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In six key battleground states that played a decisive role in the 2020 presidential race, Republican candidates who have openly embraced former President Donald Trump's "Big Lie" have won nearly two-thirds of the GOP nominating contests for positions with power over state and federal elections, a potentially seismic threat to democracy.
According to a Washington Post analysis published Monday, 54 of 87 Republican nominees for key posts in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have denied the legitimacy of President Joe Biden's 2020 election victory.
"A close presidential contest that comes down to the outcome in states where officials are willing to try to thwart the popular will could throw the country into chaos."
"Had those candidates held power in 2020, they would have had the electoral clout to try something that the current officeholders refused: overturning the vote and denying Biden the presidency," the Post notes. "Whether they could have succeeded in practice is a matter of vigorous debate among scholars, who cite the potential for court challenges and other means of upholding the results."
"But the experts agree on one thing: A close presidential contest that comes down to the outcome in states where officials are willing to try to thwart the popular will could throw the country into chaos," the newspaper adds. "It would potentially delay the result, undermine confidence in the democratic system, and sow the seeds of civil strife on a scale even greater than what the nation saw on January 6, 2021."
Trump, who is gearing up for a possible 2024 run as he's under criminal investigation by the Justice Department, has endorsed and campaigned for many of the candidates featured in the Post's analysis, including Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake—a former TV news anchor whose incessant lies about the 2020 election catapulted her to a win in the GOP primary earlier this month, delighting the former president.
Even in victory, Lake lashed out at the Arizona election process, complaining that the results "took longer than they should have."
The Post's analysis confirms that Arizona, a state Biden carried narrowly in 2020, is a bastion of election denial on the GOP side: 12 of 13 Republican nominees for state and federal offices there have questioned the election, including the chosen candidate for secretary of state.
Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called the rise of GOP election deniers across the U.S. "the biggest story not enough people are watching."
"This is how our democracy could crumble, quickly and quietly," Bookbinder warned.
The notion that Biden was elected illegitimately is broadly popular with Republican voters, according to recent opinion surveys. As the Post points out, "The predilection among Republican primary voters toward candidates who deny the result of the last election extends well beyond Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona—three states that together accounted for 47 electoral votes in 2020, more than enough to flip the last election to Trump."
Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote in a blog post earlier this month that "the Big Lie that the election was stolen from Trump has been pushed by powerful politicians, starting with Trump himself."
"But it may be leaders closer to home who have the greatest ability to affect the popularity of election denial among the people of their state," he added.
One prominent Republican officeholder that is actively boosting election deniers is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential contender.
The Orlando Sentinel reported last week that DeSantis is "set to appear at rallies for Pennsylvania GOP governor's candidate Doug Mastriano, Arizona candidate for governor Kari Lake, and U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters, all of whom have denied Biden's win and falsely claimed election fraud.
DeSantis was one of the first Republicans to suggest state legislatures could overrule voters to choose Trump.
"Appearing on Fox News on November 5, two days after the election," the Sentinel observed, "he said 'presidential electors are done by the legislators and the schemes they create and the framework. And if there's departure from that, if they're not following law, if they're ignoring the law, then they can provide remedies as well.'"
The Republican Party's elevation of fervent election deniers—often with the support of dark money—in battleground states and nationwide has dramatically raised the stakes of the upcoming November contests, given that they could usher into power officials willing to subvert the democratic process to secure their desired outcome.
Wisconsin offers an illustrative example of November's implications. As the New York Times reported Monday, "The governor's race this fall, along with a pivotal State Supreme Court contest next spring, will decide whether Republicans can solidify their grip on the swing state and remake its voting laws."
"Nowhere in the country have Republican lawmakers been more aggressive in their attempts to seize a partisan edge than in Wisconsin," the Times noted. "Having gerrymandered the Legislature past the point that it can be flipped, they are now pushing intensely to take greater control over the state's voting infrastructure ahead of the 2024 presidential contest."
One year after the fall of Kabul, many of the opposition commanders famous for their stand in Panjshir Valley remain exiled in Tajikistan. Analysts paint a picture of a weakened armed resistance against the Taliban and an Afghan population that increasingly abhors the Islamic fundamentalist group – but is too exhausted to oppose it.
When Afghanistan captured the world’s attention shortly after the Taliban’s precipitous takeover on August 15, 2021, the media focused on the Panjshir Valley – where late Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud held off both the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. As the Taliban closed in, the lionised commander’s son, Ahmad Massoud, vowed to fight the Taliban from Panjshir once again.
But by September, Massoud had fled to neighboring Tajikistan along with other resistance commanders after the Taliban claimed victory in Panjshir. The apparent plan was to use Tajikistan as a staging ground to take on the Taliban. At the time, analysts lamented that it was a “non-viable prospect”.
Since then, the few journalists with access to Panjshir have reported on resistance attacks on Taliban positions. Washington Post journalists who visited Panjshir wrote in June that “residents say assaults on Taliban positions are a regular occurrence and dozens of civilians have been killed, with some civilians imprisoned in sweeping arrests”.
Resistance in the mountains
This situation makes a stark contrast to the state of play in Panjshir under Ahmad Shad Massoud – when the valley was the one holdout against the Taliban during its first reign over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
“It’s substantially different this time around,” said Omar Sadr, formerly an assistant professor of politics at the American University of Afghanistan, now a senior research scholar at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Panjshir is occupied,” Sadr went on. “At least Ahmad Shah Massoud could maintain a stronghold from which to resist the Taliban. Now the resistance is in the mountains; they don’t control the villages or the highways. That makes the task much more difficult in terms of the supply chains needed for fighting; it impacts upon the quality of the resistance.”
Looking at Afghanistan as a whole, the opposition is “very weak”, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Security, Strategy and Technology. “In fact, it has turned out to be more feeble than many analysts expected.”
The opposition has struggled to mobilize tribal support as well as to mount any significant operations,” Felbab-Brown continued. “There was quite a bit of expectation that this spring they would engage in attacks – but the Taliban has been able to effectively neuter them.”
In this already difficult context, it was a strategic error for Ahmad Massoud and other resistance commanders to base themselves across the border, Sadr suggested. “The high-level leadership is in Tajikistan while the mid-level fighters are in Panjshir. Ahmad Massoud is a political leader, not much of a military leader – and it would have been much better if he and other senior figures could have joined the troops on the ground. It would have increased their legitimacy and boosted morale.”
‘More radical and more repressive’
When the Taliban seized Kabul last year they tried to present themselves as a reformed, more moderate successor to the outfit that brutally ruled Afghanistan two decades ago.
But the Islamic fundamentalists soon revealed that the “Taliban 2.0” they promised was nothing but a propaganda tool. In doing so, they alienated swaths of Afghan society and ensured that vehement anti-Taliban sentiment is by no means confined to the Panjshir Valley, according to Sadr.
“You can see this Taliban 2.0 business is not true – look at the way they’ve put in place political and economic discrimination of non-Pashtuns. They’ve banned girls’ education. They carry out extrajudicial killings,” Sadr said.
“Everybody wanted to finally end the conflict, so the Taliban had the chance to adopt a pathway to a political settlement that could have persuaded communities to accept them,” he continued.
“But the Taliban are fundamentalists – they’ve never believed in peace settlements. They’ve only become more radical and more repressive. So people feel misled.”
‘The Afghan people are very, very tired’
Nevertheless, there is a difference between feeling antipathy towards the Taliban regime and taking up arms against it.
An uprising against the Taliban would renew a chain of wars lasting two generations. Conflict has wracked Afghanistan since the USSR invaded in 1979 to prop up their puppet communist government. At least 1.8 million Afghans were killed before the Soviets pulled out in 1989.
Civil war broke out in Afghanistan upon the USSR’s withdrawal, leading to the downfall of Soviet-backed president Mohammad Najibullah in 1992. Four years of renewed civil war followed as mujahideen factions battled for power. The Taliban’s ascent to power, starting in 1996, sparked five years of resistance from Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance. Following Massoud’s death on September 9, 2001, and the September 11 attacks two days later, Afghanistan subsequently became the locus of the longest war in US history.
“Although they’re suffering under intensifying Taliban repression and the terrible economic situation, the Afghan people are just tired of war,” Felbab-Brown said. “Very, very tired.”
Afghanistan’s northeastern provinces provided the backbone of its army between 2004 and 2021. The Northern Alliance also drew on these regions in its fight against the Taliban in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But after that recent history of grueling campaigns against the Taliban, renewed fighting is an unattractive prospect for many people in northeastern Afghanistan, Sadr said. “Look at Baghlan province, Badakhshan province – they contributed the highest number of soldiers to the republic’s army and they suffered the highest casualties. Every day there were corpses going back."
“It’s been more than forty years of war,” he went on. “This could be the third generation constantly giving sacrifices. So there are plenty of people saying, 'Irrespective of the type of government, maybe we should just accept it'.”
Pakistan will ‘never’ topple the Taliban
Throughout four decades of conflict, outside actors have used Afghanistan as a venue to project power by supporting proxies. Most significantly, Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan was the Taliban’s longstanding patron – keen to ensure the defeat of the US-backed republic in Kabul, which Islamabad deemed too close to its arch-nemesis India.
Yet the Taliban has long been close to the jihadi group Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP or simply the Pakistani Taliban), which wants to overthrow the Pakistani state.
Sections of the Pakistani security apparatus are aware that backing the Taliban risked blowback. The Taliban and the TTP are “two faces of the same coin”, Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI boss Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed acknowledged at an off-the-record briefing in July 2021.
That admission was vindicated in February 2022 when the TTP claimed an attack from across the Afghan border that left five Pakistani soldiers dead. In this context, Islamabad entered into peace talks with the TTP over recent months – held in Kabul, mediated by the Taliban. So far, little progress appears to have been made.
“Pakistan expected the Taliban to help it strike a political deal with the TTP so that the TTP wouldn’t threaten the Pakistani government, and that plan has already failed,” noted Weeda Mehran, co-director of Exeter University’s Centre for Advanced International Studies. A huge concern for the Pakistani authorities is that the Taliban have been giving Afghan passports to TTP members.
Clearly, some elements of the Taliban are “acting more and more independently of Pakistan”, Mehran continued. In light of these factors, she said, Pakistan is “revising its approach to the Taliban”.
However, Pakistan’s disappointment with the Taliban does not mean support for the opposition. So Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban resistance cannot look to Islamabad for the foreign support it needs for any chance of success, many analysts say.
“Pakistan’s end goal is never going to be to topple the Taliban government,” Sadr said. “At the very most, Pakistan will make it more difficult for the Taliban to rule. Like other countries in the region such as China, Pakistan sees the Taliban as anti-US – and, of course, it doesn’t see the Taliban as an Indian ally like it did the republic. So even if Pakistan turns against the Taliban, it’s not going to support the insurgency.”
DeSantis has rendered himself a 'Mar-a-Lago beta' with efforts to defend Trump in latest scandal: columnist
While it was once believed that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would challenge former President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, Atlantic columnist David Frum argues that he's now put his ambitions in the back seat while Trump tries to mount a 2024 comeback.
Writing on Twitter, Frum laments that the GOP stood in lockstep defense behind Trump after the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago last week to retrieve top secret government documents that Trump had retained even after being served a subpoena demanding their return.
"It's shocking that so many would excuse literally anything to protect Trump," Frum writes. "But they do. DeSantis is accommodating himself to that reality, playing Mar a Lago beta to ingratiate himself with the likely top of the '24 GOP ticket."
Frum then tied this to a broader observation about wishful thinking that Trump and his anti-democracy movement would simply fade into the background after he lost the White House in 2020 to President Joe Biden.
"Those who would defend US democracy should be as realistic as DeSantis," Frum concluded. "Trump's base is not reforming. That base's control of the wider GOP coalition is not weakening. US democracy is not recovering. The dangers ahead are not diminishing."