It’s a mark of how much President Donald Trump has warped our entire world that a month and a half after the election, every elected Republican still has to be asked whether they admit that Joe Biden is in fact the president-elect.
It isn’t that these people don’t know what happened; it’s that they’re terrified that if they acknowledge reality then their constituents, whom they assume are in a state of positively unhinged denial, will punish them.
Which has led to things like North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer’s now-immortal bit of tongue-tied desperation when he was asked whether Biden is president-elect, which included this:
“ ... there’s an inauguration that will swear somebody in and that person will be the president of the United States, but whether you call it that or not, you know, there are legal challenges that are ongoing — not very many — probably not a remedy that would change the outcome but, so, I don’t — again I don’t know how politician refers to another politician ...”
We saw more courageous truth-telling at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee where committee chair Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and his colleagues purported to explore fictitious “election irregularities.” The purpose was to show, in the words of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that “The election in many ways was stolen.”
But the most revealing formulation may have come from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.:
“Yesterday I was talking from the state of Missouri with some of the constituents back at home, a group of about 30 people. Every single one of them, every one of them told me that they felt they had been disenfranchised, that their votes didn’t matter, that the election had been rigged. These are normal, reasonable people. These are not crazy people.”
That last part may be debatable, but the senator’s constituents are at the moment both actors and acted-upon, participants in a cycle that keeps the stolen-election myth alive. They get told by Trump and the conservative media that the election was stolen. They then repeat it to Republican politicians like Hawley. Then Hawley sees a parade he ought to be leading, so he echoes it back to them, which only reinforces their belief.
As we’ll have many opportunities to witness in the next four years, Hawley is a very smart guy who counts on Republican voters being very stupid. But like other Republicans, at the moment he’s motivated strongly by fear: If his own supporters refuse to acknowledge that Trump lost, he’d better not contradict them.
It may be cowardly, but it isn’t irrational. Consider some recent poll results:
82 percent of Trump voters believe Biden is not the legitimate winner of the election. (CBS News/YouGov)
68 percent of Republicans say the election was not free and fair, and 37 percent say Trump should never concede no matter what, (Politico/Morning Consult)
66 percent of Republicans say Trump has been sending the right message to the country since the election. (Pew Research Center)
So where does the Republican base go from here? There are two basic paths: grudging acceptance, and continued denial in ways that will almost inevitably turn toxic.
There will certainly be some Republicans who take one path, and some who take the other. Those who arrive at acceptance may simply have decided that being angry about an election you think was stolen is tiring, especially when it looks as though the whole world has moved on.
And that’s how it will begin to look. Biden will be inaugurated, then he’ll be making decisions and meeting foreign leaders and cutting ribbons and doing all the things a president does, and everyone will call him “President Biden” all the time. You can say “Trump should still be president!” but it won’t change the reality you confront every day.
Democrats could tell you about what that feels like. Most of them believed that George W. Bush was not the legitimate winner of the 2000 election, in which he lost the popular vote and was given the victory by 537 votes in a state where his brother was governor, his state co-chair was secretary of state, and he still needed the intercession of a nakedly partisan Supreme Court to bring the whole thing to a conclusion.
Yet after that decision, Al Gore conceded with grace, and Bush became president. If you asked them specifically about the 2000 election, Democrats might have still thought it wasn’t fair, but they weren’t going to deny that Bush was president, and they realized there wasn’t anything else that could be done about it other than to try to win the next election.
But Republicans and Democrats are different kinds of people, especially now. And while Democrats after 2000 got the message from the elites they trusted that it was time to move on, Republicans will be getting the opposite message for the foreseeable future.
That feedback cycle of grievance among conservative media, Republican politicians and the party base will not cease. Not only that, Trump himself will be telling them not to give up on the idea that he was the true winner. That belief is the key to his maintaining his hold on the GOP for the next four years even if he doesn’t wind up running for president again.
Meanwhile, the party’s most vocal activists — the ones the politicians pay the most attention to — will be the dead-enders. So ambitious Republicans like Hawley will have to keep propping up the myth. And many if not most Republicans will never get to that place of acceptance.