Even with the election behind him and Republicans supporting Trump’s lie that the election was stolen, Biden kept it up, predicting in December 2020 that “I may have to eat these words,” but once “Trump’s shadow fades away, you’re going to see an awful lot change.”
How do those words taste now?
Biden was mostly expressing hope — and saying the kind of thing a lot of people would like to be true. (He also predicted just before the 2012 election that if he and President Barack Obama won, that the GOP “fever will have broken.”) But what we see now is that this “fever” was only partly about Trump or those Republican officeholders.
Instead, the politicians and their voters are trapped in a seemingly unbreakable, mutually reinforcing cycle of not just partisanship but outright delusion, one that makes cooperation with Democrats all but impossible.
Let me illustrate by way of a depressing poll result:
Three months after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to try to overturn his November election loss, about half of Republicans believe the siege was largely a non-violent protest or was the handiwork of left-wing activists “trying to make Trump look bad,” a new Reuters/Ipsos poll has found.
If you were an average Republican and you wanted to believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, it wouldn’t be all that hard to convince yourself. You’d have lots of conservative media stars telling you it’s what happened, while lots of your party’s politicians alleged widespread fraud.
The very complexity of the American election system would help, too. An election involves so many agencies and people in so many places that you could imagine nefarious goings-on happening somewhere.
But now imagine you wanted to believe something else: That the Capitol was not attacked on Jan. 6 by violent Trump supporters, but instead it was actually a “false flag” operation organized by leftists. That would be harder, since it was a specific incident, we’ve seen all the video and the arrests of people deep inside far-right movements, and there is not a single iota of evidence that it was actually antifa or the Symbionese Liberation Army or anyone other than the obvious culprits.
And yet that’s what so many Republicans believe.
They believe this even though only a few Republican officeholders have gone so far as to claim that’s what happened. Unlike with the election lie, you don’t have dozens upon dozens of prominent Republicans claiming it was a false flag operation.
But every Republican understands the radical delusions of their constituents. And even in cases where they know perfectly well that a good portion of their supporters have pretty much lost their minds, the numbers of those supporters are too big to ignore. So they indulge them or change the subject — while filing those opinions away for future reference.
Then when it comes time to consider other issues, it becomes part of the calculation. If you’re a Republican officeholder, you know that your supporters are deep into this kind of conspiratorial thinking, and you’ve probably responded to your base’s radicalization by feeding them a diet of culture-war nonsense, from Mr. Potato Head to Dr. Seuss, to show them that you despise the libs as much as they do.
Which, of course, has made them hate the idea of you working with Democrats even more — they want their representatives to fight! So you keep looking for ways to show them that’s just what you’ll do, which conditions them to keep wanting it.
This cycle no longer needs Trump himself to keep it turning.
Then when some legislation is in the offing that in theory could be bipartisan — a covid-19 relief bill or an infrastructure bill — whatever the Republican politician’s substantive beliefs about it, they know they won’t be rewarded for voting with members of the other party. Everyone may claim bipartisanship is worthwhile, but when they actually have a chance to engage in it, the risks look too great.
To be clear, the Democratic electorate doesn’t much desire for bipartisanship either, particularly if it comes at the expense of substantive things they want Congress to achieve. But there’s less of a Democratic market for performative bashing of the other side. It isn’t that there’s no market for it all among Democrats, but it’s smaller; just see which Democrat they elected president.
Biden may get half of his wish: Trump is already fading, and we don’t yet know how much influence he’ll retain in the GOP. But either way, there will be no epiphanies.