From freedom to sedition
Updated: Jan 13
On January 6, President Trump committed an act of sedition. By beckoning thousands of his supporters to amass in Washington, D.C., then encouraging them to march on the Capitol Building while lawmakers were inside certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, he clearly hoped to intimidate Congress and his own Vice President into throwing the election to him. The resulting mob violence represented the most obvious case of an attempted self-coup by the White House as we have seen in our nation’s history.
Trump had done an effective job of convincing the attackers that the election was stolen and rife with fraud. But he was hardly the only elected official making this claim. Scores of Republican lawmakers parroted Trump’s fake allegations, signed onto a frivolous election lawsuit, and encouraged their constituents to doubt that Biden had won. Matters came to a head when a handful of Senators voted to decertify the electoral college votes of two states, Arizona and Pennsylvania, joined by 121 House Republicans who did so for Arizona and 138 House Republicans who did the same for Pennsylvania.
Many were quick to denounce these lawmakers, particularly two members of the so-called “Sedition Caucus” in the Senate, Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), who led the doomed crusade and refused to back off even as hundreds of their fellow travelers stormed the Capitol. Less attention has been given to the 120-plus House Republicans who also rejected the legally-cast ballots of Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Sarah Binder has done some preliminary analysis that sheds light on why these lawmakers cast their lot with Trump. But one subgroup of those House Republicans was especially important, not only for voting to decertify the votes of both states but also for taking an active lead in trying to undo the presidential election: the House Freedom Caucus. Consider:
The current chair of the Freedom Caucus (Andy Biggs of Maryland) and another Caucus member (Paul Gosar of Arizona) have been credited with helping organize the fateful January 6 rally that resulted in the violent assault of the Capitol.
The letter challenging Arizona’s votes was presented by Gosar and signed by 63% of the Freedom Caucus’ members, and the letter challenging the results in Pennsylvania was presented by Scott Perry (PA), another Caucus member, and signed by two-thirds of the Caucus.
Half of the Republicans who spoke in favor of decertifying Arizona’s votes were Freedom Caucus members, and 30% of those who advocated for decertifying the votes of Pennsylvania were from the Caucus.
82% of the Caucus voted to toss aside the votes in Arizona, and 85% voted to reject Pennsylvania’s votes.
Freedom Caucus members tried to object to the electoral votes of three other states: Jody Hice (who opposed his own state’s election procedures), Mo Brooks of Alabama (who objected to Nevada’s vote), and Louie Gohmert from Texas (who led the objection to Wisconsin). All were joined in their protest by other Republicans in the House but failed to gain the support of a Senator necessary to proceed to a vote.
How did a group that explicitly stands for “limited government, the Constitution, and the rule of law” become an organization whose members peddle false information to justify the national government overthrowing an election?
The single biggest reason is its unholy alliance with Donald Trump. As I have written before (most recently here and here), the Freedom Caucus decided by mid-2017 that it would serve as the president’s most ardent advocate in Congress. Doing so fit neatly with group’s long-standing strategy of working with powerful political actors to wield more influence than its small size would otherwise allow. It is no accident that one of the group’s former chairs, Mark Meadows (R-NC), is now White House Chief of Staff.
Since there was no chance that Congress would reverse the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, however, the Freedom Caucus’ current embrace of the election fraud narrative is probably less about power than about reelection. Caucus members, like other lawmakers, are quite sensitive to the desires of their voters, and some were shocked in the 2016 primaries when Trump did better among their constituents than they expected. They probably believe that acting as Trump’s Praetorian Guard, taking Trump's side regardless of the futility of the cause, will keep them in the good graces of fickle pro-Trump constituents.
(An interesting facet of the Caucus’s pro-Trump position-taking on the 2020 election, as the New York Times noted yesterday, is that it often portrayed the effort to stop Biden's election as an militaristic struggle against political enemies. For instance, Biggs said in his pre-recorded speech at the January 6 rally that preceded the assault that “I’m in the D.C. swamp fighting on behalf of Arizona’s residents and freedom fighters all over the country…I implore you to keep fighting.” It has long been a trademark of Freedom Caucus members to depict themselves as the only ones in Washington who fight relentlessly for political victory -- a Weltanshauung that Trump shares, and that may help explain why he sees the Caucus as allies. What we witnessed last week, of course, was the potentially deadly consequences of such incendiary rhetoric.)
Another reason that the Freedom Caucus has strayed from its original mission is because of its changing membership. I explain in my book on the Caucus that, when it was first founded, the group was somewhat ideologically diverse, at least within the GOP. But over time, the Caucus shed many of its “small-c” conservative and libertarian members and replaced them with more activist Republicans who embraced cultural conservatism and right-wing populism. As the journalist Matt Fuller tweeted when the provocative Representative Louie Gohmert was accepted into the group in 2017, “I'm old enough to remember when part of the Freedom Caucus' original ideology was that members like Louie Gohmert weren't invited.”
Not everyone in the Caucus fits that profile. Chip Roy (R-TX) has been one of the most outspoken Freedom Caucus members standing up against claims of a rigged election, for example. But many others are genuine believers in the kind of politics associated with Trump and his acolytes. For instance, the Caucus’s newest members appear to include the gun-toting, conspiracy-minded Lauren Boebert (R-CO), who explained that she opposed accepting Arizona’s votes while rioters gathered outside because “I have constituents outside of this building right now. I promised my voters to be their voice,” and Mary Miller (R-IL), who previously got into trouble for quoting Adolf Hitler.
The danger is not that the Freedom Caucus is no longer true to its original mission, but that it will continue to exercise outsized influence over the Republican Conference’s political strategy. Things happen in Congress not only when a majority wants them to happen, but when there are entrepreneurs willing to do the hard work to bring them about. The Caucus acted in just that capacity by campaigning so strenuously to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Freedom Caucus members were hardly the only ones in Congress responsible for sending fellow Republicans over the ledge. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) privately knew that opposing the presidential vote of states was a dead-end strategy and based on falsehoods, but did nothing to discourage it and might have even tacitly encouraged freshmen to vote to decertify results. Still, the Freedom Caucus’s role cannot be understated. Should the group lead their fellow partisans deeper into a world of conspiracy theories and the delegitimization of elections, the damage incurred on the GOP, on Congress, and on the country could be considerable.
* Photo posted on Twitter by Jamie Dupree (https://twitter.com/jamiedupree/status/1349056757310619654)