President Trump needs Republicans to help him validate his big lie that the votes of millions of Americans are illegitimate and that the election is being stolen from him. Meanwhile, Republicans need Trump to keep his voters energized for two big Senate runoffs in Georgia.

This has created a Faustian bargain of sorts: Republicans keep feeding the illusion that the outcome of the presidential race remains in doubt by refusing to say Trump should concede. And Trump keeps screaming that the outcome is fraudulent, which he may or may not actually believe, but either way, it has utility to Republicans because it keeps his voters in a fury.

But at the core of this bargain is a fatal flaw, one rooted in iron facts about the law and the calendar: Republicans cannot sustain this illusion for much longer. Which hints at longer-term truths about the current situation and how it might ultimately wind down.

The flaw in this bargain is evident in the fact that Trump is reportedly angry at Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republicans for not doing quite enough to keep that illusion alive.

CNN reports that the Senate majority leader has been vocally arguing that Trump is perfectly within his rights to claim the outcome remains unknown for a reason:

McConnell's speech followed a days-long pressure campaign from Trump and his closest allies, who privately urged congressional Republicans to support their evidence-free claims that the election was fraudulent. While a handful had taken up the cause, by Monday the President had grown frustrated that more top Republicans had not put out statements or gone on TV to amplify his message, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The President, feeling as though McConnell and others had abandoned him, lashed out at some GOP allies, and even dangled the idea of not helping Republicans in two runoff elections in Georgia that will decide which party controls the Senate, according to one person told about the outburst. Multiple sources close to McConnell have denied Trump said this directly to McConnell.

Whatever the details of this encounter, everyone knows Republicans are feeding the idea that the outcome remains in doubt for purely instrumental purposes. They would be perfectly happy for Trump to win through illicit means, but with that looking less likely, they still need Trump voters worked up for the Georgia runoffs, which will determine Senate control. Admitting Trump lost could deenergize them.

What’s telling is that Trump is angry at Republicans for falling short in this regard.

That’s ludicrous on its face: Many Republicans have amplified Trump’s claims about fraud — the two GOP senators in Georgia even called for the Republican secretary of state to resign because he wouldn’t lie about the integrity of the election Trump is losing there. And conspicuously few Republicans have dared suggest the Trump administration must begin cooperating with the transition.

But the point is, as angry as Trump is now, sustaining this illusion can only grow harder from here, because his route ahead is filled with dead ends.

Trump is out of options

Writing in the Atlantic, election law expert Rick Hasen explains why Trump’s current legal efforts are all but certain to fail. In no state that Trump is contesting is Biden’s lead small enough to be impacted by the lawsuits Trump is pursuing, even if he wins here and there, which he probably won’t.

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign’s lawsuit in Pennsylvania, which seeks to accomplish something bigger, won’t work. The aim there, as Hasen explains, is to decertify the results based on the absurd notion that because mail ballots are processed differently from in-person ones, an equal protection violation has occurred.

But if this were right, then voting everywhere across the country would be guilty of the same. And beyond that, as Hasen notes, the biggest Hail Mary of them all — getting a friendly GOP legislature to appoint a separate slate of pro-Trump electors — will also fail. The only conceivable way it might work is if the voting in that state didn’t render a clear verdict, but it has in every one of them.

So what happens when the Trump campaign loses more lawsuits and it becomes increasingly evident that there’s no path left? Trump will grow angrier, and his demands that Republicans remain in the fight will grow more unhinged.

But the illusion cannot be maintained forever. And the calendar is unforgiving. All the key states where Trump is still fighting — including Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania — are supposed to certify their results by the end of this month.

The Georgia runoffs are in early January. What will happen to the Faustian bargain in the interim? There will be still more talk of pulling off a miracle when Congress meets to count the electoral college votes, also in early January. But it will be noise.

The Faustian bargain will unravel

Which gets at a darker aspect of the Faustian bargain. As GOP strategist Liam Donovan explains, untold numbers of Trump voters trust him more than they trust Republicans. When Trump tells them the election was stolen, it’s not just that they believe it; it’s also that they’re inclined to think Republican leaders will sell them out on this point as well, since Trump has told them for years that all our institutions are corrupt.

That leaves little space for Republicans to say that the election’s outcome and Trump’s loss are actually legitimate without being cast as his betrayers, potentially depressing GOP voter turnout.

If sustaining the illusion that Trump won becomes increasingly impossible, it’s not clear what happens then. This isn’t to say this will automatically lead to a loss in Georgia. Trump voters may remain energized by anger over his loss. But it is to say that the Faustian bargain will come under increasing strain.

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