A week after Election Day, Ross Douthat wrote a short Twitter thread defending the Republican party’s refusal to challenge President Trump’s deranged lies about the election. “Republicans aren’t ‘coddling’ the president,” he argued. “A minority are cynically adopting his arguments. Most are trying to figure out how to do the right thing without ratifying his stab-in-the-back narrative among voters who trust him more than them.”
That was a month ago. So how is the refusing-to-challenge (but definitely not coddling!) strategy working out for the Republicans? A rather grim prognosis can be found in, of all places, Douthat’s latest column. Our columnist is surprised by “the sheer scale of the belief among conservatives that the election was really stolen, measured not just in polling data but in conversations and arguments, online and in person, with people I would not have expected to embrace it.”
Douthat’s impression seems to be universal. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reports from Georgia that “not a single Trump supporter said Biden would take office on Jan. 20,” and notes that every reporter he’s talked to has found the same.
It’s as if the Republican Party’s decision to humor Trump’s lies has somehow led to a situation where many Republican voters believe them. Who could have predicted?
Douthat, who is normally an outstanding columnist, is himself unsparing both toward Trump’s campaign of defamation and the various coup-like efforts springing from them. His case for appeasement rested on the anti-Trump grounds that Republicans needed to win over Trump fans who subscribe to his lies in order to ease him out of the party’s leadership. “And if you hate and fear Trump,” he argued, “you should want his political party, which shows absolutely no signs of being ‘burned to the ground,’ to figure out how to persuade its own voters that Trump is not a glorious martyr who deserves a glorious resurrection four years hence.”
And how is that project going? Well, so far, Trump’s glorious martyrdom narrative is hardening rapidly into party doctrine. Meanwhile, potential 2024 candidates are beginning to offer Trump their preemptive endorsements. “If he were to run in 2024, I think he would be the nominee. And I would support him doing that,” said Senator Josh Hawley. “If he runs, I think he would clearly be the favorite. I think he would win,” adds Marco Rubio. While predicting primary races in advance is tricky, I will venture that it’s going to be difficult to deny Trump the nomination if all the other candidates endorse him in advance and compete with each other for his praise and support.
The saner figures on the right face a predicament that deserves real sympathy. They are hardly crazy to fear that a firm break with Trump will simply leave him controlling the larger share of the party. Conservative media has already seen this happen. As punishment for accurately reporting the election’s outcome, Fox News has lost a significant chunk of its viewership to Newsmax. National Review has published a few columns debunking Trump’s more comic election lies and is now watching the likes of Ben Shapiro try to poach more subscribers by insisting conservative suspicions about voter fraud must be put to rest.
If you’re committed to staying with the Republican Party — and if you believe, say, that abortion is murder, and essentially nothing the Republican Party does short of, perhaps, committing literal genocide would make you leave — then you’re going to reason your way into somehow making sense of the party’s logic. Douthat’s column tries to contextualize Trump’s attempted autogolpe by likening it to some of the nuttier views floating around the left, like the weird 2004 theory that Ohio’s voting machines stole the election for George W. Bush.
It’s true that the Republican party does not have a complete monopoly on conspiracy theories. But at the moment, barely one-tenth of Republicans in Congress have accepted the election result. The secretaries of State in Georgia and Michigan have been threatened and seen their homes picketed by angry crowds, the latter conspicuously armed. (Michigan’s government has already foiled another armed plot earlier this year, pertaining to a completely different right-wing conspiracy theory.) Some prominent former military officers, including Trump’s first national security adviser, have called for Trump to impose martial law.
Republicans have been following the strategy of appealing to Trump’s supporters without alienating Trump since Trump appeared on the political landscape. That’s why the Republican leadership refused to directly disavow Trump’s birther lies and why Mitt Romney publicly flattered Trump and solicited his endorsement in 2012. They’ve been repeating or ignoring his lies ever since: about his allegations of vote fraud in 2016, the conclusions of the Russia investigation, his scheme to leverage Ukraine, and on and on and on.
It hasn’t worked at all. Indeed, the mere fact that intelligent conservatives even have to suggest it indicates the hopelessness of the task. Once you’ve conceded that your party’s base is in thrall to a massive liar and that pointing out his lies will alienate them, your decent options have disappeared.
You can wish away reality by pointing to some crazy ideas that have circulated on the left, but nobody ever suggested Democratic Party leaders can’t afford to denounce crazy ideas because they would lose the party by doing so. In 2008, was anybody advising Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to leave open the possibility that George W. Bush engineered the 9/11 attacks or manufactured 60,000 fake votes in Ohio, lest they surrender the nomination to a demagogue who would indulge those beliefs?
Douthat argues, correctly, that the anti-Trumpers’ desire to defeat Trump is so strong that the party is forced into a self-reckoning did not work in 2020. (“Certainly on the evidence of 2020, the Republican Party isn’t going anywhere, let alone about to be “burned to the ground” as some anti-Trumpers hoped.”) He’s right about that. The problem is that, if this party regains power, it might well burn the country to the ground. So the primary task is to prevent that from happening, until the Republican Party can one day be made safe for democracy.