There’s No Way to Get Off the Trump Train

As long as Republicans depend on his supporters, the defeated president calls the shots.

Mitch McConnell speaks at a mic with two people flanking him
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the media at the Capitol on Tuesday. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The excuse most congressional Republicans offer for “humoring” President Donald Trump’s reluctance to accept the results of the election on the basis of made-up, dangerous claims about mass voter fraud is specific to the near-term: Georgia. The state’s two runoff elections in January will determine control of the Senate when President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

“On Tuesday, most GOP senators continued to support Trump’s legal fights against his electoral losses, despite no evidence of the widespread voting malfeasance that Trump claims has swung tens of thousands of votes to Biden in multiple states,” Politico reported Tuesday. “That’s because when the presidential election is finally certified, Republicans hope that Trump will put on his red jersey this winter and help deliver his conservative base for Georgia’s Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.”

It’s not just about the party’s fear of pissing off Trump and having him refuse to campaign in Georgia. It’s about keeping the base, over whom Trump has control, energized enough to win races in the state. The pressure comes from both above and below.

“We have two races in Georgia, and we don’t want people thinking: ‘Well shit, my vote doesn’t matter, so why should I turn out?’ So we’re going to just hang on and be supportive where we can,” one anonymous Republican senator told Politico. “That’s what our base needs to see.”

Trump, in other words, is leveraging both his personal support and that of the Republican base—a significant chunk of which is convinced that Democrats are trying to steal the presidential election through mass voter fraud—to keep Senate Republicans from acknowledging that Joe Biden won the presidential election. A terser way of saying this is that Trump has them by the balls.

An important distinction to make here is that this is not, really, an “excuse” for what they’re doing. It’s a reason for what they’re doing. You do not get an ethical pass for playing the president’s dangerous game of baselessly discrediting fair elections because it makes tactical, short-term political sense.

Another question is, why would we—or the Republican senators—believe this pattern would end when Georgia is settled? Trump didn’t suddenly discover the tactic of using the threat of upsetting his base to strong-arm Republican legislators this week.  It’s how he’s managed to make it this far in the first place. Given that he’ll have incalculable sway over Republican voters for years to come and would look to be a prohibitive favorite for the 2024 Republican nomination, why should we expect Republican leadership to cut him off the day after the Georgia runoffs?

If Trump never concedes and holds onto his fabricated argument that fraud cost him the election—and we have no reason to believe that he would change course—then breaking with Trump doesn’t magically become easier just because the Georgia runoffs are over. One constant of life is that it’s always Republican primary season, and whether a candidate stood by Trump when the election was being stolen from him! will be a first-order litmus test.

“It’s very difficult for Republicans whose leader got 71 million votes, the most by any Republican standard-bearer ever, to simply just turn their backs on him,” Timothy Naftali, the founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, told the New York Times. “The issue is now not so much Trump as loyalty to Trumpism. And I think that’s why you see the contortions now. If you’re a Republican and you get this wrong, you’re going to be primaried out.”

If we want to see how the primary politics of this play out, look no further than one that’s already in its early stages: the next Republican presidential primary, in which hopefuls like Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are not just keeping their silence, but actively spreading the voter fraud myths pushed by the Trump campaign. The irony for their presidential aspirations is that, even as they try to appeal to the base by aggressively backing the president, they’re fueling the martyr myth that would make the base choose Trump over them in 2024.

A similar bind applies to the rest of the party. As long as they see Trump’s supporters as too valuable to upset by crossing Trump, Trump will hold on as the party’s de facto leader. We should not expect for there to ever be an “easy” time for Republicans who hope to maintain or rise in power to acknowledge that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in a fair election.

Georgia is just one episode in an open-ended series, and Republicans will have to make choices even before those January votes arrive. When the Trump campaign runs out of lawsuits and recounts, what will Republicans say then? When 270 electoral votes’ worth of states have certified their results for Biden, what will Republicans say then? If Trump leans on state legislatures in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere to select their own slate of electors under the nebulous cloud of voters having “failed” to choose a president—even if this is an unlikely gambit—what will Republicans say then? At a certain point, after all the other excuses run out, there’s no longer a way to both appease Trump’s bruised ego and uphold democracy.