Trump’s all-over-the-place political messaging complicates matters. On one hand, Trump endorses numerous candidates and argues that his fans should put his friends in office. That helps the GOP when it is deployed on behalf of Republican nominees, as was the case on Wednesday in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. GOP leaders could live with Trump’s rants if this were primarily what he was up to.
But it’s not. He is also increasingly focusing on his false allegations that Democrats fraudulently stole the 2020 election. Trump upped the ante Wednesday by sending a message warning that Republican voters will not turn out in 2022 unless GOP leaders “solved” the purported fraud. That’s a shot across Republican leaders’ bow that Trump clearly hopes will lead to them to embark as willing sailors on his suicide cruise into the rocks of fact and public opinion.
Most Republicans will ignore Trump’s suggestion not to vote even as they hold him in high esteem. They fear the Democratic agenda too much to do otherwise. But Republicans could be torpedoed if even a small portion stays home. That arguably happened in Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections in January, when Democrats captured both seats by narrow margins as Republicans voted at lower rates than Democrats. If President Biden recovers politically, that small voter boycott could be the difference between Republicans retaking the Senate and defeat.
McConnell has tried to turn a blind eye to Trump’s fulminations. He excoriated Trump on the Senate floor after the impeachment vote in February but has otherwise not actively attempted to contest or rebut Trump’s claims. He clearly hopes the issue will go away on its own, allowing Republican voters to concentrate on the Biden administration’s liberal policies.
Trump’s statement shows those hopes are naive. As long as Trump is politically active, he will push his election fraud narrative to anyone who listens. That will have an effect whether McConnell likes it or not. The only question remaining, then, is whether benign neglect continues to be the optimal strategy.
McConnell would be wise to start preparing to fight back. He knows that Trump’s allegations are figments of his fevered imagination. It takes time to demolish each of the specific allegations that too many Republicans believe to be true. But without that exertion, those Republicans will continue to believe the election was stolen. And if they believe that, some might not vote at all. McConnell should not take that risk.
He can start with the bully pulpit he commands, the Senate floor. He can give a speech — or better yet, a series of speeches — specifically demolishing each of Trump’s lies. He can explain why Dominion’s voting machines couldn’t have flipped votes as many Republicans believe they did, and why post-election hand checks of paper ballots would have caught them if they did. He can painstakingly show how election officials in large, Democratic-run cities may have been sloppy, but they did not stuff the ballot box after the fact to push Biden over the top. And he can conclusively prove that demographically similar communities behaved in the same way whether they were in swing states or safe states, and whether mail-in balloting was a feature or a bug of each state’s voting.
McConnell shouldn’t stop there. He should enlist the support of leading figures whom Trump backers trust, such as Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham or radio stars such as Mark Levin. They should be shown the facts in excruciating detail and told that their tacit support for Trump’s lies could give Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) more power after the midterms. Their endorsement, and those of others like them in other conservative spheres of influence, would force Republican voters to face the facts. And that would force Trump to face the music: His grift is up.
McConnell is one of the savviest political strategists of the past half-century. He probably already knows this is a Rubicon he must cross, even if that risks an open fight with Trump. But he also knows that the facts are on his side, and fear of Democratic victory in the midterms will incline even ardent Trumpians to hear him out. That should give him the courage to fuel his cunning and do what he does best: win.