I’ve been tossing around the following question all week:
What explains the Republican Party’s decision to (at least implicitly) go along with Trump’s increasingly brazen attempts to undermine the electoral system and Biden’s victory?
Prior to the election, and in the hours/days immediately following it, I expected that the Republican Party would cut Trump loose. They had gained significant influence over the judiciary through the appointment of hundreds of judges to district courts, as well as three to the Supreme Court. Instead of a ‘blue wave,’ Republicans looked set to increase their share of the House and hold onto the Senate. It seemed a perfect moment for the party: lose a useful but erratic leader while maintaining enough power to make Biden’s administration impotent.
Instead, Republicans have supported him on a spectrum from emphasising his right to legal action, to actively participating in his conspiracies. The few Republicans criticizing him get lots of media headlines, but they are usually either retiring or long-time opponents of Trump. The real power in the party remains quiet. Much has been made of number 3 Republican in the House, Liz Cheney’s, recent statement, which on my reading is rather subdued. Judge for yourself:
“America is governed by the rule of law. The President and his lawyers have made claims of criminality and widespread fraud, which they allege could impact election results. If they have genuine evidence of this, they are obligated to present it immediately in court and to the American people. I understand that the President has filed more than thirty separate lawsuits. If he is unsatisfied with the results in those lawsuits, then the appropriate avenue is to appeal. If the President cannot prove these claims or demonstrate that they would change the election result, he should fulfill his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States by respecting the sanctity of our electoral process.”
This muted reaction follows daily accusations that voter fraud is so widespread that the electoral system is unable to deliver free or fair results. These accusations are also increasing distrust with the electoral system among Republicans – although the problem is not as new as we might think.
The willingness of the party to follow Trump down this rabbit hole comes back to his hold over the party base. The radicalisation of the Republican party started before Trump with the Tea-Party movement, but he has been the apotheosis of its politics of outrage and mistrust. He achieved the second highest voter turnout in US electoral history in part thanks to the brand he has built around himself. Think back to the relief checks that were sent out with his signature on them. He has personalised politics around himself, and in doing so, has made himself difficult to excise from the party. He is also working to hold on to party machinery, with his preferred candidate seeking reelection to Chair of the Republican National Committee.
There is an element of both carrot and stick here. Republicans certainly want to draw on his pull to increase turnout and energise the base, but they are probably also terrified of the consequences of crossing him. The Republican Governor of Ohio, who appeared to acknowledge Biden’s win, has received threats of a primary challenge from Trump. He has also called Georgia’s Secretary of State a traitor.
Trump’s hold over the base gives him enormous power in any intra-party power struggle because of how dangerous he could be outside the party. Remember, Trump was asked to sign a pledge back in 2015 not to run as a third-party candidate should he lose the Republican primary process. If the party were seen to turn their back on Trump, he could declare the party corrupt – in league with the Deep State – and launch a new party, a new movement. This would be an existential threat for Republicans by splitting the conservative vote. Even if he stopped short of this nuclear option, the prospect of Trump on TV flinging vitriol at Republicans and supporting primary challengers looks like to keep the party in line for the foreseeable future.