In the American system, with the president’s dual roles of symbolic head of state and head of government, defeated presidents generally fade from sight. The last two presidents to be defeated after a single term, George Bush and Jimmy Carter, immediately entered into political exile. Their fellow partisans wished to escape the stench of failure, and the only people who brought up their names at all were members of the opposing party. Their rehabilitation came only years later, after a long absence from the political scene allowed them to return in a nonpartisan context.
Donald Trump has refused to follow the script. He has moved into a role of opposition leader and president in exile, a sort of hybrid between a parliamentary system (where a defeated prime minister might often slide immediately into opposition leadership) and banana republic, where a deposed strongman flees the country with a Swiss bank account and a retinue of goons.
The Republican response has ranged from resigned acceptance to active encouragement. Examples of the former include Mitt Romney, who conceded that Trump will win the 2024 nomination if he seeks it, and Mitch McConnell, who agreed that Trump will have his full support should that happen. Examples of the latter include Representative Jim Jordan, who has deemed Trump the party’s leader and urged him to take an even more active role in its direction, and the CPAC Conference, which includes a Golden Calf–style statue. (The worship is metaphorical, though Politico recently reported on some Christian sects that prophesize Trump’s return quite literally.)
To the outside world, it seems strange that Republicans would not only tolerate this but in many cases actively encourage it. Trump’s appeal to his party was rooted in his reality-television-corroborated claim to be a lifelong winner. Come to Trump’s side, he promised incessantly, and you will win so much you’ll get tired of it. What value does he still have now? When previous defeated presidents were discarded, why cling to the one whose value proposition was based on never being a loser?
An important part of the answer is that, seen through Republican eyes, Trump didn’t lose at all. Recent polls have found anywhere from 68 to 83 percent of Republican voters believe the election was stolen.
Within the GOP, there are three basic versions of this belief. The most extreme (articulated by the likes of conservative-media funder and personality Mike Lindell) holds that an international cabal of living and dead progressives engineered a secret algorithm to rig vote-tabulating machines. The second, slightly less crazy version holds that Democratic officials in various big cities, where Black people always cheat at elections, manufactured vote totals in the middle of the night. And the third and least crazy story is that various states ignored the law, allowing mail voting in a way that permitted massive vote fraud to tip the result to Joe Biden.
When asked if the election was legitimate, Republican elected officials generally endorse theory No. 3. Asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl to affirm that the election was not stolen, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise refused, instead insisting, “There were a few states that did not follow their state laws,” before changing the subject. The key to understanding this dynamic is that, in Scalise’s mind, he is taking a moderate position. By advocating the least insane theory about how Biden supposedly stole the election, Scalise, in his own mind, is holding down the sensible center in his party. Going so far as to admit Joe Biden won a majority in 306 Electoral College votes worth of states would create more trouble in his base than it would be worth to appease the mainstream media.
When you begin with the premise that Donald Trump rightly won the election, you naturally interpret the events that followed the election in a different light. Trump’s efforts to overturn the result, pressuring officials to produce new votes for him and whipping up a mob to storm the Capitol, are actually restrained.
The Republicans’ understanding of the January 6 insurrection follows from their delusional beliefs about the election itself. A USA Today poll found that 58 percent of Republicans believe the attack was “mostly an antifa-inspired attack that only involved a few Trump supporters,” more than double the number who describe it as “a rally of Trump supporters, some of whom attacked the Capitol.”
At the same time, as they deny their party had any responsibility for it, Republicans are downplaying the insurrection itself. “This was a riot in which none of the protesters themselves killed anybody,” Glenn Greenwald told Laura Ingraham. Fox News has trained its audience to be able to simultaneously believe that the January 6 riot was a violent false-flag operation to discredit the right and a legitimate peaceful exercise in the petitioning of government for a redress of grievances. Both of these mutually exclusive stories share the vital characteristic that Trump supporters did nothing wrong.
Indeed, to their own minds, the Trump supporters have been doubly victimized. First the election was stolen from them. And then, after they showed remarkable restraint in the face of this crime, they are being pelted with demands to affirm the legitimacy of the stolen election. Michael Anton has written a lengthy complaint about his appearance on a podcast with Andrew Sullivan, who annoyed Anton by interrogating his refusal to accept the election. Decrying “the apparent blatantness of the 2020 irregularities, the all-too-evident refusal to explain any of them, and now the official persecution of those who raise doubts,” Anton argues that efforts to challenge his fantasies are an attack on his “freedom of thought.”
This persecution fantasy is not limited to niche websites like American Greatness. Tucker Carlson likewise decries efforts to affirm the election’s legitimacy as a form of fascism. “The goal isn’t simply to make you obey,” he sagely instructs, “the goal is to convert you.” The enemies of freedom are employing their most sinister weapon: facts and reason!
Support for Trump has ceased to be a strategy for acquiring power. It has become an act of rebellion. The powers that be wish to control your mind by making you believe Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election. In this context, denying the election outcome, and clinging to Trump, feels like an act of power.
Defeat, in the right context, can inspire minds just as well as victory. (Witness the cult of the “Lost Cause” that still exists in the white South.) Trump’s notion of “winning” used to mean supporting a candidate who would actually prevail and take office. Now it means refusing to concede he ever lost.