One year after the 2020 elections, Wisconsin Republicans are more divided than ever. Many Republican voters have not accepted that former President Trump lost the election. According to an October poll from the Marquette University Law School, nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin Republicans are not confident about the state’s 2020 presidential election results. For many voters in Wisconsin, election fraud has become a top issue, with many voters demanding action.
Taking advantage of this sharp divide, state representative Timothy Ramthun is leading an initiative to undermine current Republicans in power. With the backing of former President Trump, Ramthun has falsely accused Wisconsin Speaker Robin Vos of both being in league with Hillary Clinton and passing voting laws that put Republicans at risk. Furthermore, rallied by many voters concerned about voter fraud, Representative Timothy Ramthun has entered the 2022 Wisconsin primaries. His ultimate goal, along with his supporters, is to decertify the 2020 Wisconsin election results. Encouraged by Rep. Ramthun, activists for decertification have held signs that read “Decertify Now!” and “Toss Vos!”. Ramthun has even turned to social media to express displeasure with the current Republican establishment “refusing to listen to their constituents”. Given how influential Ramthun has become in a short amount of time, it is only right to question how he could do so; the power that Ramthun has gained was only made possible given Trump’s backing and influence. How has Trump retained such power, even after being voted out of office?
The answer to this question lies in Trump’s subtle breakdown of norms that acted as soft guardrails of democracy. A norm, as opposed to a law, is an unwritten rule that guides behavior but is not necessarily enforced. According to political scientists Levitsky and Ziblatt, some of the most significant norms act as “soft guardrails” against aspiring autocratic leaders, preserving checks and balances . To Levitsky and Ziblatt, mutual toleration, or “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals” and forbearance, or “the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives” are some of the most important norms for safeguarding American democracy. Throughout his presidency, Trump had broken these norms time and time again, criticizing his opponents, attacking judges who ruled against him, and politicizing norm-enforced independent bureaucratic parts of the government, including the Post Office and the CDC.
The erosion of these important norms not only affected the executive but the Republican party’s process of gatekeeping. Parties gatekeep to avoid placing extremist forces into power. After the 2020 election, Trump became the head of the Republican party. In doing so, he also was able to take away the gatekeeping powers of the Republican party, allowing for more extremist forces to come in to further his policy agenda, such as Representative Timothy Ramthun. In other words, once Trump overcame the Republican party as a gatekeeper, he was able to leave the door wide open for other candidates with similar stances, thus making it easier for democracy to falter.
Seeing that the president could sustain massive support even after losing an election by breaking these norms may have motivated many Wisconsin Republicans and other candidates across the United States to follow suit. With the absence of gatekeeping from the Republican party and a lack of mutual tolerance, Representative Timothy Ramthun has been able to gain support in the state of Wisconsin. He has continued breaking the norm of mutual tolerance, falsely accusing other elected party officials. He has also gone past restrictions on power, suggesting for Wisconsin to withdraw its electoral votes and let the U.S. House decide on the next president, something which is not legally possible. Representative Ramthun was likely emboldened by Trump’s claims of voter fraud, and as a result, has pushed the boundaries of power even further.
Some may argue that norm-breaking is normal for a president; the Constitution has not laid out every single rule for a president. Political scientists Ginsburg and Haq suggest that the “flexibility of the legal matrix” allows presidents to have a wide range of responses within a legal framework . As a result, it may have been okay for Trump to break these particular norms to deal with crises or emergencies.
Yet, if norms were the only issue, Trump could not have influenced Representative Ramthun to this extent. As political scientist Robersetal argues, norm erosion is not new, but a combination of other factors is. Along with the erosion of norms, there has been a rise in polarized two-party presidentialism and a polity fundamentally divided over membership and status in the political community . A combination of these three factors has led to voters wanting to see and advocate for candidates like Trump on the ballot. This has resulted in a crisis moment in the United States that animates extremist action like the suggestions that Ramthun is making.
Trump destroyed many of the norms that guard these kinds of representatives from rising in politics. In its wake, we are left with a further divided electorate that does not trust elected officials from their party. Wisconsin Republican voters may turn to Ramthun’s extreme vision to attend to the issue of voter fraud, which could extend norm-breaking in the United States to more outright law-breaking. Ultimately, Trump and his autocratic tendencies may come back into power, unless norms are somehow restored. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).  Ginsburg, Tom, and Aziz Z. Huq. How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2020.  Lieberman, Robert C., Suzanne Mettler, Thomas B. Pepinsky, Kenneth M. Roberts, and Richard Valelly. “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis.” Perspectives on Politics 17, no. 2 (2019): 470–79.