The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP reckoning never came

President Trump, right, meets with Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), center, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), left, at the White House in March 2017.
President Trump, right, meets with Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), center, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), left, at the White House in March 2017. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Over the years, Republican politicians seemed many times to be on the cusp of a reckoning — a realization that a lunatic fringe had seized control of the party’s more pragmatic center and that conspiracy-theorizing, race-baiting, science-denigrating demagogues had transformed the GOP base into ungovernable paranoiacs. The situation seemed untenable; the fever had to break eventually.

Yet the party’s radicalization continued, and the reckoning never came. Today, U.S. democracy is paying the price as millions of Americans refuse to acknowledge the results of a legitimate election, and their leaders appear too cowardly or too powerless to disrupt the collective delusion.

Republican politicians have had ample motives to decide that enough was enough, that they had lost control of a once-useful strain of the paranoid style in American politics and that the golem must be decommissioned. Public association with tinfoil-hatters is usually bad PR, after all. Or, as William F. Buckley Jr. put it in his quest to purge the Birchers from conservatism 60 years ago, linkage with extremists might allow the media “to anathematize the entire American right wing.”

The MAGA march on D.C. showed Trump supporters are not a monolith, but their dedication to the president is singular. (Video: The Washington Post)

More recently, Republican fellowship with unstable bigots has alienated segments of the population their party wishes to woo — women, minorities, immigrants and others who might be otherwise open to right-of-center ideas.

Plus, should a party that houses such rabble manage to capture power, governing is difficult if the base believes bonkers things. Such as the premise that the greatest threat to public safety today isn’t a deadly pandemic but a fictional, Democrat-run child-sex ring.

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Still, Republican leadership refused to eject the nutters from their party when, say, birtherism swept through the base. They may have privately winced at the racist conspiracy theory, but they nonetheless found it too useful to delegitimize the first Black president.

The reckoning also didn’t come after Mitt Romney, endorsed by one of the leading birthers, lost in 2012. The GOP dissected Romney’s defeat in an infamous “autopsy” report that concluded the party needed to develop more “non-inflammatory and inclusive” messaging — a recommendation it promptly ignored.

The reckoning didn’t come after then-candidate Donald Trump cleared the 2016 primary field, barking inflammatory and non-inclusive messaging that other Republicans had merely whispered or winked at. Perhaps afraid to out themselves as the “establishment” Trump railed against, Republican officials shrugged as Trump promulgated ever more cynical conspiracy theories about fake unemployment numbers, a climate change “hoax” and homicidal immigrant hordes. At the time, I predicted that Trump’s electoral loss would force the GOP to acknowledge it needed another Buckley-esque purge, draining the right-wing fever swamps, at least if it wished to survive.

I was wrong, of course. The reckoning didn’t come then, either, because Trump won.

Nor did it arrive after Trump crossed multiple lines Republicans once considered uncrossable, including: a Muslim ban; government-sanctioned child abuse; command-and-control-style economic policies; prioritizing his own political interests ahead of national security; or a bungled federal response to a global pandemic, in which Trump and his associates fed the public disinformation about a Democratic “hoax” and various snake-oil cures, rather than emphasizing the “personal responsibility” that was once a GOP tenet.

These were all opportunities for Republican politicians to divorce themselves from Trumpism — which was both a conclusion and extension of the earlier right-wing-paranoid movement, though its members now wore MAGA caps instead of tinfoil ones. Yet with rare exceptions, party elders stood by Trump. They feared Trump’s itchy Twitter finger and the populist base that he now fully controlled.

And so the fever never broke, the frog never leapt from the now-boiling water, the reckoning never came.

Then, last month, something happened that seemed grounds for hope: Trump lost. Surely this, I thought, must force his party to finally excise its necrotic political tissue, once leaders recognized it had cost them not just their principles and 300,000 American lives but also the White House.

Instead of learning from their loss, however, GOP officials simply deny it happened. They indulge Trumpers’ conspiracy theories that he won reelection. They turn a blind eye as the president provokes threats of violence against state officials (including fellow Republicans) responsible for ballot counts. Nearly two-thirds of House Republicans signed onto a lawsuit seeking to overturn the election, even as they surely knew the case would get laughed out of court. When the party’s unofficial mouthpiece, Fox News, interrupted the mass delusion by recognizing Joe Biden’s win, that somehow just created business opportunities for news organizations even more extreme than Fox News.

Now that the electors have voted, certifying Biden as president-elect, maybe Republican leaders will finally acknowledge the defeat and the existential threat they face if the party doesn’t confront what it has become. Instead, I fear, they’ll stick with Trump, dog-whistling past the graveyard.

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