The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In challenging election defeat, Trump cements his control over the Republican Party

Supporters of President Trump hold a banner as they rally to protest the results of the election in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington on Saturday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

President Trump’s push to overturn his election loss has been repeatedly defeated and rebuffed by the courts, culminating in a terse dismissal late Friday by the Supreme Court.

But the campaign has also served another purpose — rallying Republicans across the country to back Trump’s assault on democratic principles and further cementing his control over the party even as he prepares to leave the White House.

For the past six weeks, Trump has staged the ultimate loyalty test for the party faithful as he forced Republican officials to opt between siding with him and the nation’s democratic process. Through public displays of support and lengthy silences, the vast majority of elected Republicans chose to back Trump.

Nearly two-thirds of House Republicans and 18 state attorneys general signed their names to the failed Supreme Court lawsuit seeking to have justices overturn the will of voters in multiple states. Others have gone on television to parrot the president’s baseless conspiracy theories about vote-rigging. Some are using rhetoric reminiscent of the Civil War to express their fealty to the president’s cause.

Confined in the White House and communicating with the public mostly through social media, Trump has cheered on his most outspoken backers and threatened the political careers of Republicans who fail to show absolute loyalty.

“Wow! Thousands of people forming in Washington (D.C.) for Stop the Steal,” Trump tweeted Saturday about a protest march that included violent clashes between his supporters and opponents. “Didn’t know about this, but I’ll be seeing them!”

From libertarians to moderates to far-right conservatives, Republican officials across the country are bending to Trump’s will and engaging in performative displays of loyalty in an unprecedented attack on the peaceful transfer of power.

Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.), who signed a brief supporting Texas’s Supreme Court lawsuit against his own state, said voters are demanding action.

“People are frustrated, particularly the base,” he said. “They are mad as hell, to be quite honest with you, so I don’t like what I’m hearing about the election.”

Video pushed by President Trump fails to support the claims of voter fraud it alleges happened on Election Day in Fulton County, Ga. (Video: The Washington Post)

The efforts are unlikely to change the reality that Trump will leave office next month as a one-term president. But the sheer number of Republicans willing to side with the president illustrates Trump’s enduring control over a party he has taken over and fashioned in his image in just five years.

Election results under attack: Here are the facts

The result has been a decoupling between party orthodoxy and democratic values, said Stuart Stevens, a veteran Republican adviser and Trump critic who has worked on five presidential campaigns.

“The Republican Party has adopted an attitude that if democracy helps them be in power, then, fine, they’re for democracy. If it blocks them from being in power, they’re against democracy,” said Stevens, whose book about the president’s takeover of the GOP is titled “It Was All a Lie.” “I don’t even think it’s that they are afraid of Trump. I think it’s that they think that this is going to further their ambitions.”

The post-election period has featured more than 50 court losses for Trump, including the Supreme Court’s rejection of a case he branded “the big one” and touted as his best chance to overturn the results. But Trump’s failing bid to reverse his electoral defeat has nonetheless ensured his brand of politics will remain the party’s standard even after he leaves office.

If Republicans are uncomfortable with that, or with his sustained onslaught against the peaceful transfer of power, few are speaking out publicly.

Many have avoided Trump’s wrath by dodging questions about his unwillingness to acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory. Others have tried to sidestep the issue by reframing Trump’s intransigence as a simple matter of preserving election integrity.

While only a handful of Republicans are publicly echoing Trump’s false claim that he actually won the election, the lack of public pushback has emboldened the president to continue fighting.

“WE HAVE JUST BEGUN TO FIGHT!!!” Trump tweeted Saturday after calling the Supreme Court ruling a “disgraceful miscarriage of justice.”

Before the Supreme Court dismissal Friday, Trump was especially energized by the coalescing of GOP support around the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) challenging election results in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Attorneys general in 17 other states won by Trump filed briefs in support of the unprecedented request to invalidate millions of votes. The number of Republican House members backing the lawsuit grew to 126 on Friday as additional lawmakers rushed to sign their name to friend-of-the-court briefs.

Trump hosted some of the attorneys general for lunch Thursday and signaled publicly that he was watching closely to see which lawmakers stood with him. The president tweeted that Republican legislators and the Supreme Court’s justices — three of whom he appointed — should show “courage and wisdom” by stepping in to overturn the election results.

Trump, allies vow to ‘fight on’ after Supreme Court rejects legal challenge to overturn election results

After the pressure campaign, top-ranking Republicans including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, signed on to back the lawsuit.

Attorneys general for the targeted states, all of which were carried by Biden last month, filed objections with the Supreme Court urging justices to send a clear message that the lawsuit was meritless.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) said in a court filing that the case was a bid to construct a “surreal alternate reality” and that the court “should not abide this seditious abuse of the judicial process.”

Some Republicans privately acknowledged the long odds in the case and ironically may have been more willing to publicly back it as a result, said Heather Cox Richardson, who teaches history at Boston College and has written a history of the Republican Party.

“They’re making the calculation that the Supreme Court is not going to hear this,” she said Friday before the ruling. “To their minds, it doesn’t cost anything to stroke Trump’s ego and go ahead and back this lawsuit without really expecting that it’s going to go anywhere.”

Meanwhile, the traditional markers of a coming transfer of power have continued to advance, with Biden widely expected to take office Jan. 20.

On Monday, members of the electoral college are scheduled to meet to cast their ballots confirming Biden’s 306-to-232 victory over Trump. Biden also won the popular vote by more than 7 million votes.

Few Republican lawmakers objected last month when the General Services Administration ascertained that Biden was the likely winner, allowing the official transition process to begin. While some GOP officials have pledged they would take to the floor of Congress next month to challenge the electors’ vote, that effort does not have broad support and appears likely to be the latest in a string of failed attempts to block Biden from taking office.

Still, elected Republicans have said they feel compelled to go along with Trump’s effort to question the election results, in part because their constituents believe that rampant fraud took place.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found that 77 percent of Republicans believe there was widespread fraud and 70 percent believe Biden’s win was not legitimate. The poll was taken after more than 40 fraud cases had been dismissed or withdrawn due to lack of evidence.

A few of the Republican officials who have dared to cross Trump and declare the election was free and fair have faced death threats and ostracization within their own party. On Saturday, Trump lashed out against Republican Govs. Brian Kemp (Ga.) and Doug Ducey (Ariz.), calling on voters to “vote them out of office!” The attacks have served as a warning shot to others in the party.

In Georgia, where two runoff Senate races could determine control of the upper chamber, local officials are siding with Trump even as Kemp and other state officials have repeatedly declared that the election there was not rigged.

State Sen. William Ligon, a Republican who chaired a recent judiciary subcommittee hearing to examine claims of election fraud, said his party’s voters “want it fixed” and are making their voices heard.

Republican officials have followed Trump along his dangerous and destructive path

“I have never, ever received the volume of calls, emails and text messages from my constituents demanding action, and they’re extremely passionate about it,” he said. “They’re not happy with elected officials that they see as not taking action to protect their vote.”

Trump’s support among Republicans has long been touted by his campaign advisers as a critical part of his electoral strategy. Even after the election, campaign officials highlighted the party’s unity.

“President Trump, along with many other elected officials, believes he owes it to all Americans — those who voted for him and those who did not — to ensure that the election was fair and secure,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “He has a right to pursue all legal avenues available to make sure every legal vote is counted and every illegal vote is not.”

A small number of congressional Republicans have openly defied Trump, pushing back on his increasingly aggressive attempts to overturn the election.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who acknowledged Biden’s win more than a month ago, said Thursday that Trump’s latest effort was “simply madness” and “dangerous and destructive.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters Friday that she was “disappointed” so many of her colleagues were backing the Supreme Court lawsuit.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said in a YouTube video that failing to accept the reality of the election results “puts the country in a very dangerous moment in time.”

And for all the talk of vote-rigging, Republican-led state legislatures in several swing states have brushed off Trump’s pressure campaign and moved to certify their election results.

Republican senators also showed a willingness to defy Trump on Friday by passing the National Defense Authorization Act, sending it to his desk with a veto-proof majority. Trump had threatened to veto the defense spending bill if it did not include language targeting social media companies that have angered him.

But, critics say, the party’s willingness to side with the president’s unprecedented attempt to disenfranchise millions of voters could serve to normalize a kind of anti-democratic response to losing an election that is more familiar in developing nations than the United States. That could be Trump’s lasting legacy, Richardson said.

“We have never before had a party that is just explicitly rejecting the idea of an American democracy,” she said. “It is absolutely an attack on our democracy.”

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.