The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Should Republican voters be taken literally, or seriously?

Rioters break into the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. (John Minchillo/AP)

The latest Ipsos poll finds that 75 percent of Americans think President Biden is the “true” president while 55 percent think he is the “legitimate and accurate” president; 25 percent disagree with each. That’s the good news.

The bad news, according to the poll:

56% of Republicans believe the election was rigged or the result of illegal voting, and 53% think Donald Trump is the actual President, not Joe Biden. Only 30% of Republicans feel confident that absentee or mail-in ballots were accurately counted, compared to 86% of Democrats and 55% of independents. As a result, 87% of Republicans believe it is important that the government place new limits on voting to protect elections from fraud. Finally, 63% percent of Republicans think Donald Trump should run for President again in 2024, compared to only 8% of Democrats and 23% of independents.

Let’s unpack that. If 53 percent or 56 percent of Republicans actually believe something that is patently false, one party suffers from delusional thinking. There is no way to “understand” MAGA voters, nor is there is any possibility of reaching political agreement with them. They are beyond the bounds of rational political debate. Those who comprehend how dangerous such delusions are in a democracy must break away from them, not enable them to win elections.

If, however, GOP voters know in their heart of hearts that the “big lie” is nonsense (i.e., they know Biden won but do not like it and want to indulge in their resentment), then Republican politicians have made a tragic error in taking their voters literally. (There is some support for the “they’re just ‘owning the libs’ ” interpretation of the survey results, because Republican voters apparently think the Senate and House results were legitimate.)

If Republican officials believe they have to play along with fantastical thinking to stay in power, then they may be misreading their base. They are not following the herd, but rather radicalizing more voters and incentivizing a segment of the population to engage in further political violence. Republicans might also be boxing themselves in to a future in which they cannot accept political defeats.

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The fixation on voter suppression is only one consequence of the apparent delusion of a stolen election and illegitimate president. If they actually know Biden won and want to use voter suppression to maintain White rule in a diversifying country, then the “big lie” is an excuse, not a real motivation. Many of the right-wing pundits and deceitful think tanks who push the lie know full well it is nonsense; it does, however, serve their own interests in continuing to pursue voter suppression, which began well before the 2020 election. (These are the same people who tried to convene a voting commission after 2016 to prove that 3 million to 5 million votes were cast illegally.)

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) on May 3 said former president Donald Trump was "poisoning our democratic system" with his false claims that the election was "stolen." (Video: Reuters)

Politicians such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) — who know the “big lie” is delusional and dangerous but nevertheless support restrictive voting measures designed to prevent nonexistent fraud — reject one sort of anti-democratic conduct but embrace another. The danger is that support for voter suppression risks convincing truly delusional Republicans that they were right all along. (See, even Cheney knows we have a big fraud problem we have to fix!) Moreover, the notion that only some Americans should have easy access to the ballot is as corrosive to democracy as is the notion that one side need not accept the results. Both are a repudiation of the basic concept that government operates with the consent of the people.

The other consequence of either true or feigned belief in the “big lie” is that the GOP may wind up renominating its unelectable presidential candidate whose national approval rating remains somewhere in the low 30s and who lost the White House, the Senate and the House. While a blowout of the Republican Party sounds inviting for defenders of democracy, no one should kid themselves: Should Republicans nominate the person who instigated the Jan. 6 insurrection, there is little doubt he would do the same if he loses again.

At some point, it does not matter whether GOP voters and politicians believe the “big lie” or are simply rationalizing their Dear Leader’s defeat. The result is the same: incitement of violence, undermining confidence in democracy, justification for voter suppression and a crisis of legitimacy for whoever wins. There is really only one side here that corresponds to the truth and defense of democracy: Unyielding denunciation of the “big lie” and of any efforts to subvert democracy.

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