After the 2020 election, this effort faced perhaps its biggest challenge — how to rework Trump’s obviously unfounded fraud claims into something that seemed at least credibly concerning. After all, most of the Republican base was fully in line with the idea that something untoward had occurred, even though it hadn’t. How do you maintain some sense of integrity while not alienating those voters?
One strategy embraced by people like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was to insist that the ways in which states expanded voting access during the coronavirus pandemic were suspect, extrapolating from there to argue that there was a cloud hanging over the whole thing. Trump liked this so much that he integrated claims that state legislatures had overstepped their mandates into the extensive mythos he created to rationalize his loss.
But this was still unduly cumbersome. So another approach has taken root — sidestepping any demands to acknowledge that no significant fraud occurred last year with a wink at the Republican base.
Consider an interview published this week in which the Washington Examiner spoke with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who is poised to become the third-highest-ranking member of the House Republican caucus.
“Do you agree with Trump that Biden was illegitimately elected and the election was stolen?” Stefanik was asked.
“President Biden is president,” she replied, “and the focus is on defeating his radical agenda, which I believe we will do in 2024.”
She went on to mention the purported “election irregularities” and the “unconstitutional overreach” of those legislatures, complementing the false or misleading claims she has elevated at other points.
That “Biden is president” line, though, is where many of her peers have landed. It’s an almost platonic way of bridging Trumpland with the real world, stating an undeniable fact while sending a clear message to the base that you won’t let the Lamestream Media trip you up. At times, it’s delivered with a self-aware sense of just how clever an escape hatch it is.
Paris Dennard spent much of Trump’s presidency as a paid CNN contributor batting away criticism of him. That gig ended after The Washington Post reported on incidents of alleged sexual harassment in his past. But Dennard landed on his feet, and he’s now a national spokesman for the Republican Party.
Last week, he appeared on ABC News for an interview with Terry Moran. Moran began by asking Dennard whether he accepted the 2020 election results as legitimate. Dennard’s response? “Joe Biden is the president.”
Over and over and over and over, Moran pressed Dennard to answer the question. Over and over and over, Dennard played rhetorical games.
“You cannot affirm our own Constitution and laws working in this election. You cannot do that,” Moran said in exasperation. “Is that because you’re scared or because you don’t believe that our democracy actually worked last November?”
“Well, Terry,” Dennard replied with a satisfied smile, “let me be very clear: I’m not scared of you.”
Aha! Take that, Moran! Another win for the GOP.
Of course, Dennard did answer the question, repeatedly, at least in a way. Dennard won’t accept that Biden won legitimately, at least not publicly, because he understands that it’s not politically useful to do so. He knows that to admit that Trump lost fair and square is to rile up millions of voters who’ve repeatedly been misled by Trump and other members of Stefanik and Dennard’s party with claims to the opposite.
We return to this mind-numbing graph, from a recent CNN-SSRS poll.
Seventy percent of Republicans say that Biden didn’t win legitimately. Half of them say there’s solid evidence to that effect, which there very much isn’t. But if you’re a Republican elected official, what are you going to do, tell half of your party that they’ve been lied to and that they believe something false as a result?
The reason Stefanik is poised to ascend to the House Republican leadership is specifically because the current occupant of that position, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), has been holding firm on the fact that Biden won fairly. This has been positioned as unhelpfully divisive for the caucus, necessitating her ouster from leadership. The choice to replace her, though, isn’t another member of the caucus who has quietly acknowledged that Biden won. (Even though, as our Aaron Blake pointed out, Republicans generally don’t claim that Cheney’s wrong.) Instead, she’ll probably be replaced by Stefanik, who has publicly refused to accept that reality.
The “Biden is president” cop-out is not exactly new. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) used it in February. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) deployed it in early March in a CNN interview. A Post report on the four leading contenders for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Virginia noted that only one had publicly acknowledged that Biden had won fairly. The one who did so was not the candidate who eventually secured the nomination.
On Monday evening, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was interviewed by Martha MacCallum for her Fox News show, “The Story.” MacCallum was asking Weingarten about education about race in schools, which Weingarten used as a way to pivot to criticism of the network.
“If you’re really talking about misinformation now, Martha, and I hope you are, I really would hope that Fox would really look at what happened in this election and how we can … discern fact from fiction,” Weingarten said. “We have to do that as social studies teachers.”
“Well, we have a president. President Biden was elected in 2020. I think that all of that is quite clear,” MacCallum replied. “So I’m not sure why you, you know, are so concerned with that part, with that particular moment in history. Every election is significant. Nobody is hiding anything under any rocks here.”