President Trump’s claims that he actually won the 2020 election and will somehow prevail upon the courts to overturn the results stand zero chance of proving true. Not unlikely. Not remote. Zero.
Yet watching the Republican Party absorb Trump’s ludicrous accusations has been depressingly instructive. It replicates the process by which Republicans accepted Trump in the first place. It also reflects, in miniature, the process by which the party has surrendered to kookery over several generations.
Even to refute the accusations of fraud is to grant them more dignity than they deserve; heroic efforts have been made by journalists at papers like the The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. The Trump campaign seized on “suspicious” changes in zip codes for a few thousand Nevada voters, who turned out to be members of the military. It asserted that its observers had been denied access to vote-counting in Pennsylvania, then admitted in court that the observers had been permitted to observe after all.
While any process involving more than 150 million people will have some glitches, there is no evidence of systemic voting fraud — and not even any evidence of small-scale fraud. To a first approximation, the net effect of all Democratic voting fraud in the 2020 election is zero. We have as much reason to believe any errors or crimes benefitted Trump as we do to believe they benefited Biden, and no reason to believe either had a nontrivial impact. Even if every last one of Trump’s bizarre accusations proved correct, they would not come close to accounting for Biden’s margin of victory. His lawsuits “have largely focused on smaller-bore complaints in an effort to delay the counting of ballots or claims that would affect a small fraction of votes, at best,” the Post summarizes.
The Republican party has skilled lawyers who know how to win vote-suppression and ballot-recount cases. None of those attorneys are involved in Trump’s ongoing legal (or I guess you would say legal-style) battle. Instead, he has repurposed Rudy Giuliani — who, until last week, was working alongside Russian intelligence figures — to spearhead the case. But even in his heyday, Giuliani was known as “America’s mayor,” not “America’s election lawyer.” His press conference — which was billed as being held at the “Four Seasons,” but was actually staged at the parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping — featured testimony from Daryl Brooks, a Republican poll watcher who claimed to have witnessed fraud. Brooks’s credibility, however, might be tarnished by the fact that he “was incarcerated in the 1990s on charges of sexual assault, lewdness and endangering the welfare of a minor for exposing himself to two girls ages 7 and 11,” according to Politico.
And while the threshold of evidence required to get five right-wing Supreme Court justices to install Trump in office for a second term may be low, it is not “barely-a-lawyer Rudy Giuliani slurring wild accusations from the parking lot of a landscaping company alongside a convicted sex offender” low.
As is often the case, what is revealing about this episode is not what Trump says, but how his party reacts to his derangement. Three broad responses have emerged. On one end, a handful of sober Establishmentarians (Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, a handful of legacy conservative pundits) have stated unequivocally that Trump has lost the election.
On the other end, Trump loyalists have dug in their heals to offer dead-end support. The Federalist, the ascendant conservative publication that has stolen substantial market share from other conservative media outlets with its unstinting support for the Trump personality cult, is ablaze with conspiracy-mongering stories. Some sample headlines include: “BIDEN’S PERFORMANCE IN MILWAUKEE COUNTY RAISES QUESTIONS ABOUT WISCONSIN VOTES,” “FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF ELECTION FRAUD IN DETROIT: ‘THEY DID NOT WANT US TO SEE WHAT WAS HAPPENING’,” and “The Spygate Coup Attempt Destroyed Media And Democrats’ Credibility On Voter Fraud.”
One column by Joy Pullmann treats Trump’s loss as self-evidently suspicious: “It would be mystifying if Republicans won more seats in the House, retained the Senate, and picked up state legislative seats, all while the same voters voted against Trump.” Why, the only way that could happen would be if Trump was somehow less popular than other Republicans among the broader public! Which every Federalist reader knows is crazy!
As usual, the bulk of Republican opinion has fallen between the two extremes. The modal party member is not going to go so far as to endorse Giuliani’s fever dreams, but also won’t go so far as to agree that the election has been decided. Republicans have indulged Trump’s fantasy of carrying out a legal coup by treating his questions as legitimate, or even presumptively correct.
Mitch McConnell, soon to be the party’s leader, tweeted, “Every legal vote should be counted. Any illegally-submitted ballots must not. All sides must get to observe the process.” The message was carefully constructed to allow for the possibility that illegal votes had been tallied and observers excluded, even though no evidence of either has appeared. Senator Roy Blunt, a GOP Establishmentarian, allowed that he would respect the outcome of the election “no matter which one of them is sworn in that day,” as if some question remains.
The most revealing responses came from the pool of prospective 2024 presidential nominees. Hopefuls like Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Ron DeSantis, and Josh Hawley endorsed various groundless charges of mass voter fraud gloated by Trump. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem forcefully rejected the premise that Republican secretaries of State have testified to the legitimacy of their election processes. “The media can project an election winner, but they don’t get to decide if claims of broken election laws & irregularities are true,” tweeted Marco Rubio. Lindsey Graham proclaimed, “Philadelphia elections are crooked as a snake,” and went so far as to suggest legislators in states won by Biden nullify the vote and appoint pro-Trump electors. “This is a contested election,” Graham announced on Fox News, adding, “President Trump should not concede.” “Every time they close the doors and shut out the lights, they always find more Democratic votes,” declared Cruz — even though the doors were in fact open to Republican observers and the lights in fact on.
Trump’s insinuations draw on a generations-old belief on the right that Democrats habitually carry out mass-scale vote fraud in large cities. The party base is already convinced in sufficiently large numbers that Biden’s win is illegitimate such that a plausible contender cannot afford to recognize the outcome of the election. The imbalance of passion between the party’s accommodationist flank and its Trumpist vanguard will continue to push the center rightward. Trump and his minions care much more about this issue than Mitt Romney does. Trump will leave office, but he will not concede that he lost the election — nor will many republicans expend much energy correcting him. Why bother alienating their base anyway? It’s not like it hurts the GOP for its most passionate members to view Biden’s presidency as illegitimate.
Of course, that very calculation is why the party danced gingerly around Trump’s birther crusade rather than extinguishing it, and why Republicans stopped openly questioning Trump’s daily offenses. The far right is far too numerous to be expelled from the Republican Party, and tearing open an irreparable rift with their base would almost never be worth it. The party’s mainstream flank has been following a strategy of quiet indulgence for decades.
Ever since his improbable capture of the Republican nomination, Trump has forced many to reckon with the party’s future; people have long wondered and worried about what will happen to the party after Trump has left the scene. Now with his departure in sight, we are beginning to glimpse that uncertain future. Trump retains his grip on the loyalty of the party’s voters — and his paranoid interpretation of his defeat is the one that is likely to prevail.