Republican politicians have spent the year since Jan. 6, 2021, working to undermine democracy and the rule of law. They’ve condoned or ignored Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, purged colleagues who spoke the truth, and tried to cripple the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. But beneath this corruption lies a deeper problem: a toxic GOP electorate. Republican politicians are entertaining the lies, ousting the truth-tellers, and sabotaging the investigation because that’s what their voters want. It’s the surest way to survive a Republican primary.
In the past two weeks, media organizations have released a slew of polls that show how far Republican voters have drifted from reality. For starters, they’ve fully latched on to the lie that Democrats stole the 2020 election. More than a year after counts, recounts, and court fights resolved the outcome, 70 percent to 80 percent of Republicans still insist that President Joe Biden didn’t legitimately win. Seventy-four percent say the election was “rigged and stolen from Trump,” and 60 percent say it should be overturned.
It’s true that a lot of Democrats saw Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump as illegitimate. But many of those Democrats were responding emotionally to unusual circumstances: Both men had won despite losing the popular vote, and they had gotten controversial outside help—in Bush’s case from the Supreme Court, and in Trump’s case from WikiLeaks and Russia.
The 2020 election, by contrast, wasn’t particularly close. Yet Republicans have swallowed baseless conspiracy theories about it. In a national survey taken three weeks ago by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, 61 percent of Republicans said Biden’s victory was illegitimate because “fraudulent ballots supporting Joe Biden were counted by election officials.” Forty-six percent said it was illegitimate because “ballots supporting Donald Trump were destroyed by election officials” (respondents were allowed to give multiple reasons), and 41 percent said it was illegitimate because “voting machines were re-programmed by election officials to count extra ballots for Biden.” Only 21 percent said Biden had legitimately won.
In theory, a Republican candidate could point to fact checks or official findings that debunk Trump’s lies. But that response isn’t likely to work, because in any dispute between Trump and the media, or between Trump and election officials, Republican voters are more willing to believe Trump. In September, a Morning Consult survey found that 77 percent of Republicans trusted Trump “to be honest about the security and validity of our elections.” Only half as many, 39 percent, trusted “my state’s Secretary of State” on that subject, and only 17 percent trusted CNN. Even Fox News, with a 55 percent trust level, badly trailed the former president. When Republicans specified which sources they trusted “a lot,” Trump’s dominance over all competing sources of information was even more lopsided.
This faith in Trump’s lies is a big reason so many Republicans sympathize with the people who stormed the Capitol. In a USA Today/Suffolk poll conducted last week, 56 percent of Republicans said the purpose of “the events at the Capitol last January 6th” was “preventing a fraudulent election.” Only 20 percent said the purpose was to overturn a legitimate election. Other polls have found a majority of Republicans believe “the people who forced their way into the U.S. Capitol” were “defending freedom” or “protecting democracy,” not threatening it. And surveys consistently show that Republicans want to go easy on people who have been or could be prosecuted for obvious crimes at the Capitol.
Most Republicans also support broader efforts to overturn the election. In an NPR/Ipsos survey taken two weeks ago, 57 percent of Republicans said that “Trump and his allies were exercising their correct legal right to contest the election” or, more boldly, that they “did not go far enough in contesting the election.” Only 29 percent chose one of the alternative answers: that the former president and his allies “went too far” or “broke the law trying to overturn the election.” In the UMass Amherst survey, 62 percent of Republicans said Vice President Mike Pence should have “used his role in counting the Electoral College votes to challenge Joe Biden’s victory.” When a CBS News/YouGov poll asked what Trump should do now, 56 percent of Republicans said he should run again in 2024, but an additional 20 percent said he should “fight to be put back into the presidency right now, before the next presidential election.”
Given these views, it’s not surprising that rank-and-file Republicans want to shut down the Jan. 6 investigation. In the CBS News poll, only 37 percent said Congress should be “investigating elected representatives and other public officials to see if they had a role in the January 6th events.” Sixty-three percent said that, instead, Congress should “drop the matter and not investigate that.” In an Associated Press/NORC survey, 58 percent said Congress should end “its investigation into what happened at the U.S. Capitol.”
These toxic beliefs have made integrity a liability for many candidates in Republican primaries. Seventy-three percent of Republicans say that in this year’s congressional elections, they’d “vote for a candidate who believes the results of the 2020 presidential election should be investigated”; only 14 percent say they definitely or probably wouldn’t. In the UMass Amherst poll, 55 percent of Republicans said they’d be more likely to vote for a Republican congressional candidate who “questioned the legitimacy” of the 2020 presidential result; only 10 percent said they’d be less likely. Fifty-two percent said they’d be less likely to support a candidate who “voted to create a commission to investigate the events of January 6”; only 17 percent said they’d be more likely. The poll also indicated that Republican candidates would lose support in primaries if they had voted to certify the 2020 election, but they would gain support if they refused to “denounce the events of January 6th.”
The Republican electorate’s pathologies don’t excuse the cowardice or opportunism of GOP officeholders. Many of these politicians stood by or collaborated as Trump spread the lies; others are too spineless to speak up now that the lies have taken hold. Instead, what the pathologies show is that the party’s leaders have become its followers. They allowed their base to become convinced that the election was stolen, and now they’re catering to this madness to keep their jobs. The only way out is to reverse the incentives so that in future campaigns for office, lying about the 2020 election and covering up Jan. 6 is more costly than defending the rule of law. It’s unlikely that we can make such corruption a liability in Republican primaries. Let’s hope we can make it fatal in the general election.