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There Is No Return to Normalcy

In defeat, Donald Trump has perfected the grievance-fueled conspiracy machine in the Republican Party.
November 11, 2020
There Is No Return to Normalcy
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump wait as a suspicious package causes police to disperse a rally outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 3, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. Trump arrived at the hospital yesterday after testing positive for COVID-19. (Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

The day after the firing of the secretary of defense who resisted the use of troops against peaceful American protesters is probably not a great time for the secretary of state to joke about a transition to a “second Trump administration.” If he was in fact joking. Welcome to what the Republican party is in 2020—a threat to democratic order.

I’ve had conversations in the past few days with people who disliked Trump enough to pull the lever for Biden but still believe that the Republican party itself is sound and will snap back to normal now that Trump is defeated.

I’d like to believe that, but the auguries are not good so far. The party’s leaders have closed ranks around Trump, repeating the lies and conspiracies he’s spinning about a stolen election. They are laying the predicate for the next four years—the stab in the back. Trump didn’t lose, he was robbed. Biden is not the president, he’s the usurper.

You really couldn’t have asked for a more open-handed Democrat than Joe Biden. He has made every effort to soothe the bitterness of our politics and attempted to unify the country. Someone on CNN said he had “slammed” Trump for failing to concede, but that’s wrong. He said it was “embarrassing” and wouldn’t burnish Trump’s legacy—which is about the mildest way to describe what Trump is doing.

But major figures in the Republican party, from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to the head of the Republican National Committee to the attorney general and the aforementioned secretary of state, are playing along with the charade of distinguishing between “legal” and “illegal votes.” Republican attorneys general from 10 states have petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene and stop the vote counting in Pennsylvania. Attorney General Bill Barr has altered longstanding Justice Department guidance, instructing prosecutors to pursue “vote tabulation irregularities.” Although Barr’s order was hedged and cautious in the fine print, as Adam White notes, the headline was “Barr green lights investigations of vote fraud”—when there was nothing to investigate. (Or, virtually nothing. There are mistakes and small frauds in every election.) This was too much for  Richard Pilger, director of the Justice Department’s Election Crimes Branch. He submitted his resignation.

Some Republicans, recognizing that Trump’s attempt to discredit the election is his most severe assault on democratic norms yet, are attempting to right the ship, and God bless them. Sen. Mitt Romney was among the first to congratulate President-elect Biden. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and Ben Sasse have also extended best wishes to the winner. George W. Bush issued a gracious statement, as did a number of governors—Larry Hogan, Phil Scott, Governor-elect Spencer Cox, and Charlie Baker. Hogan also went further: “There is no defense for the President’s comments tonight undermining our democratic process.” A handful of congressmen (mostly those who are retiring) congratulated the winner. Rep. Fred Upton was actually inspiring. Noting that the country needs to address the millions of people who are struggling in the face of the pandemic, he quoted Frederick Douglass: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.

But McConnell, one of the most influential men in the party, is saying that “President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options” as if this is just a speeding ticket. And McCarthy told Fox News that “President Trump won this election. So everyone who is listening, do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.”

Among right-leaning journalists and infotainers, the Wall Street Journal editorial page offered the gentlest of rebukes to Trump’s petulance, saying “Mr. Trump isn’t obliged to concede or congratulate his opponent if he loses, though it would be better for the country and his own legacy if he did.” They are at least not among the claque of enablers. And the news sides of the New York Post and Fox News have acknowledged reality.

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh has laid down the marker for the next four years: “There’s simply no way Joe Biden was legitimately elected president.” Funny, Rush didn’t explain why, if the Democrats were successful in stealing the election from Donald Trump, they didn’t also steal it from Sens. Thom Tillis, Joni Ernst, Susan Collins, and Lindsey Graham?

The usual suspects at Fox are pouring gasoline on the fire of suspicion Trump has ignited. As Paul Waldman of the Washington Post put it, “It is not enough for the GOP’s base to be disappointed in the results of the election and determined to do better next time. They must be enraged. For the conservative media, creating and feeding anger is a business model that goes back decades.”

To be fair, ginning up rage is not a Republican monopoly. I remember Democratic ads in 2000 suggesting that then-governor George W. Bush was soft on lynching.

But what is happening now is a decline even from there. The Trump Republicans have gone wading in the fever swamps and invited the creatures to the inner circle. We’ve always had conspiracy theories, but we’ve never before elected a conspiracy-monger, and we’ve never before had the minority leader of the House of Representatives as well as a U.S. senator welcoming a fringe conspiracist (Representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene). This president rose to power on the strength of the birther hoax and spoke warmly of QAnon, so spinning a tale of voter fraud is completely on brand.

In recent months, we’ve learned that 37 percent of Trump supporters believe that all or parts of the QAnon conspiracy are true, and that 34 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners think the COVID-19 pandemic was intentionally started by powerful people (the figure for Democrats and Democratic-leaners was 18 percent).

Into that warm petri dish for incubating crazy thinking, insert one defeated President Trump claiming voter fraud and you get yesterday’s new polling showing that 70 percent of Republicans do not believe the 2020 election was “free and fair.”

The difference between 37 percent and 70 percent is the difference between a disturbing tendency and a potential crisis of legitimacy.

About 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. If the vast majority of them believe—falsely—that the election was stolen from them, that their votes didn’t count, what does that do to any opportunity for national healing? How do they respond if the sitting president goes beyond filing frivolous lawsuits and urges state legislatures to submit alternative slates of electors (as Mark Levin has urged)? Or if he asks the military to take to the streets by invoking the Insurrection Act?

Is that farfetched? Have a look at this interview the just-fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper gave to Military Times. Describing President Trump’s demand that he order active-duty troops from Fort Bragg to Washington, D.C., in June to deal with protesters in Lafayette Square, Esper said he pushed back. The president was livid, but Esper thought something crucial was on the line:

I was really concerned that continued talk about the Insurrection Act was going to take us in a direction, take us into a really dark direction. And I wanted to make clear what I thought about the situation as secretary of defense and the role of the active-duty forces. And to kind of break the fever, if you will, because I thought that was just a moment in history where . . . if somebody doesn’t stand up now and say something and kind of push the pause button, then . . . it could spiral.

That was not some Never Trump pundit. That was the president’s own defense secretary saying the situation “could spiral.” It’s possible that Trump fired Esper out of pique, but it’s also possible that he had other motives as well, something that would move in a “dark direction.” By the way, does any Trump backer question the president’s judgment in choosing this delicate moment—when foreign adversaries may seek to capitalize on what they see as American chaos—to fire the defense secretary?

Some object that Republicans who are indulging the president’s tantrum are merely playing for time and waiting for him to come to terms with reality. That makes no sense. By helping him to stoke the base’s paranoia, they are making it less, not more likely that he climbs down off the crazy tree.

No, the branch of Republicans that brought Trump to power are now attempting to poison the well for sane Republicans in the future. Instead of being able to focus on policy or (gasp) possible cooperation with the Democratic president on urgent matters like the pandemic, the narrative will be set by the grievance machine. The Trump crowds were still chanting “lock her up” in 2020. Is there any doubt that they’ll be chanting “Trump won” in 2024?

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].