OPINION: It’s a lot worse than a ‘big lie’

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By JOHN C. DANFORTH

In the cause of holding together our divided nation, we Republicans must repudiate the claim that the 2020 election was stolen. We must accept Joe Biden as our duly elected president. We must recognize that presidential elections, while never perfectly conducted, fairly determine their winners. And we must respect the decisions of our courts, even when we do not agree with those decisions.

Many commentators have described an America coming apart at the seams. Democrats and Republicans don’t simply disagree; they hate each other. Politicians have stoked grievances as Americans have devolved into a raw tribalism, of us against them. So, too, has much of academia and much of the media, both conventional and social.

The genius of America’s founders was to create a government where we, with all our differences, could coexist and flourish. We honor their vision of America with our motto, E Pluribus Unum — “Out of many, one.” We are many different people with many different interests; but, more fundamentally, we are one.

Our Constitution is the structure that holds us together as one people. It creates a system of checks and balances so that competing interests can participate in governmental decision making. It guarantees the rights of everyone, regardless of how out of step with the majority, to speak, write, assemble and petition government. It provides courts as the proper place for resolving our controversies.

AN ATTACK ON OUR CONSTITUTIONAL STRUCTURE
Donald Trump’s opponents call his claim of election fraud, “the big lie.” But it’s much worse than a lie; it’s an attack on our constitutional structure and it’s been joined by ambitious Republicans eager for the former president’s endorsement. Were it no more than another political lie, Americans could easily adjust to it. We even make jokes about lies: “When do you know when a politician is lying? When you see his lips move.” To call the claim that an election was stolen a mere lie, even a big one, is to normalize an abnormal and far more serious assault on the foundation of our republic.

The Declaration of Independence explained that foundation. It said that governments are instituted to secure our unalienable rights and that governments “derive their just power from the consent of the governed.” To proclaim that the 2020 election was stolen is necessarily to assert that President Biden did not receive the consent of the governed and that his discharge of the powers of the presidency is illegitimate.

NEITHER PATRIOTS NOR CONSERVATIVES
Republicans who claim Biden’s election was achieved by fraud style themselves as “patriots” and as “conservatives.” But in undermining the foundation of government they are neither. They are revolutionaries. The storming of the Capitol is the most graphic result of their claim. That two-thirds of Republicans have been persuaded of the truth of that claim presents the danger of post-election uprisings yet to occur.

RELENTLESS DISDAIN
More than making false claims of a stolen election, Trump and his allies have undermined our constitutional structure by their relentless disdain for courts as the proper place to resolve controversies. After losing 61 cases in federal and state courts and twice failing to attain review by the Supreme Court, Trump and his supporters acted as though the adverse court decisions never happened. In their view, a dispute that didn’t go their way in court should be ignored and the attack should be taken elsewhere: to state election officials, to Congress or the vice president, and ultimately to the streets.

Real controversies are the basis of court jurisdiction. Attorneys whose duty it is to zealously represent their clients present their case. Eventually there is an end to litigation; one side wins, the other loses. The losing party will disagree with the result, believe that the court’s ruling is wrong, exhaust appeals, and may even attempt to change the law by new legislation. But as long as the court’s judgment stands, losing parties are bound to obey it.

Vice President Al Gore honored the bedrock principle of judicial finality when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him after the 2000 presidential election. In a televised statement he said, “Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the Court’s decision, I accept it…for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy. I offer my concession.”

VIOLATING THEIR OATH OF OFFICE
That is the way our legal system works, and it has been cast aside by Trump and his supporters, even some who are members of the bar. An attack on the integrity of elections, on the legitimacy of a presidency, and on the finality of court decisions is an attack on the Constitution itself.

When members of Congress assume office, they swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic (and) bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” That is not an oath of allegiance to any party — or any person — no matter how high a position that person might have held — even the presidency. We should hold all Republicans now in Congress, and those who aspire to serve there, to that oath.

(John C. Danforth, a Republican, served three terms as U.S. Senator from Missouri from 1976 to 1995. Reprint, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

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