit that soon came before the state supreme court. That court explained—in a November 23 ruling that also addressed several appeals from the Trump campaign—why it was rejecting Ziccarelli’s request to toss out a ballots that didn’t include signatures on a secondary envelope:

Here we conclude that while failures to include a handwritten name, address or date in the voter declaration on the back of the outer envelope, while constituting technical violations of the Election Code, do not warrant the wholesale disenfranchisement of thousands of Pennsylvania voters.

As we acknowledged in Shambach [a 2004 case], “ballots containing mere minor irregularities should only be stricken for compelling reasons.”

In a federal lawsuit still pending before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Ziccarelli is still fighting to overturn the state certification and the decision of the state supreme court. This will be as successful as the Trump legal team’s efforts to book a hotel ballroom in Philly.

Not to be deterred by things as trivial as state certification or a court ruling, the Republican majority refused to seat Brewster. This was only after executing a stunt that could have been cooked up in the World Wrestling Entertainment writer’s room: After Lt. Governor Fetterman refused to hear motions to prevent Brewster’s seating, Republicans simply voted him off the podium and Corman assumed the post. While Corman plowed ahead introducing a procedural motion, Fetterman refused to vacate and shouted “You are breaking the constitution and the laws of the commonwealth and violating the oath of office that you’ve taken.”

Fetterman is right: This is a nakedly cynical ploy to refuse a seat to someone duly elected to it.

It is uncertain how the current drama in the capitol will play out or be resolved. But we would not be here if state legislators weren’t emboldened by a defeated president who has spent two months falsely declaring himself victor, attempting to strong-arm state officials into finding votes for him, and baselessly calling the entire election process “rigged” and “corrupt.” This unconscionable attempt at a hostile takeover of the country’s executive office will linger like a poison in our politics long after January 20.

If Republicans across the country decide to embrace Trump’s wanton disregard for truth and rejection of election results and court decisions—if it becomes the SOP for the GOP—then the republic truly is at a tipping point. Democracy cannot function when one of the two major parties decides to openly subvert the will of voters.

Is this the future of the Republican party? Resorting to procedural chicanery to undermine democracy? Trump’s hostility to electoral norms have seeped into both houses of the U.S. Congress, inspiring the Republicans’ efforts to derail the joint session to count electoral votes with pointless objections. What happened in Pennsylvania on Tuesday shows the result of encouraging and normalizing this dangerous behavior.

By his actions, Trump risks transforming the Republican party into a coalition of anti-democratic forces gaslighting the country in service of their own power.

Robert Davis Edelman

Robert Davis Edelman is a former Republican congressional staffer.