No serious actor in Washington doesn't know that. Some unserious ones don't, sure. Many others pretend not to acknowledge it because Trump did such a good job transferring the rejection of objective reality he'd spent years inculcating in his supporters into a belief that something nebulously devious had happened. But even the Republicans pretending that Trump's claims were true know that they aren't. They just don't want to be one of the dozens of Republicans facing angry rebukes from their constituents for having the gall to acknowledge that maybe Trump wasn't entirely forthright.
One of those facing a rebuke is Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who voted to impeach Trump for his role in fomenting the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Cheney is the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House caucus and the lone voice among the party’s leadership to consistently denounce Trump’s falsehoods about the outcome of the election. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) condemned Trump relatively gently on Jan. 6, but within weeks had gone to Mar-a-Lago, where he received the blessing of a smiling photo with the former president.
The second-highest-ranking Republican in the House is Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). He was on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, where host Jonathan Karl raised the subject of McCarthy’s change of heart. He asked Scalise a simple question: Did he acknowledge that Trump lost fairly?
“Joe Biden won the election. He is the legitimate president of the United States,” Karl prompted. “The election was not stolen, correct?”
After an aside in which Scalise asserted the obviously untrue claim that Biden, a month into his presidency, had “killed millions of American energy jobs,” he addressed Karl’s point.
“At the end of the day,” Scalise said, “when you look at where we are in this country, either we're going to address the problems that happened with the election that people are still — millions of people are still concerned about — the Constitution says state legislatures set the rules for elections. That didn't happen in a few states.”
The two went back and forth a bit before Karl returned to his question.
“I asked you, is he the legitimate president of the United States,” he asked, “and do you concede that this election was not stolen?”
“Look, once — once the — once the electors are counted, yes, he's the legitimate president,” Scalise said. “But if you're going to ignore the fact that there were states that did not follow their own state legislatively set laws, that's the issue at heart, that millions of people still are not happy with and don't want to see happen again.”
“You know, look, we — you can rehash the election from 2020 all day long,” he continued. “but there are people concerned about what the next election is going to look like. Are we going to finally get back to the way the rule of law works? And I think that's the biggest frustration many people have, is those states that didn't follow the law, are they going to keep doing that in the future, or are we going to finally get back to what the Constitution calls out for electing our leaders?”
Somewhere beyond the clouds, there is a dusty, malodorous temple in which there stands a pedestal. On that pedestal, there is a thick book. In that book are documented the least credible efforts to put a positive spin on toxic political assertions and actions. And into that book on Sunday morning, a spectral hand inscribed Scalise’s words with satisfaction.
There are few Republicans outside of the Capitol building who sincerely focus their concerns about the 2020 election on how the rules for casting ballots in 2020 were changed. The spittle-flecked claim, which generated enough fury to overrun the Capitol, was that the rules allowed Democrats to cheat, casting illegal ballots (which, like Smurfs, remain undiscovered here in the real world). Saying that “there were states that did not follow their own state legislatively set laws” is “the biggest frustration many people have” is like saying that a Mason jar shortage is the biggest frustration people have during the coronavirus pandemic. Some people are frustrated by that, sure! But most people have very different concerns, as they have made so abundantly clear that pretending otherwise is simply ridiculous.
Scalise is seizing upon a compromise between reality and Trumpism first picked out by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). In announcing his plan to object to the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6, Hawley declared that he was doing so because the state of Pennsylvania’s legislature had changed its voting rules before 2020 in a way that conflicted with the state’s Constitution. Never mind that the change was made in 2019, never mind that it was passed by Republican majorities in the legislature, never mind that the 2020 primary was conducted under the same rules, never mind that the law hasn’t been determined to be unconstitutional and never mind that a court did determine that the validity of the law shouldn’t affect the results of the election — this was nonetheless the affront that Hawley argued necessitated throwing out the state’s electoral votes, cracking open a door for Trump to somehow seize a second term in office.
Yeah, that’s what Republican voters are mad about. I think we all remember the guy with the horns standing in the Senate chamber on the afternoon of Jan. 6, shouting that he and his friends had overrun the seat of legislative power in the United States because they were concerned that no court had adjudicated the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s absentee voter rules. We all remember seeing those signs saying “Stop the Steal,” under which was a lengthy paragraph explaining that the word “steal” in the stated context referred solely to existing questions about the ways in which legislators expanded the availability of votes in the face of a global pandemic.
Scalise is one of those people pretending to believe Trump’s false claims. He’s not going to go all-in on ABC News with Karl sitting there, obviously, but he’ll make the sanitized version of the case. After all, Trump’s falsehoods about fraud are very useful to Scalise and his party, as they allow it to advocate for new rules limiting the ability of voters to cast votes — changes that often disadvantage Democratic candidates. In Georgia, for example, where the state went from having two Republican senators and having voted for Trump in the beginning of November to electing two Democratic senators and voting for Biden at the end of January, Republican legislators have proposed slashing early voting, including rules that have allowed Black religious leaders to encourage people to vote on Sundays after church. You know, because Republicans are so worried about states changing their rules.
This week, Scalise will appear at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering that has largely become a trade event for MAGA-ism. He’s providing introductory remarks for and participating in a panel called, “Tolerance Reimagined: The Angry Mob and Violence in Our Streets.” Scalise, you’ll recall, was shot and nearly killed during a mass-shooting event in Virginia in 2017 perpetrated by a left-wing shooter. The panel will obviously focus on incidents of violence that occasionally spiraled out of Black Lives Matter protests last summer. It seems unlikely to spend much time examining the violence at the Capitol.
Asked about that violence by Karl, Scalise pointed to his condemnation of it in a Wall Street Journal opinion essay.
“It would be equally naive to think that the Capitol rioters arrived at their decisions in a void. Violent rhetoric helps radicalize people,” he wrote there. “Republicans and Democrats alike must have the moral clarity to call this language out whenever it is spoken, not only when it comes from the other side of the political aisle.”
An hour after Scalise’s panel about violence on Feb. 26, CPAC will have a panel about “why we must protect elections.” That will be followed by one about how “judges and media refused to look at the evidence” of voter fraud. That afternoon there will be a third panel on elections, this time about how “the left pulled the strings, covered it up and even admits it.”
You, a naive political observer, may think that this sounds like little more than a concerted and repeated effort to bolster precisely the sort of false rhetoric about the election being stolen that powered the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. I, a savvy Washington insider, know that these will instead simply be three panels looking at the ways in which state constitutions delineate the assignation of electors relative to votes and how state authorities may be interpreted to have engaged in expansions of voting access that introduced contradictions with understood guidelines.
You know, what all those protesters were so mad about.