What has not ended — what seems endless — is Republican bad faith and poltroonery.
I am not referring here to those voters for President Trump who have been misled into false hope. It is not hard to convince people who distrust elites and are prone to conspiracy theories that elites are plotting to deny “real” Americans their influence. It does not even matter if the vote-counters are Republicans, because that is exactly what a conspiracy would do to hide its nefarious work.
No, it is Republican leaders who are responsible for poisoning whatever wells of goodwill still exist in our republic. Having aided Trump’s autocratic delusions, they are now abetting his assault on the orderly transfer of power. Through their active support or guilty silence, most elected Republicans are encouraging their fellow citizens to believe that America’s democratic system is fundamentally corrupt. No agent of China or Russia could do a better job of sabotage. Republicans are fostering cynicism about the constitutional order on a massive scale. They are stumbling toward sedition.
And they are looking mighty pathetic in the process. After Trump’s campaign manager threatened political harm to Republicans who refused to embrace Trump’s position on the election, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) reported promptly for degradation. Cruz falsely alleged that Republican poll watchers had been denied access in Philadelphia. McCarthy falsely asserted: “President Trump won this election.” It was a good thing both men were not in the same room or their strings might have gotten tangled. Other Republicans simply expressed no opinion on the validity of a U.S presidential election, as though Trump’s sabotage of democratic legitimacy was just another tweet they could ignore.
What explains this degree of deference to a besieged, erratic lame-duck president? Some legislators claim that they are just providing time for Trump to cool down and accustom himself to the election result. They believe, apparently, that the president just needs a little encouragement and self-care before he will do the right thing. This theory is less compelling on the 1,001st unsuccessful attempt. Trump will not sacrifice any personal interest merely for the good of the country. He will interpret anything short of opposition as permission. And permission is clearly what many elected Republicans intend to provide.
The only plausible explanation for Republican complicity is fear. Fear of a vengeful, wounded president. Fear of a Trump-endorsed primary challenger. Fear of voters so loyal that they stuck with Trump through a botched pandemic response, a wrecked economy and an aimless campaign.
The damage encouraged by feckless elected Republicans is considerable. Trump’s defiance of the election results is already creating confusion in the transition process. The incoming Biden administration is being denied resources and facilities: office space, government email addresses that allow secure communication, access to classified briefings. That will undermine the staffing and preparations necessary to tackle concurrent health and economic challenges.
It is particularly obscene for an administration that has abdicated the work of pandemic response to undercut a new administration determined to mount a serious effort. Trump seems determined to extend his legacy of incompetence and needless death as far into the future as possible.
The other effect of Trump’s strategy is harder to quantify — body bags are easy to count — but no less real. Trump and his Republican retainers are purposely destroying the democratic faith of many Americans. The problem is not with the substance of Trump’s legal challenges (though they seem embarrassingly frivolous). Rather, it is the broad assertion that the U.S. electoral system is rigged. A conspiracy on the scale necessary to overturn the results of the 2020 election — reaching across several states, and involving numerous Republican and Democratic officials — would reveal a system of government that is rotten to its core.
If tens of millions of people were to actually believe this, it would reduce the legitimacy and, potentially, the stability of the U.S. form of government. It would render political cooperation — agreement with the stealer of elections — almost impossible. It would encourage a desire to retaliate in kind, and add credibility to radicals who act outside the law.
It is one thing to vote for a demagogue. It is another to support a demagogue as he tries to destroy the credibility of voting itself. This is where the Republican Party finds itself at the shabby political end of Donald Trump: as an ally to illiberalism.