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Election deniers remain in office — and so does the threat to democracy, writer says

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

It's a new year. And on Tuesday, the new 118th Congress will be sworn in in Washington. That red wave many conservatives hoped for didn't materialize in the 2022 midterms, and many prominent election deniers lost their races. And yet, of the 147 Republicans who voted against certifying Joe Biden's election victory in 2020, nearly all of them are returning to congress - all eight senators and 118 House representatives. Our next guest says that could set up a battle within the Republican Party. David Graham is a staff writer for The Atlantic and wrote about this recently in a piece titled, "The Threat To Democracy Is Still In Congress." David Graham joins us now. Welcome.

DAVID GRAHAM: Thanks for having me.

NADWORNY: So you've written about how the U.S. has an anti-MAGA majority. Can you explain this idea?

GRAHAM: We've now seen in three elections - 2018, 2020 and 2022 - a majority of voters are rejecting the sort of Donald Trump agenda and the agenda that some of his allies are pushing. They defeated Republicans in the midterms. They defeated Trump. And then we saw this unexpected defeat of the red wave or turning back of the red wave in the midterms. So there is this group, but there's also a lot of the MAGA candidates who are still in office.

NADWORNY: Yeah. So at the same time, exactly - we see a lot of these election deniers in Congress being reelected. What does the split mean for the party going into the new Congress?

GRAHAM: I think the party is going to have a lot of internal battles, and we're going to be seeing those playing out. And in fact, we're already seeing those playing out in the battle over the speakership and whether Kevin McCarthy can lock down the votes he needs. You have some Republicans who are kind of true believers. You have some Republicans who are a little bit more part of the establishment, but also close to Trump. And then you have a large mass of Republicans who kind of go along, get along. And if they think that Trump is fading, may sort of split from him, and if they think he's strong, may stay with him, as we've seen over the last six years.

NADWORNY: You've also written about kind of these two coup d'etat attempts or threats to democracy. We all saw the insurrection at the Capitol. We're talking about January 6. But you also point to what you call the paperwork coup. Could you tell us what you mean by that?

GRAHAM: You know, I think it's unhelpful to think about January 6 as an isolated event. We had weeks of work from Trump and his allies to try to find ways to overturn the election. And this is something they had laid the groundwork for before the election in November of 2020. But then after the election, it really ramped up - all these attempts to find fake electors or to get state legislatures to overturn the tally in various states - a whole range of things. And we've seen text messages revealed by Talking Points Memo and also information in the January 6 investigation and other places that shows how many Republican congressmen were in touch with the White House and were part of this paperwork coup - this attempt to find a way to reverse the election by, if not legal means, sort of legalistic means.

NADWORNY: What is the legacy of that going into this Congress, and what does that mean in actual practical terms for everyday Americans?

GRAHAM: One thing we saw from the midterm elections was these election deniers defeated at the state level. And that has been talked about as a repudiation of this sort of thing, and I think that's true. It is true that, at the statewide level, voters have repudiated it. But when you have so many people in office in the House who thought it was OK to sort of try to overturn the election, I think that's a sign of an unhealthy democracy. And, you know, there's various ways that could play out. No individual House member has the sort of power to mess with a tally that, say, a state attorney general does. But when you have a block like this that has, you know, revealed their intentions, they could do things to undermine faith in elections. They can sort of try to rally power, and they can do the sort of behind-the-scenes things that we've already seen. So that's a threat to democracy that isn't going anywhere, even if the red wave was sort of turned back.

NADWORNY: What is the anti-MAGA coalition? Who are they, and what do you expect for them to push for this year in the new Congress?

GRAHAM: You see a lot of people. You see folks in moderate districts - districts that Joe Biden won or maybe districts that were just a couple points Republican - and they see things like an investigation of Hunter Biden as essentially a sideshow that voters reject. And, you know, they're people like Don Bacon of Nebraska, for example, who are Republicans. You know, they would have been Republicans in any era. They're sort of pro-business. They want a more conservative approach to social issues, but they're not interested in the Trumpist agenda. And they're trying to pull the party in a different direction. They want to focus on these bread-and-butter issues. They want to focus on governance. They want to do things that are going to respond to what they think the vast majority of voters want.

NADWORNY: When we have all these different coalitions, like the Trump Republicans, the anti-MAGA coalition, the fact that Democrats are still retaining a majority in the Senate and control of the White House, that, to me, sounds like a healthy democracy - all these competing ideas. Why are you not more optimistic that that's going to reduce the threats facing democracy?

GRAHAM: I think, in the short term, I am more optimistic. You know, that means that we're going to have to focus a little bit more on things that unite both sides of the Republican Party and can get through the Senate. So you're not going to see the same sort of focus on bills that are going to die immediately. You're not going to probably see a focus on impeachment. But in the long term, as long as these members are in office and as long as they've shown their willingness to overturn elections and as long as they can interfere in 2024, I don't think we can totally breathe easily.

NADWORNY: That's David Graham. He's a writer at The Atlantic and an adjunct professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, talking about his article in The Atlantic, "The Threat To Democracy Is Still In Congress." David Graham, thanks for joining us.

GRAHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.