Congressional Republicans may be engaged in the political equivalent of a murder-suicide by abetting Donald Trump’s claims that the election was stolen from him.
By reinforcing Trump’s baseless narrative that he actually won the vote, Republicans could be suffocating President-elect Joe Biden’s already-slim chances of attracting any meaningful support from rank-and-file Republican voters, which will make it much tougher for him to build bipartisan coalitions in Congress. But by supporting Trump’s claims—either overtly or through their silence—Republicans are simultaneously cementing his position as the dominant figure in the GOP, snuffing out their chances of reconsidering the course he has set for their party.
“Clearly, a lot of Republicans in Congress hoped that the election would be a bookend to Trump’s influence in the party,” the GOP consultant Alex Conant told me. “By allowing this episode to prolong, it’s created a near certainty that his influence will persist.”
The longtime GOP strategist Bill Kristol, a leading Trump critic, says this dynamic shows how deeply Trumpism is engrained in the party. It increases “the chances of mindless partisan opposition to Biden and a refusal to repudiate conspiracy theorists,” Kristol told me. “It just makes for a more extremist Trumpism party even if Trump retires from politics on January 20.”
Republican support for Trump’s efforts to overturn the election has reached stunning proportions. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina allegedly pressured Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to discard valid votes. Republican officials on the Wayne County, Michigan, canvassing board initially refused to certify the election results, before changing course. Congressional Republicans have acquiesced to the president’s blocking of the presidential-transition process, depriving Biden’s team of critical information, particularly on coronavirus-vaccine plans. All of this raises ominous questions—not only about the GOP’s determination to obstruct Biden, but also about its commitment to small-d democracy. Systematically delegitimizing the results of the election joins the long list of ways in which Trump has undermined democratic norms (from weaponizing the U.S. Postal Service to extorting Ukraine to manufacture dirt on Biden) with the tacit or overt support of congressional Republicans.
“Just what we’ve seen transpire in the last two weeks [has] been really disturbing,” Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania told me, referring to the refusal of almost all congressional Republicans to refer to Biden as the president-elect, even as the TV networks long ago called the election for him. “If that’s frowned upon, or if that’s not allowed, then that doesn’t bode well for what’s ahead.”
Under the best of circumstances, Biden would face enormous obstacles keeping his promise to temper the Trump era’s partisan hostilities and encourage more compromise. Two long-term trends—one at the grassroots level and one within Congress itself—have significantly narrowed the opportunity for meaningful cross-party cooperation in Washington.
The grassroots change is that fewer voters from the losing party in the presidential race are willing to give the winner any honeymoon. That decline is evident in Gallup polls stretching back over the past seven decades. One month into Dwight Eisenhower’s first term, the share of voters from the opposite party who said they approved of him was three in five. By the time Ronald Reagan took office, the number was two in five. It fell again to about one in three for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Trump set a new low: Just 8 percent of Democrats approved of him in February 2017. As disapproval has grown among voters in the opposite party for each incoming president, the political risk to officeholders from that party who choose to work with him has increased in tandem.
Biden emerged from the election with reason to hope that he might reverse this trend at least somewhat. Preelection polling found that Biden was not nearly as polarizing for conservative-leaning voters as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. During the campaign, he repeatedly promised to govern as a president for all Americans, including those who didn’t vote for him, and he attracted an unprecedented level of crossover support from dozens of prominent former Republican officeholders and hundreds of former GOP executive-branch officials. Ultimately, Biden peeled away a respectable 6 to 7 percent of Trump’s 2016 voters, depending on the exit-poll source. And since his victory, Biden has signaled that he’s likely to appoint Republicans to top positions in his government.
It’s not clear how many Republican-leaning voters might have been swayed by this outreach. But Trump’s success at convincing his supporters that the election was stolen will likely reduce that number. “So far, ordinary Republicans seem to be rallying to Trump, with very high percentages saying they think the election was rigged,” Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego who has studied the long-term trends in presidential approval, told me.
Underscoring his point: In a Monmouth University poll released yesterday, 81 percent of Trump voters said they were not confident that the election had been conducted fairly, and fully 77 percent of them said Biden “only won … due to voter fraud.”
Another structural change will discourage cooperation from Republicans: the growing overlap between a president’s voting base and his party’s members of Congress. Historically, legislators who represent split constituencies—those who vote for one party in down-ballot races and another at the presidential level—have often been the natural bridge builders in Congress, given their inherent incentive to smooth partisan differences. But such legislators have become much rarer in the House and Senate. Just as in 2016, Democrats this year did not win a single Senate seat in a state that Trump carried. Similarly, Susan Collins in Maine was the only Republican Senate candidate to win a state Trump lost. Final data in many states aren’t yet available, but Trump likely carried most of the Democratic-held House seats that Republicans flipped.
This means that the majority of House and Senate Republicans were sent there by voters who also backed Trump. For instance, pending the results of Georgia’s two January runoff elections, only three of the GOP’s 50 senators represent the 25 states that backed Biden (Collins, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania). As a result, almost all Republicans who cross party lines to work with Biden will be linking arms with a president most of their voters opposed. That’s never easy to do, but it becomes even harder if many of those voters also consider the new president fraudulently elected. “If you have a Republican electorate that [have] a highly favorable opinion of Trump and are willing to buy the lie that the election was stolen from him, they are not going to give Biden a chance,” Jacobson predicted.
Most Democrats I’ve spoken with believe that Trump will be pushing against an open door if he demands blanket Republican opposition to the incoming president. Biden has mostly shrugged off congressional Republicans’ refusal to acknowledge his victory or to call for the transition process to begin, insisting that he can still work with those legislators later. But other Democrats see a resemblance between the GOP’s recent actions and the scorched-earth resistance Mitch McConnell pursued against Obama for eight years. “As someone who spent a long time in the Senate, I see a poison coursing through the body and the Republican Party that is going to be very difficult to get out,” Jim Manley, who served as a top communications aide to the former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, told me. “I think we are in this for the long term.” Another high-ranking Democrat in close touch with Biden’s transition team, who asked for anonymity to discuss his advice, told me he worries that McConnell is supporting Trump’s stonewalling of the transition process because he believes it will cause Biden to stumble out of the gate, weakening Democrats for the 2022 elections.
Yet as much as the GOP’s continuing deference to Trump constrains Biden’s options, it also limits the ability of congressional Republicans and potential 2024 candidates to question, or even just recalibrate, the outgoing president’s polarizing direction for the party.
The election didn’t produce the decisive repudiation of Trump that his internal Republican critics wanted. He won over 10 million more votes than he did in 2016, and the GOP gained House seats while potentially preserving its Senate majority. But Trump still suffered a significant defeat: As the vote counting continues, Biden’s lead has stretched to nearly 6 million votes, a larger raw-vote victory than Obama had in 2012. Trump can point to his continued dominance among non-college-educated white voters and his modest, but meaningful, gains among nonwhite voters as validation for his direction. But Republicans uneasy about his influence can find plenty of contrary trends that raise doubts about his ability to win another presidential election, including his weak performance among younger voters; the consolidation of well-educated, diverse, and prospering metro areas against him; and Biden’s ability not only to recapture key Rust Belt states but also to break through in Sun Belt battlegrounds.
Overall, Kristol said, the election’s unexpectedly mixed results, with Republican congressional gains offsetting Trump’s defeat, have diminished the audience in the party for reconsidering Trumpism. Among congressional Republicans, the dominant interpretation of the results “is we paid no price for being Trump enablers or even apologists or even pale versions of Trump at times,” Kristol told me. “They think they are going to win the House in 2022, have a good shot at the presidency in 2024, and probably hold the Senate. Therefore, what do they have to do? They think they basically move ahead, business as usual, no repudiation, no rethinking, no fundamental recalibration.”
Any rethinking might be further constricted by the near certainty that Trump will dangle the possibility of seeking the party’s nomination again in 2024. Even if he doesn’t preemptively announce a campaign—as some friends and aides believe he might—just the prospect of him running again will chill the potential field of future GOP contenders. “I think it’s very problematic for the 2024 field,” said Conant, who served as a top adviser to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida during his 2016 presidential campaign. “If Trump maintains his popularity with the Republican base, I don’t want to be the first candidate who shows up in Des Moines to challenge him. He is going to tweet about that person, attack that person. That’s not really how you want to launch your campaign.”
And so Republicans are in an uncertain position. Many remain dubious that Trump’s belligerent racial nationalism is a long-term winning hand in a country growing inexorably more urbanized and diverse. But everything that’s happened since Election Day has steadily reduced the odds that the party will emerge from his shadow at any point in the near future. “There is no question they seem to have trouble living with him long term,” Casey said, “but in the short term they seem to be unable to live without him.”