After five years spent bullying the Republican Party into submission, President Donald Trump finally met his match in Aaron Van Langevelde.
That’s right. In the end, it wasn’t a senator or a judge or a general who stood up to the leader of the free world. There was no dramatic, made-for-Hollywood collision of cosmic egos. Rather, the death knell of Trump’s presidency was sounded by a baby-faced lawyer, looking over his glasses on a grainy Zoom feed on a gloomy Monday afternoon, reading from a statement that reflected a courage and moral clarity that has gone AWOL from his party, pleading with the tens of thousands of people watching online to understand that some lines can never be uncrossed.
“We must not attempt to exercise power we simply don’t have,” declared Van Langevelde, a member of Michigan’s board of state canvassers, the ministerial body with sole authority to make official Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. “As John Adams once said, 'We are a government of laws, not men.' This board needs to adhere to that principle here today. This board must do its part to uphold the rule of law and comply with our legal duty to certify this election.”
Van Langevelde is a Republican. He works for Republicans in the Statehouse. He gives legal guidance to advance Republican causes and win Republican campaigns. As a Republican, his mandate for Monday’s hearing—handed down from the state party chair, the national party chair and the president himself—was straightforward. They wanted Michigan’s board of canvassers to delay certification of Biden’s victory. Never mind that Trump lost by more than 154,000 votes, or that results were already certified in all 83 counties. The plan was to drag things out, to further muddy the election waters and delegitimize the process, to force the courts to take unprecedented actions that would forever taint Michigan’s process of certifying elections. Not because it was going to help Trump win but because it was going to help Trump cope with a loss. The president was not accepting defeat. That meant no Republican with career ambitions could accept it, either.
Which made Van Langevelde’s vote for certification all the more remarkable. With the other Republican on the four-person board, Norman Shinkle, abstaining on the final vote—a cowardly abdication of duty—the 40-year-old Van Langevelde delivered the verdict on his own. At a low point in his party’s existence, with much of the GOP’s leadership class pre-writing their own political epitaphs by empowering Trump to lay waste to the country’s foundational democratic norms, an obscure lawyer from west Michigan stood on principle. It proved to be the nail in Trump’s coffin: Shortly after Michigan’s vote to certify, the General Services Administration finally commenced the official transition of power and Trump tweeted out a statement affirming the move “in the best interest of our Country.”
Still, the drama in Lansing raised deeper questions about the health of our political system and the sturdiness of American democracy. Why were Republicans who privately admitted Trump’s legitimate defeat publicly alleging massive fraud? Why did it fall to a little-known figure like Van Langevelde to buffer the country from an unprecedented layer of turmoil? Why did the battleground state that dealt Trump his most decisive defeat—by a wide margin—become the epicenter of America’s electoral crisis?
In conversations with more than two dozen Michigan insiders—elected officials, party elders, consultants, activists—it became apparent how the state’s conditions were ripe for this sort of slow-motion disaster. Michigan is home to Detroit, an overwhelmingly majority Black city, that has always been a favorite punching bag of white Republicans. The state had viral episodes of conflict and human error that were easily manipulated and deliberately misconstrued. It drew special attention from the highest levels of the party, and for the president, it had the potential to settle an important score with his adversary, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Perhaps most important, Trump’s allies in Michigan proved to be more career-obsessed, and therefore more servile to his whims, than GOP officials in any other state he has cultivated during his presidency, willing to indulge his conspiratorial fantasies in ways other Republicans weren’t.
This, Republicans and Democrats here agreed, was the essential difference between Michigan and other states. However sloppy Trump’s team was in contesting the results in places like Georgia and Wisconsin, where the margins were fractional, there was at least some plausible justification of a legal challenge. The same could never be said for Michigan. Strangely liberated by his deficit of 154,000 votes, the president’s efforts here were aimed not at overturning the results, but rather at testing voters’ faith in the ballot box and Republicans’ loyalty to him.
“We have to see this for what it is. It’s a PR strategy to erode public confidence in a very well-run election to achieve political ends,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said in an interview last week. “This was not any type of valid legal strategy that had any chance at ultimately succeeding.”
“Anybody can sue anybody for any reason. But winning is a whole different matter. And Trump didn’t have a realistic pathway here,” Brian Calley, the former GOP lieutenant governor, told me prior to the certification vote. “I’m not too worried about the end result in Michigan. I understand the drama. … I know the system looks clunky. But I actually think we’ll look back on this and say, you know, we’ve actually got a very strong system that can stand up to a lot of scrutiny.”
Benson and Calley were right that Trump was never going to succeed at altering the outcome in Michigan—or in any of the other contested states, or in the Electoral College itself. The 45th president’s time in office is drawing to a close. No amount of @realdonaldtrump tweets or wild-eyed allegations from his lawyers or unhinged segments on One America News can change that.
But what they can change—where he can ultimately succeed—is in convincing unprecedented numbers of Americans that their votes didn’t count. Last month, Gallup reported that the public’s confidence in our elections being accurate dropped 11 points since the 2018 midterms, which included a 34-point decrease among Republicans. That was before a daily deluge of dishonest allegations and out-of-context insinuations; before the conservative media’s wall-to-wall coverage of exotic conspiracy theories; before the GOP’s most influential figures winked and nodded at the president of the United States alleging the greatest fraud in U.S. history.
Trump failed to win Michigan. But he succeeded in convincing America that a loss, no matter how conclusive, may never again be conclusive enough.
For now, the guardrails have withstood the crash of our democratic process. When Republicans next try this -- and I guarantee you it will happen again, with a more intelligent, more disciplined autocratic monster -- they may not hold at all. The Trump regime should have been stopped four years ago. Instead it was enabled every step of the way by Republicans who were greedy, hateful, racist, and evil.
By the way, Aaron Van Langevelde is facing death threats and excommunication from the GOP. He should want to leave, frankly. He has a security detail for him and his family now because the death threats are very credible considering these same deranged terrorists tried to kidnap the governor and other state executives in order to execute them on live television.
The Battle of Michigan may be done for now. The war will last the rest of my lifetime.