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Opinion: How weaponizing outrage paid off for the GOP

Trump has baselessly attacked mail-in voting and accused Democrats of rigging the election. During a campaign rally in August, he told supporters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It’s the only way we’re going to lose this election, so we have to be very careful.”

On Wednesday, the President set off alarm bells when he refused, once again, to say whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. When a reporter asked him about it, Trump failed to offer up an unequivocal “yes,” and said, “We’re going to have to see what happens.”

It doesn’t take a trained detective to see what he’s up to, and some are starting to fear a repeat of the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that effectively put a halt to the manual recount in Miami, Florida, following the 2000 election between Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

After a confusing and chaotic election night, it became clear that Florida was too close to call. Gore phoned Bush to concede, only to take it back upon realizing that the race had been called with razor-thin margins and questions over ballots in Florida. A heated recount ensued.

And while Bush’s point man, James A. Baker III, authorized a full court press to end the recount in a case that was ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court, the “Brooks Brothers Riot” on November 22 showed just how far the GOP was willing to go to wage a political war that weaponized outrage and intimidation.

On November 21, the Florida Supreme Court authorized manual recounts in four counties and set a November 26th deadline. The next day, the Miami-Dade County canvassing board decided to focus solely on the contested ballots in order to meet the deadline. To hunker down and avoid the media frenzy that had descended on Miami, the officials decided to move to a smaller room on the 19th floor so they could be closer to the ballot-scanning machine, according to an account in Salon.

Chris Wallace's framing on 'race and violence' debate topic is wrong on so many levels

Chris Wallace's framing on 'race and violence' debate topic is wrong on so many levels

Chris Wallace’s framing on ‘race and violence’ debate topic is wrong on so many levels

But Republican operatives, congressional staffers and lawyers had organized a group of protesters to fly to Florida, and the mob of “50-year-old white lawyers with cell phones and Hermes ties,” as described by the Wall Street Journal, gathered in the high-rise building where the recount was taking place.

When New York Congressman John Sweeney, who was working for the Bush campaign, learned that the recount had been moved to another room, he ordered, the troops to “shut it down.”

The protesters yelled and screamed, accusing the canvassers of trying to steal the election. The chants became fiercer and the demonstration increasingly raucous as they directly confronted the county officials. “Stop the count. Stop the fraud,” they chanted.

Miami-Dade Democratic County Chairman Joe Geller bore the brunt of the protesters’ ire. When someone handed him a sample ballot to test one of the voting machines, the protesters surrounded him and demand that he desist, accusing him of stealing ballots.

“This one guy was tripping me and pushing me and kicking me. At one point, I thought if they knocked me over, I could have literally got stomped to death,” he recalled. The police escorted Geller so that he could safely leave the building. Republican organizers denied that the situation ever became violent.

The only sure way to prevent Trump from killing democracy

The only sure way to prevent Trump from killing democracy

The only sure way to prevent Trump from killing democracy

The strategy worked. Hours after the riot, the board decided to shut down its operations and the manual recount in Miami came to an end. (David Leahy, one member of the canvassing board, told the New York Times, “This was perceived as not being an open and fair process. That weighed heavy on our minds.” But days later he denied the protests played a role in ending the manual recount.) The Supreme Court later handed the victory to George W. Bush, and a number of the participants in the Brooks Brothers Riot went on to serve in the administration and work in conservative politics.

Twenty years later, it’s fair to ask: might we see more dirty tricks of this sort in the aftermath of the 2020 election?

If anything, the threat is much higher today than it was in 2000. Bush had not spent the months leading up to the election challenging the process and raising questions about the outcome. He didn’t threaten to reject an unfavorable outcome, nor did he possess the presidential power that enables Trump to use his position to try to sway the election.

Trump, who has stoked conservative outrage for years, has been priming his base to challenge the outcome. It doesn’t help that the Trump base is also much more fervent than anything Bush ever enjoyed. Many Trump voters have proven a loyalty so fierce it’s hard to imagine what the President could do to lose their support. Add to this fraught environment the recent memory of white, far-right protesters showing up to anti-racism demonstrations and at protests against pandemic measures armed with semi-automatic rifles, and it’s not hard to imagine that violence could break out in the event of a contested election.

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In light of the President’s own words and actions, officials are rightfully worried about a too-close-to-call nightmare scenario that might spur the President — or his followers — to go all-out in an attempt to make things go his way. If this happens, the Brooks Brothers Riot might just look like kid’s play.

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