The most famous newspaper headline in American history appeared in The Chicago Daily Tribune on November 3, 1948, reporting the results of the presidential election just held: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Tribune, a devoutly Republican paper, got it wrong for two reasons: because the pre-election polls had New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey defeating incumbent President Harry S. Truman, and because the Tribune went to press early before checking the actual election results because its linotype workers were on strike in protest against anti-labor legislation. The Trib got stuck with the truth because it was in a hurry to crown its preferred candidate, and Truman got to pose with its headline, a big grin on his face.
That was then. Winners won elections. Losers lost them. And the results, even in close calls, were pretty quickly clear.
The election of 2020 took us back to horse and buggy days. It took four days for Joe Biden’s victory to be called by the television networks because, thanks to the shenanigans of Republican state legislatures, mail-in ballots, already received and overwhelmingly Democratic, were not counted until election day votes were, creating the false impression of a GOP victory. Thus began the long count, which ended only when the votes of the good citizens of Philadelphia—fittingly, the birthplace of the Constitution—put Joe Biden over the top.
Let’s not be shy about this. It wasn’t just Donald Trump trying to steal an election by counting first-received votes last, but the Republican Party backing and enabling his effort. And they, not simply him, have yet to concede defeat.
This means that our political system, as it stands today, is broken. That system consists of two major parties that alternate in power according to the popular vote in Congressional elections and by a sad contrivance called the Electoral College in presidential ones. The Electoral College prevailed over the popular vote in the elections of 2000 and 2016, in both of which cases the popular vote loser became president, giving us the two worst chief executives in our history.
When all the votes for president were tabulated in 2020, a process still being contested in Arizona, Joe Biden had a popular majority of more than seven million over Trump. That translated into an Electoral College majority of 306 votes to 232, as it happened the exact same tally as in the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton outpolled Trump by nearly three million popular votes only to lose. This time, though, both stars were aligned. The popular majority was also an Electoral College majority. The Electoral College voters cast their ballots accordingly. Joe Biden was elected. Preparations for his inauguration began.
The last step in the electoral process was the receipt and certification of the Electoral College vote by the new Congress. This was a formality until an armed mob, assembled and directed by Donald Trump, broke into Congress on January 6, 2021 to disrupt it and hunt down, among others, the Vice President of the United States and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. We then witnessed the closest thing to a successful insurrection in our national history, the leader of which is not only still at large in his mansion but who remains commander of what calls itself the Republican Party as well.
Let us make no mistake about this. This is not how a functioning democracy conducts itself. It is the way a Third World country does, which, having survived one attempted coup, waits passively for another. True, Joe Biden sits in the White House. But he is still ducking the most important responsibility of his office, which is to govern with the agreement of both political parties that he is the legitimately elected president.
When order had been restored in Congress on January 6, the Electoral College certification vote resumed. One hundred and thirty-nine Republican House representatives, nearly two-thirds of their number, voted not to certify Joe Biden as president, including the House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy.
This brings us to Liz Cheney, who will soon be the former chair of the House Republican Conference, the third senior position in the Republican caucus.
I never thought I’d have a good word to say about Liz Cheney. She is of course the elder daughter of Dick Cheney, who was conscripted into serving as vice president for the deeply challenged George W. Bush and was, for awhile, the de facto president of the United States. During this time Cheney mired us in a losing war in Afghanistan and lied us into another in Iraq, leading to a cascade of failed states in the world’s most volatile region. It wasn’t for nothing that he was nicknamed Darth Vader. While he lasted, Dick Cheney was the most dangerous man on the planet.
While forging her own political career, Liz was her father’s loyal (and richly rewarded) daughter. She supported Donald Trump in 2016, and was rapidly promoted to Conference Chair on her election to the House. But being among those expressly targeted as Trump’s minions ransacked the Capitol rankled her. There had never been, she said, “a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution” than the attack on Congress, for which Trump was fully responsible. She joined in the subsequent House vote to impeach him. But her ultimate act of lèse majesté was the fist bump and greeting she gave Biden as “Mr. President” as he entered Congress to address it last month. You could call Trump a traitor. You could vote to impeach him if you liked. What you could not do was to suggest that he was not the president.
That, however, is precisely the difference between democratic and authoritarian rule. To participate in a two-party system, you have to accept the possibility of defeat at the polls, and, when it occurs, the reality of it. That isn’t Donald Trump’s style. He will never accept defeat for himself, or tolerate others doing it. This puts him and the Party that supports him outside democratic politics, fitting both only for dictatorship. As far as Trump is concerned, this is not news; when asked during the 2016 election whether he would accept its result, he replied that he would provided that he won. He added the further comment that even if he did win it would only be in spite of the election being rigged against him. Donald Trump cannot lose; he can only have an election stolen from him. But final victory will always be his.
Accept Trump’s premise and you no longer belong to a political party, but a personality cult. As it appears, though, Dick Cheney’s daughter is darned if she is going to do that, especially when the cult leader has put a price on her head at the hands of a mob. But let’s give Liz the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she does recognize that there are times in politics when you win and times when you lose, and that it’s an essential part of the game to recognize that. Maybe even the daughter of a dragon has a conscience.