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The survival of U.S. democracy may hinge on this decision by Pa.’s next governor | Will Bunch

Despite that embarrassing Arizona fake "audit," the Trump war on election integrity is accelerating. Pa.'s gubernatorial race will play a key role for 2024.

The Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia was at the center of the action as election ballots were counted in November.
The Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia was at the center of the action as election ballots were counted in November.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / MCT

To millions of Americans, what just happened in Arizona’s largest county was a laughingstock, a bad joke that blew up in the face of Donald Trump and his cultists like some exploding cigar from a 1940s cartoon. A GOP-approved hijacking of voting records and machines from the 2020 election — do not dare call it an “audit” — conducted by a scammy-is-too-good-a-word contractor called the Cyber Ninjas that dragged on through much of 2021 ultimately claimed that any miscounted votes actually expanded President Biden’s win in Maricopa County. The cackling on left-leaning Twitter and MSNBC Friday night could be heard from Key West to Kalamazoo.

But one man — a Michigan carpetbagger turned Arizona politico named Mark Finchem — had a very different interpretation of what the conspiracy-minded voting sleuths had uncovered with official Republican support. “I call for decertification of the Arizona election, arrest of those involved in tampering with election systems, and an audit of Pima County (in northern Arizona) as a next step,” Finchem tweeted Friday.

The crazy part is that Finchem’s minority viewpoints on Donald Trump and his invisible claims of election fraud may matter a heck of a lot more than yours or mine come the 2024 vote counting. Last week, the disgraced 45th president (and would-be 47th) officially endorsed Finchem, now a state lawmaker, in his 2022 GOP primary bid to become Arizona’s next secretary of state. Trump’s imprimatur makes Finchem the instant primary favorite, in a midterm election in which both history and newfangled voter suppression favors Republicans.

That means Finchem — not just a garden-variety Trumpist but a member of the extremist Oath Keepers who was on the Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6 insurrection — could be Arizona’s chief vote counter if and when the bleats of voter fraud and a stolen election again emerge from Mar-a-Lago in three years.

Be very afraid.

For the millions eager to preserve some semblance of democracy in the United States, the autumn of 2021 arrived with a best-of-times respite — the seeming implosion, at least to rational human beings, of the Arizona scam that many dubbed “the fraudit” — in what otherwise feels like a worst-of-times moment for the American Experiment. There have been shocking new revelations about both how close we came to the abyss in 2020-21, and apocalyptic scenarios for 2024 that are coming into sharper focus.

The sense of urgency and angst was nailed this weekend in a truly remarkable Washington Post essay by Robert Kagan — hardly a man of the left, but rather an infuriatingly wrongheaded neocon advocate for 2003′s Iraq War — that pulled no punches in portraying American democracy as possibly on the brink of a total meltdown. Writing that Trump — barring ill health — has already locked down the 2024 GOP nomination and that a scheme to empower Trump-besotted vote counters is well underway. Kagan wrote there’s “a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”

» READ MORE: Arrest Trump for a coup that came too close | Will Bunch Newsletter

“All right-wing authoritarian movements always do this — it’s how they come to power,” Steve Schmidt, the former Republican who advised John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Friday night. “They drive chaos through policies of cynicism [and] nihilism, and then they promise to restore order with easy scapegoats.”

Partially driving the new waves of concern have been a stream of major new revelations about how close the plotting around a Trump-led coup to keep him in office came to succeeding. Specifically, there was the discovery and leaking of the so-called Eastman memo — developed by conservative lawyer and Federalist Society member John Eastman — that spelled out a point-by-point plan for how Vice President Mike Pence could push to not certify valid Electoral College results at the Jan. 6 proceedings and either declare Trump the winner or throw the contest into the House, which would likely elect Trump with its arcane 18th-century rules.

New reporting shows that Pence didn’t necessarily reject this ridiculous advice out of hand, but was talked down by Establishment Republicans including the most unlikeliest of heroes (or “heros”), Indiana’s former GOP veep Dan Quayle. We’re also learning a lot more about a supposed-to-be-secret Jan. 5 meeting of key Trump allies at the Willard Hotel, and about communications between pro-coup Trumpists and the then-president. The growing sense is that 2020 was less spontaneous chaos than a trial run for the next time. And what Trump’s neo-fascists learned is that an American election can be stolen — but only if wild-eyed loyalists can position themselves inside the sweet spots of the judiciary, state legislative leadership, and the key vote-counting roles, especially the all-important secretary of state position.

So the Trumpian strategy for 2024 seems to have two prongs. One is to create a continuous four-year cloud of uncertainty — at least for loyalists who only consume news on Fox or Facebook — about Biden’s 2020 victory. In other words, the outcome of these bogus investigations like Arizona’s not-really-an-audit isn’t what matters as much as keeping the plates of baseless accusation spinning. That’s why on Friday night, just moments after the Arizona alleged findings were released, the Republican secretary of state in Texas — which, you’ll recall, Trump actually won in 2020 — announced a new audit of four counties there. This series of “rolling ‘fraudits’” will keep the conversation on your uncle’s Facebook page for the next 26 months.

Equally significant in Texas is the presence of a Republican secretary of state. Key to Biden’s tenuous victory in the Electoral College in 2020, on the other hand, was the presence of pro-democracy officials in these key posts, from Democrats in Arizona and Pennsylvania to a pro-facts Republican in Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger. So the critical goal of Team Trump is to change all of that for 2024.

A stunning report last week by the Reuters news service found that 10 of the 15 top Republicans running for secretary of state in five key battleground states — where the post, unlike Pennsylvania, is an elected position — “have either declared that the 2020 election was stolen or called for their state’s results to be invalidated or further investigated.” Several of these candidates have already been Trump-endorsed, including Arizona’s Finchem but also Georgia Congressman Jody Hice, who is running to get rid of Raffensperger and called Jan. 6 “our 1776 moment.”

Pennsylvania — the closest battleground state with the most electoral votes, where the election was called for Biden last November — is a powerful example of exactly what the Trump scheme to unwind American democracy looks like. In Harrisburg, Republican legislative leaders — after weeks of lobbying and browbeating by Trump himself — are plowing ahead with their unpopular plan to yet again review (definitely NOT an audit) the 2020 outcome, which involves handing over my personal data and that of 9 million other voters to an unknown but probably dodgy vendor. Again, the medium — creating chaos — is the message.

The Democratic state attorney general, Josh Shapiro, has seized on this abuse of personal data in filing a lawsuit seeking to stop the GOP probe before it gets off the ground. That’s the right thing to do on Shapiro’s part, but it’s not the most important thing the Montgomery County politico can do to save democracy, in either America or its Keystone State. Shapiro is also the presumed front-runner to become his party’s nominee for governor. If he wins, he will pick the next secretary of state — and thwart a key element of Trump’s scheme.

If the GOP wins Pennsylvania’s open 2022 gubernatorial race to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf — and the governor’s mansion has flipped parties without fail since the 1960s — then the secretary of state pick will be made by a Republican who will surely have to curry favor with Trump to get through a crowded primary. One of the front-runners is a mirror image of Arizona’s Finchem — State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who organized buses to Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 and was photographed near the insurrection. If Mastriano or one of several other Trump-crazed candidates wins the general election, it’s a lock that Pennsylvania’s 48th governor will name a secretary of state who will work feverishly to restrict voting rights in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, and — if Trump gets fewer votes, again — cast doubt on the outcome, or work to simply ignore the results, as would be expected in a dictatorship.

So while, yes, Pennsylvania’s governor’s race will be important for the usual reasons like education funding or the fate of fracking, this time around voters are essentially tasked with preserving America’s 245-year experience with democracy ... or not. We need to listen with great care to what former conservatives like Robert Kagan or Steve Schmidt are trying to tell us. The future of the United States, and its vital yet imperfect promises of liberty, are at the edge of a cliff, looking over the edge. We must seize this moment to pull it back.

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