In the late 1990s, I was sitting in an off-the-record lunch with a very high-ranking member of the Republican Party’s congressional leadership. The purpose of these meetings was to give journalists a chance to hear the candid views of influential people, peeling back the spin and polish of their public talking points. Sometimes the guests presented themselves as more sane than they appeared on television. Other times, they revealed themselves to be even crazier. This was one of the latter occasions.
One of our writers asked the guest a question premised on the most recent election results. Bill Clinton had beaten Bob Dole by more than 8 million votes. But the guest rejected the premise of the question. He insisted that Clinton’s margin reflected mass-scale voter fraud, and the true intentions of the voting public could never be known.
If you want to understand why nearly the entire Republican Party is standing by Donald Trump’s deranged claims that Joe Biden stole the election, this belief is a good place to begin. The party is playing the same extraordinarily dangerous game it has played with Trump since he emerged onto the national stage: placating his bizarre lies in hopes they can be turned to their own benefit. They don’t expect Trump’s legal challenges to produce a victory. They do, however, sympathize with his position and believe they have every right to exploit it.
Republicans Think Democrats Always Cheat
The Republican strategy has several sources of motivation, but the most important is a widely shared belief that Democrats in large cities — i.e., racial minorities — engage in systematic vote fraud, election after election. “We win because of our ideas, we lose elections because they cheat us,” insisted Senator Lindsey Graham on Fox News last night. The Bush administration pursued phantasmal vote-fraud allegations, firing prosecutors for failing to uncover evidence of the schemes Republicans insisted were happening under their noses. In 2008, even a Republican as civic-minded as John McCain accused ACORN, a voter-registration group, of “maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
The persistent failure to produce evidence of mass-scale vote fraud has not discouraged Republicans from believing in its existence. The failure to expose it merely proves how well hidden the conspiracy is. Republicans may despair of their chances of proving Trump’s vote-fraud charges in open court, but many of them believe his wild lies reflect a deeper truth.
Republicans Blame Democrats for Trump’s Scandals
Second, they believe Trump’s refusal to accept the election results is fair play because Democrats did it to him. “Let’s not have any lectures about how the president should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results from the same characters who just spent four years refusing to accept the validity of the last election,” proclaimed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
What on earth is McConnell talking about? Hillary Clinton, after all, graciously accepted the results of the election the morning after, once her razor-thin defeat had become clear. McConnell obviously does not have the election result itself in mind. Instead he seems to be referring to the broader pattern of resistance to Trump during his term.
Republicans blame the four-year stream of misconduct and outright criminality not on Trump but on the reporters and investigators who uncovered it. Trump faced “a political insurgency that refused in practice, if not in formal fact, to accept the outcome of an election its candidate had lost,” Wall Street Journal columnist and recent editor Gerard Baker rants in his column today. “The members of this resistance spent four years using every lever at their disposal — bureaucracy, law enforcement, Congress, news media — to thwart, disrupt and try to bring down the duly elected president.”
Clinton may have technically accepted the election result very quickly, and the Obama administration may have technically offered full cooperation with the transition. But in reality, Trump’s opponents proceeded to expose massive corruption and wrongdoing — and the blame for this rests not on Trump but on them.
A version of this argument comes from Trump defender Byron York, who sniffs, “Why should they be surprised when Trump says the other side cheated? After all, they said the same thing four years ago after the 2016 election.” York is referring to the investigation by Robert Mueller, a Republican, who was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, a Republican, to pursue narrow criminal cases initiated by James Comey, also a Republican. The investigation was somewhat thwarted because the aides most directly involved in Trump’s collusion with Russia, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, withheld cooperation in the apparent expectation of a pardon. But much of the evidence was sitting in plain sight — for one thing, Trump asked Russia to hack Clinton’s emails on live television, a request Russia immediately obliged — so if we define Trump’s solicitation of Russian email theft as “cheating,” then the charge is indisputable.
But Republicans experienced the Mueller investigation and other Trump scandals as a humiliation that they equate with Democratic refusal to accept his presidency. Indeed, many of his loyalists predicted that Democrats would refuse to accept Trump’s reelection:
Having internalized their conviction that Democrats effectively refused to concede the 2016 election, and would surely do so formally in 2020, they can now rationalize Trump’s outright refusal to do so as delicious revenge.
Wild Fraud Claims Are Now “the Process”
Third, they have rationalized Trump’s conspiracy-mongering as a simple and uncontroversial call to follow the rules. Ben Shapiro elucidated the party line, “The legal process must play out,” as if the normal way elections are resolved is to have attorneys appear in the parking lot of a landscaping company hurling bizarre charges.
Ginning up no-hope lawsuits to throw out tens of thousands of votes in multiple states was obviously never part of “the process” of American presidential elections until now. Trump’s supporters rationalize it as a necessary step to assure his fans that the election was fair. “Under the contentious circumstances of this election, the traditional media’s decision to declare a victor before the official process had run its course has diminished the confidence of Trump voters in the announced result,” argues Andy Puzder, rejected Labor-secretary nominee and author of The Capitalist Comeback: The Trump Boom and the Left’s Plot to Stop It. “Even if the declaration of a Biden victory is found to be accurate, the call was premature, and it will make the effort to unify our nation far more difficult.”
Note the circular logic: The election is “contentious” because Trump has made it contentious, and the media declared a victory before “the process ran its course” because Trump refused to accept the outcome as other candidates have, and therefore his supporters need and deserve special reassurance.
Puzder points to 2012 as an election that proceeded without any such suspicion: “In 2012, many Republicans felt disappointed when Mitt Romney lost to President Obama. Very few felt cheated.”
In fact, one Republican who did feel cheated by the 2012 result was Donald Trump. The famous birther had a public meltdown on Election Night, labeling the outcome a “sham” and calling for a march on Washington to carry out a “revolution”:
This is not “the process” for how American candidates respond to clear defeat. It’s Trump’s process for denying defeat. But when he accused Ted Cruz of stealing the 2016 Iowa caucus, Republicans oddly did not see the need for a process to play out to assure Trump’s fans the result was fair.
Trump Is Rallying Their Base
Finally, Republicans believe Trump’s attacks on the election outcome will help them. A senior Republican official confessed the the party’s calculation in a breathtakingly cynical quote to the Washington Post:
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” said one senior Republican official. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”
Post reporter Robert Costa adds that the party sees Trump’s paranoid claims as an excellent motivator for the January Senate special elections in Georgia:
Republicans had little success in teaching their voters to despise and fear Biden like they despised and feared Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump’s election fraud lies are doing that work for them now, whipping the base into a frenzy of anger and priming them to regard Biden as the beneficiary of a stolen election.
This is not a plot to steal the 2020 election. It is a decades-long campaign to undermine American democracy, which treats Democratic governance as inherently illegitimate.
Republicans played Russian roulette with American democracy by supporting the presidency of an aspirational authoritarian. They’ll continue doing so by supporting his paranoid attacks on the electoral process. The reason they’re willing to weaken American democracy is very simple: They don’t care about democracy.