Governing amid an insurrection

A large bloc of voters do not believe Joe Biden won. Now what?

By: and - January 19, 2021 6:00 am

Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building following a “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Melissa Enger is a recent Prior Lake school board member who went to Washington D.C., at Trump’s urging to bring attention to election fraud. 

As far as she’s concerned, the media’s depiction of the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol is wrong: “I’m not denying that that happened but that wasn’t a true depiction of the day,” Enger said in her Mazda on her way home from Washington after the fateful events of Jan. 6. 

She said she still had hopes President Donald Trump would use his levers of power, including the Insurrection Act of 1807, to secure the second term he deserves. 

“This is not over,” she said. 

Unfortunately for the political system, she’s right. Minnesota political leaders of both parties have a tough assignment ahead of them: Governing in the face of a sizable group of voters who believe the 2020 election was stolen, a belief that motivated extremists to storm the Capitol.

The conditions that gave way to the violent breaching of the Capitol by pro-Trump extremists did not erupt in a vacuum. Views of a rigged election that fueled an attempted violent overthrow to keep Trump in power have found a home in Minnesota, at times stoked by Republican lawmakers and party officials.

The day of the insurrection at the Capitol, about 500 right-wing activists, some of them armed and wearing tactical gear, rallied at the state Capitol for an event called “Storm the Capitol.” Six Republican House members were there. Although it was ultimately peaceful, the heated rhetoric at the governor’s mansion, where the rally later migrated, led the Minnesota State Patrol to remove Gov. Tim Walz’s 14-year-old son from the residence.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman has asked the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate. 

At an event with Walz and legislative leaders a week after the attack that left five people dead, including a U.S. Capitol police officer, top Minnesota Republicans still refused to denounce the lie that the election was fraudulent. 

Democrats say the onus is on Republicans to stop misleading their own base. “If you want to restore people’s trust in our democracy, in our elections, you won’t do it by challenging the election and forming a commission,” U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said in an interview, paraphrasing Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney. “You’ll do it by telling them the truth. And that’s what needs to happen.”

Republican voters still mostly back Trump 

Politically, that could be unrealistic. A post-election poll by Monmouth University found that 61% of Republicans are not at all confident in the election’s fairness and accuracy. A Pew survey found nearly two-thirds of Republicans say Trump probably or definitely won the election. 

“It’s not unusual for backers on the losing side to take a while to accept the results,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said when its poll was published. “It is quite another thing for the defeated candidate to prolong that process by spreading groundless conspiracy theories. This is dangerous territory for the Republic’s stability.”

Republican elected officials hoping to move beyond Trump won’t have an easy time with their base, however. The same Pew poll found that 44% of Republicans say Trump’s behavior since the election has been “excellent/good” while 46% say he bears no responsibility for the events of Jan. 6.

The polling indicates a danger zone for Republican officeholders who try to leave the Trump era behind: Primary challenges.

David Rapp, a Northwestern University psychology professor who has studied the underpinnings of the belief that Trump won re-election, said it would be challenging to dissuade the most ardent believers. 

Rapp said people confer credibility on news outlets or other people who share their views, creating something of a moving target because even if they are told Trump lost, they’ll find another source that will tell them he won. When Fox News, for instance, declared Biden won Arizona days ahead of other news outlets, Trump soured on the network, as did many of his supporters who instead turned to right-wing networks Newsmax and One America News Network.

“If Trump came out and said that Biden had won the election fair and square, and he believed the election was appropriate … one possible thing that would happen is that people would start to reject Trump,” Rapp said. “They wouldn’t reject the views that they’re fighting for, but they reject Trump as an idea, or they would fit Trump into some conspiracy.”

Smith, who was in the Capitol when the insurrection began, said it is important that political leaders put to rest the lie spread by Trump and other Republicans that widespread fraud cost him the election, even if it could lead to primary challenges. “That’s their responsibility as leaders to tell the truth,” she said. 

In Minnesota, the list of Republicans who have spread such claims or entertained allegations of fraud is long. They include U.S. Reps. Jim Hagedorn and Michelle Fischbach, who voted against certifying some of the electoral college votes, even after the Capitol attack. 

They also include Trump surrogates like MyPillow CEO and potential GOP candidate for governor, Mike Lindell, who has continued to stoke the false claims of a stolen election and even made baseless accusations — contradicted by reams of video evidence — that the siege of the Capitol was actually carried out by members of antifa. 

Others include high-ranking lawmakers like state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, chairwoman of the Senate elections committee. She joined more than a dozen fellow Republican lawmakers who wanted to overturn Minnesota’s election results in favor of Trump. The effort, spearheaded by state Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said the election was illegal because Secretary of State Steve Simon agreed to a consent decree that extended deadlines for mail-in voting, among other changes.

Simon rejected the characterization. “The persistence of those myths is frustrating because that’s just provably and objectively not the way it works,” he said. “People can make the argument that our office made the wrong call, or they would have made a different call, and that’s a perfectly legitimate subject for debate, but to allege illegality or unconstitutionality that this was an end-run around the legal rules is just false.” 

Kiffmeyer, a Big Lake Republican, held a hearing last month on election security, arguing that asking questions about the administration of elections is not tantamount to spreading conspiracy theories. 

She released a statement after the hearing, saying: “To be clear: so far, claims of widespread fraud have not held up under scrutiny or in the courts. … But there have been issues, and the only way to fix them is by asking questions. I reject the idea that asking reasonable questions is in itself a sinister act.”

Through a spokeswoman, Kiffmeyer declined an interview. 

Poking the eye of the government

During the D.C. riot, Scott County GOP Chairman Joe Ditto posted a meme on Facebook saying, “I haven’t enjoyed daytime TV this much since the Clinton impeachment hearings.” 

Ditto said he was being sarcastic and not advocating overthrowing the government, but said there are a lot of Americans tired of being pushed around by the government — referring to pandemic restrictions— so when someone “pokes the eye of government we might cheer a little.” 

While the property damage went too far, Ditto said, he doesn’t see the riot any differently from other recent protests of people who don’t feel heard.

Ditto said he was confused by Trump’s videotaped statement in which he told rioters, in essence, the election was stolen, but go home peacefully.

“If you’re out there saying the election was stolen … perhaps an armed insurrection is the answer,” Ditto said. “(Otherwise) you’re just riling people up for nothing.” 

Indeed, after months of hearing from Trump and other elected Republicans as well as right-wing media figures that the election was stolen, millions of Republican rank-and-file believe it wholeheartedly and reject the legitimacy of the transfer of power to Biden or other normal democratic processes. 

The U.S. House impeached Trump a second time on this very issue, in a single article of impeachment that squarely centers on his claims the election was fraudulent, as well as “inciting violence.”

“In the months preceding the Joint Session, President Trump repeatedly issued false statements asserting that the Presidential election results were the product of widespread fraud and should not be accepted by the American people or certified by State or Federal officials,” the impeachment article proclaims.

Gov. Tim Walz, the former 1st District congressman who spent 12 years in D.C., grew angry with GOP legislative leaders because they would not unequivocally denounce claims of election fraud. In a recent interview, he said he expected Republicans would understand the need to present a united front to dispel the belief among some Republican voters that Trump won the election.

Walz said he opposed Trump from the get-go but treated him with the respect the office confers. “I didn’t think anybody was less qualified to be president than President Trump,” Walz said. “I never voted for him. I worked my tail off against him in 2016, and (yet) I attended his inauguration, and I referred to him as President Trump for the entire time he was in office.”

Simon, the state’s top election official, has repeatedly pushed back against claims that he acted unilaterally to change election rules. Simon has been sued repeatedly, and has warned about the potential of violence against election administrators because of the continued spread of misleading or outright false claims.

“The persistence of those myths is frustrating because that’s just provably and objectively not the way it works,” he said.

 “People can make the argument that our office made the wrong call, or they would have made a different call, and that’s a perfectly legitimate subject for debate, but to allege illegality or unconstitutionality that this was an end-run around the legal rules is just false. I can’t say it any more plainly or boldly than that.”

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a senior political reporter for the Reformer.

Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.