Published January 31, 2024
When Donald lies, the GOP dies: a failure to grapple with the fallout of 2020 might hand Biden a second term
Republican leaders quietly opposed to Donald Trump’s renomination have chosen for years to overlook his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. That profile in cowardice is coming back to hurt them.
The exit polls paint a clear picture. Respondents in the first two states to vote were asked whether they believe Biden legitimately won the presidency. How someone answers this question is the single biggest predictor of whether he or she voted for Trump.
Trump’s large margin in Iowa was driven almost entirely by the two-thirds of respondents who believe his lie. 69 per cent of those two-thirds backed him, compared to only 11 per cent of those who didn’t. Put another way, over 89 per cent of Trump’s voters came from those who think Biden stole the election.
New Hampshire’s closer margin of victory was almost entirely because a larger share of voters disbelieved his tall tales. Only 51 per cent of Granite Staters say Biden did not actually win. Trump won a whopping 85 per cent of those compared with only 22 per cent among those who accurately said Trump lost. Nearly 80 per cent of his total vote came from the fraud truther set.
GOP leaders who thought sweeping Trump’s lies under the rug would make them go away have been proven wrong. They thought they were letting sleeping dogs lie. Instead, they were dealing with a hibernating bear. The beast is awake now and he is prowling looking for prey to devour.
It didn’t have to be this way. Trump’s standing took a huge hit in the wake of the January 6 riot, plummeting under 40 per cent immediately thereafter. Republicans could have provided enough votes in the Senate to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial. Instead, four members who chose to retire by the next election voted to acquit, along with many older Senators who had just been re-elected and wouldn’t have to face a challenge for six years.
Star Wars fans will surely remember the key moment in Revenge of the Sith when Jedi master Mace Windu hesitates to kill Chancellor Palpatine after he has subdued him. Palpatine recovers, kills Windu, and goes on to unleash the terror that consumed the galaxy. Republican leader Mitch McConnell must sometimes wonder if that trial was his Mace Windu moment, and whether Trump’s looming renomination will consume his party.
Leaders could have alternatively agreed to participate in the select committee investigating January 6, while insisting that Trump’s charges of fraud also be fully investigated. Democrats might not have agreed to that, but if they had then Republicans friendly to Trump would have had the opportunity – and the obligation – to prove their charges. Again they cowered in fear of Trump’s wrath rather than do the right thing.
This failure could very well be the decision that gives Democrats their weapon in the fall election. Polls show that a large majority of Americans, including nearly two-thirds of independents, think Biden won. Biden is already signaling that he will repeat the claim that helped his party stave off defeat in the midterms, that Trump and his MAGA movement are a threat to democracy. If opinion regarding the election fraud myth proves to be as predictive of Trump support in November as it has so far, Biden’s chance of re-election skyrockets despite his low job approval.
There’s not much the party or Nikki Haley can do at this late date. It takes time to persuade someone they’ve been duped, and Haley does not have that luxury. Even if she tried to tell Republicans the truth, she would likely find no support from either GOP leaders or conservative media figures who quietly know she’s right. Why risk infuriating the hungry bear when it looks like he’s going to win anyway?
Establishment Republicans have long hoped that Trump was like a hurricane and that all they needed to do was hunker down and ride out the storm. They should have learned by now that Trump is more like a flood, one continually fueled by runoff from the torrential rains his rhetoric and Democratic excesses create. They could have chosen to try to dam the runoff by calling out his lies, or they could have tried to divert the waters by making his causes the party’s. Instead, they made the same choice they did in 2016 and hoped for a different outcome.
The result is that the party’s future still rests in the mercurial hands of Donald J. Trump. That fills many conservatives with dread, but they lost the chance to win when they made the choice not to fight when it mattered. As a result, they are simply where they’ve been for almost nine years: treading water and hoping the rising tide doesn’t drown them or the country.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.