With just a few days before the election, Republicans everywhere — whether they’re running for office this year or not — are prisoners of President Trump. His delusions are theirs, his failures are theirs, his campaign message is theirs, and the blowback he produces will affect them, too.

They checked themselves into that prison willingly. But even if they wanted to find their way out, it’s too late.

To understand what this looks like, consider this moment from a rally the president held in Tampa on Thursday, at which he revealed that he’s being urged not to waste his remaining campaign time talking about Hunter Biden and the media:

They don’t call him out on, where’s Hunter? They don’t call him out. Where’s Hunter? Where’s Hunter? Is Hunter in the crowd? They don’t call him out. They don’t call him out on, where’s Hunter?
It’s crazy. It’s crazy. You know, some people said — I get a call from all the experts, right? Guys that ran for president six, seven, eight times. Never got past the first round, but they’re calling me up, “Sir, you shouldn’t be speaking about Hunter. You shouldn’t be saying bad things about Biden because nobody cares.”
I disagree. Maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not. But they say, “Talk about your economic success. Talk about 33.1 percent, the greatest in history.” Now, look, if I do, I mean, how many times can I say it?

That was followed by a tribute to all the Fox News programs Trump enjoys, then an extended riff on Miles Taylor, the former administration official who recently revealed that he is “Anonymous,” the author of an insider tell-all on the administration. This is what he thinks will win him more votes.

Trump is certain that anyone who questions his flawless political instincts must be an idiot. But is there a sane Republican anywhere who actually believes that focusing on Hunter Biden is what will turn late-deciding independents toward Trump or motivate otherwise-indifferent Republicans to get to the polls?

Yet Trump and the conservative media are locked in a self-reinforcing cycle in which this “issue” — fed, we should note, by bizarre and ludicrous disinformation — is all they can think about. He talks about it at his rallies, so Fox and other right-wing outlets devote endless airtime to it, and since Trump spends hours every day watching Fox, he becomes yet more convinced that it’s both vitally important and the key to his victory. And the cycle spins on.

It’s not just Hunter. One striking thing about not just Trump’s rallies but also his interviews and even his debates with Joe Biden is that Trump regularly tosses out references to a series of faux scandals and outrages that most Americans don’t understand, without bothering to explain. If you aren’t steeped in what is sometimes jokingly called the Fox News Cinematic Universe, you have no idea what Trump is talking about when he mentions Bruce Ohr or “ballots in a ditch” or “the hard drive from hell.”

So Trump’s message, if you could call it that, is both opaque to the voters he needs the most and pitched at a meta-level only his most ardent fans appreciate. It’s as though in the middle of the fourth quarter he keeps wandering off the court to call in to the local sports radio show to talk about how great he’s playing, while the other team picks up the ball and scores more points.

Think about what is actually the most important issue in this campaign: the pandemic that has killed 228,000 Americans and is gaining strength in nearly every state in the country. There are any number of ways the president might be talking about it right now, but what he has chosen to say is that it’s pretty much over, and anyone who says otherwise — journalists, public health experts, the families of those who have died — is just trying to undermine him.

That message then gets repeated in conservative media and quickly becomes an official line that other Republicans are expected to toe. So they wind up looking as irresponsible, uncaring, and downright stupid as he does.

And how about Trump’s other obsession, the idea that the election is fraudulent and any result other than him winning is proof that it was stolen? Other Republicans have taken up this cause; as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told a radio show, if Trump loses in Pennsylvania or North Carolina, or Florida, it’ll be because Democrats “stole it.”

We’ve been talking for a long time about how dangerous this is, since it undercuts the legitimacy of the system and could well lead to post-election violence from enraged Trump supporters. But does it actually help Trump win?

You could see some narrow circumstances in which it might; for instance, the GOP could organize new iterations of the infamous “Brooks Brothers riot” that shut down ballot-counting in Miami-Dade County in 2000, using violence or the threat of violence to affect the results.

But it’s much more likely that it will produce Republican frustration without actually changing the outcome. For all the time and work Trump and other Republicans are putting into delegitimizing the process, that won’t enable Trump to stay in office if more people vote for Biden.

And given the spectacular turnout in early voting — as of this writing, nearly 85 million Americans have already cast their ballots — the Republican whining about a rigged election not only hasn’t discouraged any Democrats from voting; it may well have made them even more eager to cast their ballots.

Every Republican on the ballot could be hurt by that backlash. It’s just one of the ways Trump is dragging them down with him, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

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