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Running on ‘Stop the Steal,’ the GOP goes all in on presidential sedevacantism

It's our version of the traditionalist Catholic delegitimizing of the pope.

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump hold signs as they stand outside of the Clark County Elections Department in North Las Vegas on Nov. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

(RNS) — It was after the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that the reactionary Catholic movement known as sedevacantism arose. It took its name from the Latin phrase sede vacante (“while the seat is vacant”), which is employed by Rome to indicate the period between the death or resignation of one pope and the election of his successor. 

Convinced that the Vatican II reforms are modernist heresy, sedevacantists contend that popes who embrace them are heretics and therefore fake popes (ergo, the vacant seat). The latter comprise, of course, every pope from Paul VI to Francis.

Over the years, sedevacantism has become something of an umbrella term, referring to those who merely doubt the legitimacy of the present pope and traditionalist groups that acknowledge a pope of their own. And then there are the conservatives who insist on referring to Francis merely as “Bergoglio,” the family name that was his before he was handed the keys of St. Peter.

For of this there can be no doubt: Francis has given the sedevacantist flock an unprecedented shot in the arm.

Conservative Catholic hierarchs and pundits regularly call into question the legitimacy of his actions (most recently his curtailing the use of the traditional Latin Mass), if not his election itself. “Not My Pope” hashtags and merchandise are now legion.

Which brings us to the parallel phenomenon I call American Civil Sedevacantism, or ACS: belief in the illegitimacy of the president of the United States. Unlike American Civil Religion, or ACR — the agglomeration of sacred national places, rites and texts that serve to unify the country — the ACS is decidedly partisan. 

Its origins go back almost as far as Catholic sedevacantism — to the Watergate era, when bumper stickers with “Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts” began appearing on Democrats’ cars from the only state in the Union that chose George McGovern over Richard Nixon in the 1972 election. Nixon’s illegitimacy was, of course, proved by the evidence of his complicity in the Watergate cover-up and his resignation in the face of impending impeachment.

The revenge of the Republicans came against Bill Clinton, the draft-dodging womanizer who defeated Greatest Generation pilot George H.W. Bush for reelection. The Lewinsky affair was merely the culmination of a Republican campaign of delegitimization that ran from accusations of financial wheeler-dealing (Whitewater) to murder (Vince Foster) and civil religious offenses such as providing overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom in exchange for campaign contributions.

In 2000, George W. Bush’s razor-thin victory over Al Gore with the help of the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision led many Democrats to believe that Bush hadn’t actually won the election. That Gore won the popular vote that year (as the Democratic candidate would in every presidential election from 2008 through 2020) created an additional reason for questioning Bush’s legitimacy.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, GOP sedevacantism took the form of birtherism — the false claim that the president was, in violation of a constitutional requirement for his office, born in a foreign country (Kenya). Corollary to that was the equally false claim that Obama was Muslim, which, while hardly a constitutional violation, in the post-9/11 era also amounted to a charge of illegitimacy. (Note the attacks on Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, for reenacting his oath of office with a Quran instead of a Bible in 2006.) 

The election of Donald Trump harked back to the Democrats’ old “don’t blame me” line, inspiring thousands of demonstrators across the country to march in “not my president” parades on Presidents Day 2017. Then Trump, like Nixon, conferred illegitimacy upon himself, inviting impeachment by using his office to interfere with the Democratic opposition to his reelection.

Nothing on either side, however, can compare with what has been embraced by the GOP since the 2020 election. From Trump insisting that the election was stolen, to two-thirds of rank-and-file Republicans believing that Joe Biden’s election was illegitimate, to rising GOP candidates’ acceptance of Trump’s fraud claims, “Stop the Steal” represents a new, fundamentally anti-democratic species of American Civil Sedevacantism. 

Whether failing reelection like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, or harboring doubts about the legitimacy of the election like Richard Nixon and Al Gore, losing American presidential candidates had, until 2020, always publicly acknowledged defeat, and thereby kept faith with the republican ideal. By going all in on ACS, the GOP has broken that faith.