Words matter. The words of America’s elected leaders matter. Their silence matters too.
Take the coronavirus pandemic. Following the lead of President Donald Trump, hundreds of elected officials across the country — including many in Ohio — have argued against the use of face masks in spite of overwhelming scientific consensus that they represent the most low-cost, effective, and widely available weapon in fighting a disease that has now cost 240,000 Americans their lives.
Public health policy in America was thus politicized in the midst of a 100-year pandemic that is presently spiraling out of control. Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans refuse to wear face masks because instead of scientists and doctors, they heed the words of unscrupulous elected leaders perpetuating mortally dangerous conspiracy theories.
Many of these same elected leaders, again following the lead of President Trump, are now sowing doubt about the integrity of America’s most fundamental institution: our elections system. The tens of millions of people who support Trump and these politicians are listening to their words, and will again act accordingly.
This is another mortal threat, one to the fabric of our very Republic. Like pandemic safety precautions, this can easily spiral out of any politician’s control. Already, 70% of Republicans don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair.
The freedom to vote in fair elections is our most sacred duty as citizens in a constitutional Republic. The peaceful transition of power is a hallmark of the stability of American democracy.
Instead of defending the integrity of our elections, many elected Republican leaders are choosing to once again enable Trump, either by echoing his false claims of widespread fraud or by remaining silent in the face of them.
Among Ohio statewide elected officials, only Secretary of State Frank LaRose — the man charged with overseeing Ohio’s elections — has acknowledged Trump’s defeat and the victory of President-elect Joe Biden.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine hedged, ambiguously congratulating Biden without mentioning why, while noting correctly that Trump has a right to pursue legal challenges. Left unaddressed by DeWine were the president’s false allegations of massive fraud, which he promised he would unleash in 2016 before he ended up winning, and then again promised to unleash in 2020 if he ended up losing, which he has.
Trump’s false allegations are not borne out even in his own legal challenges, many of which have already been dismissed by various courts. Courts require evidence and specificity. Trump has neither, and his general allegations of fraud only serve to hurt his legal challenges while stoking the flames of misinformation and resentment among his supporters.
In a Pennsylvania case, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has filed a “friends of the court” brief, signing Ohio’s name onto a lawsuit that seeks to throw out thousands of valid votes because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled they were allowed to arrive three days after the election (Ohio law allows absentee ballots to arrive 10 days after our election, as Yost even notes in his brief).
Never mind that the number of votes arriving in that period are not enough to change the result in Pennsylvania, this is Ohio’s chief law enforcement officer arguing for the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters who cast valid ballots in a neighboring state.
Republican Ohio U.S. Sen. Rob Portman also hedged and also noted that Trump has the legal right to ask for recounts and litigate any perceived irregularities. While he offered no congratulations to Biden, only acknowledging Biden’s lead, Portman at least also called on Trump to produce evidence of fraud. So far Trump has not.
Nationally, top Republican elected officials from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reprobate sycophant Lindsey Graham are doubling-down in support of Trump’s malicious, self-serving rhetorical attacks on American election integrity.
One top Republican official asked what the downside is to humoring Trump, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. Some see it as a political calculation they should champion to help secure the U.S. Senate Republican majority with the two Georgia run-off races by driving turnout. Others suggest Republican leaders don’t want to lose political credibility with the GOP’s Trump base.
Any way you slice it, their support or their silence is a political calculation. Whether it’s lives on the line with face masks and covid trutherism, or American election integrity on the line, this isn’t political shrewdness; it’s political nihilism.
You see, the downside is that up to 70 million Americans believe Trump when he spits on American election integrity, just like so many believed him about face masks. It is a frontal assault on our most fundamental freedom, the consequences of which will continue to distort how millions of Americans view the legitimacy of our elections for years to come. That’s the best-case scenario.
Worst-case scenario, Republican legislators in key states again follow Trump’s lead into the realm of conspiracy and grievance to launch their own attempts to subvert the certification of results and the electors a given state assigns. This would throw America into a constitutional crisis in service of Trump’s ego and abetted by those who follow his lead or remain silent.
DeWine is set to give a primetime address Wednesday evening on the spiraling pandemic. He is using the bully pulpit to implore Ohioans to do our part to protect each other and stay safe, as he has attempted to do in news conference after news conference. Clearly, DeWine understands that words matter. But there’s a reason his pleas have been largely in vain.
If DeWine wants to understand why COVID-19 cases are relentlessly surging in Ohio and across the country, he need look no further than the words of his colleagues and the words of the leader of his party — the man he supported for reelection as president now threatening the foundation of the American Republic by convincing many of his 70 million supporters to lose faith in our elections system.
These are words DeWine had every opportunity to condemn, yet he remained silent. Now that the election is over and the Trump-inflamed reactionary conspiratorial eye is indeed on our elections system itself, DeWine still remains silent.
Silence is complicity, and the stakes have rarely been higher.
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.