Guessing when President Trump would turn presidential, and when Republicans would stand up to him, started as exercises in wishful thinking and soon became the stuff of sarcastic memes. At some point during the Trump presidency — the impeachment, perhaps — even the most optimistic observers would have to confess neither was going to happen.

Now we are told Republicans are “humoring” Trump so he can process his loss — or maybe to keep him from sabotaging the Republican candidates in the Senate runoffs in Georgia. Then again, maybe the Republicans play along out of fear of the MAGA crowd’s fury. Not to worry, we are told. Soon it will be settled, and Republicans will move on. The fond hope for Republicans to return to Earth 1 and find their spines would be funny if not so tragic for democracy.

Does anyone imagine Trump will ever accept that he lost fair and square? Of course not, and, therefore, the Republican Party will be forced to agree for the foreseeable future. If not, the Trumpian, red-hatted horde will descend — taunting and maybe seeking to primary incumbents who dare to recognize reality. Right-wing media certainly will continue to host him, giving him a platform to hector Republicans who acknowledge after the inauguration that President Joe Biden is, well, president. For right-wing media, the imperative will be to live in Trump-in-exile land lest he start up a competitive network and take his audience with him. The conspiracies and phony claims of fraud will go on for years.

Watch the Senate hard-liners reject nominees, filibuster legislation, fail to show up to the State of the Union, perpetuate baseless conspiracies and otherwise deny Biden the respect he and his office deserve. There will always be an excuse for this crowd to take sides with Trump against democracy and reality: If they anger him, they won’t be able to raise money for 2022. If they poke the bear, he might run for office in 2024 — maybe as an independent. (Really, if he has his supporters, why does he need the GOP?) And if it is not Trump, whom Republicans cower before, they might feel compelled to come on bended knee before whichever one of the princelings becomes the next MAGA figurehead.

Trump will likely threaten to or might actually run in 2024, freezing fundraising and staging a repeat of the 2016 primary disaster. Potential Republican candidates such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) will probably be inclined to suck up to Trump, hoping that they will inherit the Trump constituency. (Cruz might recall it was pols such as himself who provoked the MAGA voters to rise up and choose Trump; a slick, Ivy League-educated lawyer pretending to be loopy is nothing compared with the real thing.)

Well, Trump might wind up getting prosecuted for financial crimes, you say? That will only make him the subject of even greater pity and adulation. Any conviction would be viewed as illegitimate, conferring even greater martyrdom on him. (In Florida, I hear it is hard to vote if you are a felon.)

Maybe the MAGA crowd will tire of the aging reality TV star. (Eventually “The Apprentice” was taken off the air as ratings declined.) Maybe someone even less tethered to reality — looking at you, Donald Jr. — will emerge. If that person is effective, the spineless Republican politicians may go traipsing after that cult leader.

What options do Republicans have?

First, the band of reality-based Republicans (easily identified as the people who admit Biden won) could decide they’ve had enough. (More than one reader has suggested that if a group of three or four refuses to caucus with either side, they’d hold the balance of power and run the Senate.) The party at that point might splinter or suffer ongoing convulsions as the two sides (one pro-reality and pro-democracy, the other anti-both) fight it out.

Second, Republicans’ bad behavior might bring on more losses in 2022 as voters decide divided government with a delusional, obstructionist party is worse than one-party government. Then, perhaps, the self-correction might take place.

However, I think a third scenario is most likely: Republicans will by and large insist Trump was robbed, use that to rationalize complete obstruction of the Biden administration, and limp along as they incite their base through one feigned outrage and fake scandal after another. It simply is not in their nature to confront the real problem, namely that they are tied to a shriveling demographic that they think can only be ginned up by ever-more outrageous lies and authoritarian gambits. And let’s face it: There are not a lot of creative, idealistic young people racing to join the Republican Party to save them from themselves. What you see now — a cowardly, authoritarian-minded and overwhelmingly White Republican Party — is not likely to change anytime soon.

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