One of the big and unsettling developments of the last couple of years has been the solidification of a Republican majority that doesn’t believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected president of the United States in 2020. Does this mean rank-and-file Republicans have come to subscribe to all the made-up “fraud” incidents circulated by Rudy Giuliani and other members of the 2020 Trump legal team? Are they going down the many rabbit holes dug by right-wing conspiracy theorists? Do they really believe the “stolen election” fables that accompanied the January 6 insurrectionists on their destructive rampage?
Actually, the answers to these fraught questions may be “not really.” As a Forbes article observed earlier this year, Republican belief in specific acts of lawbreaking that made it possible for Democrats to “steal” the 2020 presidential election was eroding even as rejection of the results remained sky-high:
[A] CNN poll, conducted March 8–12 among 1,045 Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents, found 63 percent of respondents believe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election, while 37 percent believe he did.
Of that 63 percent, only 52 percent say they think there’s “solid evidence” the election was stolen, while 48 percent say they’re going based on “suspicion only.”
That marks a significant decrease in the share of Republicans believing there’s evidence of fraud: 61 percent thought there was evidence of fraud in October 2022, the last time the question was asked, which was already down from a high of 75 percent who said there was proof the election was stolen in January 2021.
So is it a good thing that Republicans aren’t buying fabricated fraud allegations or imaginary claims of massive lawbreaking by Democrats? Or is it a dangerous thing that they don’t accept the election results anyway?
I’d lean in the latter direction. What seems to be happening is that Republicans are seizing on perfectly legal and largely marginal phenomena to delegitimize their election loss in a way that makes you doubt they will ever accept defeats. Check out this recent tirade from John Daniel Davidson at the Federalist:
Recall that 2020 was unlike any election in American history. One need not declare that it was “stolen” to admit that it was obviously rigged. After all, the people and institutions that rigged it have freely admitted what they did. They suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story, censored what Americans could say on social media, introduced unprecedented changes to our voting system under the pretext of pandemic precautions, and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into putatively nonpartisan local election offices through Mark Zuckerberg-connected nonprofits for the sole purpose of turning out Democrat voters in swing states.
None of the things Davidson is exercised about are illegal. Some of them have little or nothing to do with “Democrats” (many Republican election officials along with Democrats promoted and facilitated voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic). Encouraging legal voters to vote is hardly a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance. The only people likely to care about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop were people who were going to vote for Trump in any event. The failure to secure maximum social-media coverage for one’s partisan campaign themes hardly proves “censorship.” You can add up all this stuff and imagine it flipped the election. Why? Because it was a very close election.
What Republicans seem to be embracing is a political version of the “butterfly effect” hypothesis: the idea that very small phenomena at the right time can have big consequences (i.e., a butterfly flapping its wings can begin a chain of events that cause a typhoon). Just over 44,000 votes added to Trump’s totals in three states would have reelected him (never mind that he would have in any event lost the national popular vote by more than 7 million votes). For the frustrated MAGA activist like Davidson, surely all the developments he cited had to have moved more than 44,000 votes. So the election was obviously “rigged.” Trouble is, five of the last six presidential elections were very close by historical standards as well. Were they all “rigged” because but for this or that occurrence or strategic gambit or smart investment the results could have gone the other way?
It’s a seductive but pernicious way of looking at things. In a recent analysis of the 2022 results, political scientist James Campbell finds evidence that Democrats did a better job of turning out key elements of their base than did Republicans and concludes the overperformance by Democrats was “not a consequence of vox populi. It was the result of mobilization-friendly electoral systems, organization, and lots of money — essentially 21st-century machine politics.” Sounds bad, eh? Sure does if you are an embittered Republican.
As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump observes, vague claims of election rigging — if not theft — have made it possible for a lot of Republicans like RNC chair Ronna McDaniel to become election deniers without providing any evidence of fraud:
“I think there were lots of problems with 2020. Ultimately he won the election, but there were lots of problems with the 2020 election,” [McDaniel said in an interview]. “I don’t think he won it fair. I don’t. I’m not going to say that.”
This is where a lot of Republicans have landed. All of that hunting for fraud has resulted in a tacit admission that there isn’t demonstrable evidence of explicit fraud, so, disinterested in accepting the easy answer — Biden got more votes than the deeply unpopular and polarizing incumbent, Donald Trump — they invent nebulous excuses for the loss. It was Hunter Biden’s laptop! It was the media! It was Mark Zuckerberg! This argument is great for skeptics because it just vaguely blames the people they already hate for making Trump lose without having to actually offer hard evidence of it.
And without offering the winner the legitimacy presidents need:
Establishing a system in which any loss can easily be framed as illegitimate means establishing a system in which no loss is accepted as valid. It means institutionalizing the idea that elections are inaccurate gauges of public opinion and, therefore, that the winners of those elections have no mandate to serve.
Then you get a bunch of Trump supporters flooding into the Capitol.
Let’s hope for an election that’s not so close at all.