Republican politicians have been afforded countless opportunities to separate themselves from former president Donald Trump’s post-2020 effort to claim that the election was stolen from him.
As Trump’s efforts wended their way down various paths toward keeping him in power, his party was fully capable of impeding him. When he challenged certification, they could have spoken out. When he and his allies corralled alternate electors, other Republicans could have elevated the ridiculousness of the idea.
In some cases Republicans did, of course; a handful — often ones forced to take a public position — rejected Trump’s efforts, thereby invoking the wrath of his supporters. This was the cudgel Trump deployed: He maintained loyalty by wielding a base of millions of angry people who for whatever reason trusted Trump’s self-serving claims over reality. “What’s the downside for humoring him?” one Republican infamously asked in the post-election period. The downside of standing in his way was much more immediately tangible.
By Jan. 6, 2021, the path of least resistance for many elected Republicans was simply to fold into the crowd of politicians cheering Trump on. Whatever their misgivings — one, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) says, lamented what they had to do for the “orange Jesus” — they joined in with their peers in a show of force for the lame-duck president. It was to political leadership what the crowd standing outside the Capitol on that day was to peaceful assembly.
In the hours after the riot, after the Capitol had been cleared of the violent mob bent on preventing the counting of legitimately submitted electoral votes, that crowd of elected Republicans picked up the baton. A majority of the Republicans in the House voted to reject electoral votes from Arizona, Pennsylvania or both, siding with the aims of the mob if not the methods.
The effort failed. Trump packed up his things and a few additional items and headed to Mar-a-Lago, disgraced by what had been done at the Capitol in his name. But the disgrace was fleeting for those Republican members of the House. When it came time to decide if Trump should be impeached for his role in the riot, nearly all of them rejected the idea. When the House moved to form a committee to investigate the riot, most Republicans again said no.
And when, on Wednesday, the House considered bipartisan legislation aimed at overhauling the Electoral Count Act, securing the electoral-vote-counting process against future efforts to derail the will of the electorate, the vast majority of Republicans in the House once again expressed opposition.
That’s four different opportunities to stand in support of the results of the election, to condemn Trump’s efforts to undermine those results or to work to secure elections in the future. And of 175 Republicans who cast a yes-or-no vote on all four of those issues, 112 took the pro-Trump, anti-election position each time.
The outliers are interesting. More than 50 Republicans opposed all of the proposals in the wake of the Capitol riot but didn’t reject the counting of electoral votes. Two Republicans — Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) — consistently took the anti-Trump side. It is not a coincidence that neither will be returning to Congress next year.
Then there are the other eight Republicans. Six supported the submitted electoral votes back on Jan. 6 and voted to impeach Trump but rejected the formation of the Capitol riot commission. Five of those six supported the proposal to reform the Electoral Count Act. The sixth, Rep. Dan Newhouse (Wash.), rejected that proposal Wednesday. It is not a coincidence, we might safely assume, that he is the only one of the six up for reelection in just over a month.
Two other Republicans also voted for the Electoral Count Act reforms. One was Rep. Tom Rice (S.C.), who lost in the primary in June. His support for impeaching Trump came as a surprise and clearly led to his ouster. The other is Rep. Chris Jacobs (N.Y.). Jacobs holds the unique distinction of being the only Republican to vote against a Jan. 6 commission, vote against impeaching Trump, vote for rejecting the electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania … and to also support reforming the Electoral Count Act.
Jacobs, too, will not be in Congress next year, having announced his retirement. He did so only after the first three votes indicated above — and after prompting a sharp backlash from Republican voters for diverging from party orthodoxy on new gun legislation. Jacobs represents a district outside Buffalo; a mass shooting at a grocery store there this spring prompted him to support new restrictions on firearm ownership. His primary campaign then became untenable.
There are two lessons from this. First, that it isn’t only allegiance to Trump that’s demanded of Republican politicians. Second, that Republicans freed from accountability to the party base are more willing to oppose Trump and his allies on defenses of democracy.
Which, of course, has been the situation since Nov. 3, 2020.