After the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic if you can keep it.” Whether America can keep its republic is very much on the line this November.
We — members of the Steady State — have spent our lives and careers protecting our republic. We have served as ambassadors and CIA station chiefs, intelligence analysis and diplomats, congressional staffers, and military officers. We have worked as general service officials and as members of the Senior Executive and Senior Intelligence Services.
We have advised presidents, cabinet officials, senators, and members of Congress — of both parties. We have voted Republican and Democrat. We witnessed the triumph of democracy over communism and have been on the ground as elections were stolen and democracies crumbled.
Today, we are seeing a two-pronged attack on the 2020 election: one from President Trump as he tries to delegitimize our election, and one from Russia’s president Putin, as his trolls chip away at our democratic system. It reminds us of what we witnessed in so many countries that felt the freedom democracy brings, but only momentarily. It demands action from all of us.
These tactics are not unique, just unique in our republic’s history. We have seen this game before — in nearly every democratic nation that has collapsed into one-party rule, from Venezuela to Belarus to Hungary and on and on. The playbook is always the same: undermine sources of truth with propaganda; cry fraud before a single vote has taken place; intimidate voters so that they stay away from the polls; delegitimize the election by questioning the veracity of vote counts; and use the delay of legal process to further undermine people’s trust in the democratic process.
President Trump has used these tried and true tactics since his first day in office. Like a character from Animal Farm, he claimed that what we could all see with our own eyes — the anemic turnout for his inauguration — was actually the largest crowd ever gathered to welcome the country’s new commander-in-chief. He has continued his assault on the truth, on the legal system, on our separation of powers, on decency, civility, and humanity every day since January 20, 2017.
None of us imagined we would ever see federal officers tear-gas and shoot rubber bullets at peaceful protesters in front of the White House, or see officials sent by the President in military battle dress, hide their names, jump out of unmarked vehicles, and seize Americans off the streets.
None of us ever imagined that our president would ignore and contradict medical expertise in a way that erased our chances of beating back a pandemic. None of us ever imagined that our president would choose his election and the stock market’s gains over the health and lives of our citizens.
It is no longer impossible for us to believe that President Trump may call out federal forces to put down “mob violence” at polling sites in swing states. It is no longer impossible for us to imagine that ICE officers might be stationed at polling locations in Latino neighborhoods and pull people out of line to question their immigration status, all to intimidate voters. It is no longer impossible for us to foresee a president on the verge of losing an election question the results in several states and seize ballots while claiming his actions are merely to “ensure that they are properly counted.” All these once unimaginable scenarios call us to action.
In November, we face the very real prospect of a national election, the legitimacy of which might be questioned by a substantial number of citizens. If he loses, we are concerned that the President may break with our long tradition of a peaceful transition of power and, instead, fan the flames of discord for his own benefit. We are concerned that Republicans in Congress will continue to enable him. We are concerned that American adversaries, primarily Russia, will magnify discord, spread false information, and do all it can to further divide our nation and break our spirit.
Our democracy, our republic, needs us — all of us. We must always remember that, in America, the People rule. The People are sovereign. We urge every citizen, no matter your political affiliation, to do at least one thing in November — vote. Whether you have to wait ten minutes or ten hours, whether in the rain, the snow, or enjoying the warm November sun, make this sacrifice for your family, for your neighbors, for our country.
If we have done everything we can to ensure our election is free, fair, and legitimate, and if we vote to prove that, then we will have lived up to Dr. Franklin’s challenge, at least for now.
Whether we can keep our republic is in our hands.
Margaret Henoch retired from the Senior Intelligence Service, Directorate of Operations, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after 24 years. Ms. Henoch served in CIA HQ and overseas and retired from a Chief of Station position. Before joining the CIA, Ms. Henoch worked at SRI, International, based in Menlo Park, California, as an analyst of technical capabilities of Soviet weapons systems.
Steven Cash was Chief Counsel and Staff Director (Minority) to the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security, and Chief Counsel to Senator Dianne Feinstein. He has also served as Chief of Staff to the Director of Intelligence, Department of Energy; as Staff Director to the U.S. House of Representative’s Select Committee on Homeland Security; and as a Professional Staff Member and Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Mr. Cash also served as an Intelligence Officer with the CIA, first as an Assistant General Counsel and then with the Directorate of Operations. Before joining federal service, he served as an Assistant District Attorney in the Rackets Bureau and Trial Division of the New York County District Attorney’s Office in Manhattan.