Congressional Republicans want to move on from the 2020 presidential election. On the one hand, they’re trying to appease Donald Trump and his supporters by conveying sympathy for his lies about voter fraud. On the other hand, they’re trying to change the subject to President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress. But Trump won’t let his party shift gears. More than eight months after his defeat, he continues to insist on relitigating it. He’s threatening to do in 2022 what he did in Georgia earlier this year: mobilize Democratic voters and sink Republican candidates by making himself the focus of the election.
Two weeks ago, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made a pilgrimage to Trump’s resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. He asked Trump to help the GOP retake the House, and he nominated Trump loyalists to the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. But Trump seems unsatisfied by McCarthy’s flattery and favors. In a July 11 address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, an interview on Fox News, and a speech on Saturday to a right-wing conference in Phoenix, Arizona, the former president has demanded that Republicans do more to investigate and overturn his loss.
On Saturday, Trump chided Republicans who implore him to let go of the past. “They say, ‘Well, sir, we have to get on to the future,’ ” he told the crowd. “You’re not going to have a future in ’22 or ’24 if you don’t find out how [Democrats] cheated.” He declared that the alleged theft of his “landslide” victory, and the crusade to overturn that theft, was more important than crime, the border, or any other issue Republicans wanted to raise. He touched on other topics but, in each case, steered the monologue back to himself. The real crime was the crime against him, he insisted, and the real cancel culture was the silencing of his claims of fraud.
In a tirade that spanned nearly two hours, Trump outlined a series of bizarre theories—suggesting, among other things, that postal workers had systematically dumped his supporters’ ballots. But each time a court or audit fails to vindicate his lies, he adds a new complaint. He can’t find fake mail ballots, so he accuses election officials of failing to produce the envelopes. He whines that ballots were printed on “flimsy paper.” He can’t find documents showing fraud, so he refers to documents that show “allegations” of fraud. He can’t find evidence of electronic tampering, so he accuses his enemies of erasing the evidence. If scanners or voting machines appear intact, he demands the “routers” or some other piece of supposedly damning equipment.
One index of Trump’s madness is the growing list of Republicans—including state officials, congressional leaders, and his own appointees—whom he has denounced for failing to validate his lies. He began with Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state, then attacked the governor of Arizona and Republican state legislators in Michigan. This month, he has repeatedly accused his Supreme Court appointees and his former attorney general, Bill Barr, of being frightened away from adequate investigation by threats of impeachment. Any official who fails to find proof of election fraud becomes, in Trump’s view, evidence of a conspiracy against him.
An ordinary politician, even a crooked one, looks at bad election results and wonders what he got wrong. Trump does the opposite: He assumes he got everything right, and therefore, the results are wrong. He says his rallies were well attended, so his votes must not have been counted. He insists that Biden was too inept, and Democrats were too crazy, to get as many votes as they reportedly did, especially among “the Black population.” “There’s no way” Democrats could get the support of half the country with “all of the crazy things that they espouse,” Trump scoffs. “There is no way they win elections without cheating.”
Trump can’t believe that people who voted for Republicans down the ballot didn’t vote for him. Stunned by his loss amid GOP victories in state races, he sees two possible explanations. Either “the legislators were far more popular than Trump,” he says, or election manipulators counted votes for the legislators but not for him. The first explanation is impossible, he concludes, so the second must be true. He tells the story of a Republican candidate in Arizona who, after outpolling Trump, supposedly told him that the election must have been rigged, since “there was no way that I got more votes than you.”
That’s why Trump will never drop his fraud fantasies: He defines truth by feelings, not by evidence. “You know when you win and when you lose,” he told the audience in Phoenix. At CPAC, he joked about how he judges polls: “If it’s bad, I just say it’s fake. If it’s good, I say, ‘That’s the most accurate poll perhaps ever.’ ” But in the same speech, he made clear that he really does judge evidence this way. He noted that in 2016, a poll said he would lose Wisconsin, but “I won the state. So that’s a fake poll.” But in 2020, it was the other way around: His pollster, “one of the most respected,” assured him he would win, but he lost Wisconsin and the election. Any other politician would blame his pollster. Trump says his pollster was right, so the results were wrong.
Trump won’t settle for McCarthy’s talk of taking the House next year. He wants to be vindicated now. He’s claiming fraud in more and more states, including Texas and New Hampshire. He’s demanding prosecutions and his own reinstatement, on the grounds that the presidency, like stolen jewelry, must be returned. On Saturday, he implied that Republicans were entitled to seize Georgia’s electoral votes because the state “couldn’t count their votes accurately.” “We don’t have the luxury to sit back and to wait until the next election,” he told the crowd.
If Trump retains power over the GOP and continues to make his demands central to the midterms—and there’s good reason to believe he’ll do both—he could damage his party considerably, as he did in Georgia. On Saturday, he said the lesson of Georgia was that the party should talk more about the alleged fraud of 2020. That’s bonkers, but Republican leaders continue to glorify Trump and humor his delusions. In part, that’s because they’re afraid of him; in part, it’s because in Georgia, he cost them only two seats. Next year, he could cost them many more.