Let’s be clear about what we are seeing. President
Trump is doing all that he can to prevent ballots against him from being
counted in an election he has now lost. He and his surrogates are encouraging his
supporters, some of whom are armed, to disrupt the final stages of the
electoral process. Though his actual legal cases being brought in defense of
his claims are
weak, his surrogates are directly
urging judges he has appointed to back him anyway. If it were
another country, few would hesitate to call this what it is: an attempted coup.
But spirits are a bit higher than one would expect given the situation as
understood in the abstract: Some protesters have taken to the streets to defend
the count, yes, but far more people have contented themselves with roasting
the president on the internet and on television, rightfully confident that the
coup will fail.
Why won’t it work? Part of the answer is that the president and his immediate political circle are comically lazy and inept. By their own recognition, they lack even a James Baker–like figure among themselves who might competently manage the administration’s lawsuits; they simply don’t have it in them to pull off what would be one of the most extraordinary swindles in American history. But a larger part of the answer is that the president’s party and its officeholders in state and local governments are uninterested in materially helping him. Those who’ve spent the last four years breathlessly awaiting the moment the Republican Party would meaningfully retreat from Trump should sit up and pay attention. This is it. It is here. It’s not happening as visibly and dramatically as many imagined it might or for the reasons many hoped it would. But it is happening.
In the past few days, condemnations of Trump’s claims about voter fraud or defenses of the electoral process have come not only from Trump critics like Senators Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, and Mitt Romney but from figures who’ve generally been more defensive of the president, such as former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, as well as swing-state governors Doug Ducey of Arizona and Mike Dewine of Ohio. Senator Mitch McConnell, who’s on the cusp of returning to the chamber as majority leader in January, has also pushed back. “Claiming you’ve won the election,” he told reporters on Wednesday, “is different from finishing the counting.” And in Pennsylvania, where President-elect Joe Biden’s lead is growing and conspiracy theories are flying, the state Senate’s Republican majority leader, Jake Corman, shut down fears that the legislature might circumvent the voters’ wishes and award the state’s electors to Trump.
A different and more fascinating story is playing out within conservative media. As one might expect, plenty of figures are taking to Fox News to defend Trump’s claims that shenanigans are afoot. “What we’ve been saying the last three days is outrageous,” Senator Ted Cruz told Sean Hannity in an interview Thursday. “By throwing the observers out, by clouding the vote counting in a shroud of darkness, they are setting the stage to potentially steal an election.” In another, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talked up sending unnamed conspirators to prison. “My hope is that President Trump will lead the millions of Americans who understand exactly what’s going on,” he said. “The Philadelphia machine is corrupt, that the Atlanta machine is corrupt. The machine in Detroit is corrupt, and they’re trying to steal the presidency, and we should not allow them to do that. First of all, under federal law, we should lock up the people who are breaking the law.” But all this huffing and puffing is happening alongside some careful triangulation on the part of Fox’s hosts themselves. On Friday, Laura Ingraham made a pass at calming Trump and his backers down. “I’m not conceding anything tonight, by the way,” she said. “But losing, if that’s what happens, is awful. But President Trump’s legacy will only become more significant if he focuses on moving the country forward. And then, the love and respect his supporters feel for him? It’s only going to grow stronger.”
And in an opening monologue Thursday, Tucker Carlson ventured out on the same middle path most Republicans will probably go down rhetorically. Whether or not they’ve actually stolen the election, he argued, arrogant Democrats, the media, and social media companies have given Trump supporters ample reason to doubt the integrity of the counting process and the legitimacy of Biden’s victory. “If you cared about the country and its future, you wouldn’t force Donald Trump’s voters to believe this,” he said. “You wouldn’t force them to take you on your word. Instead, you would show them, you would convince them. You would pull back. You’d resist hasty calls. You’d make certain that we got to the bottom of any credible claim of fraud. Not all the claims are credible, but some are, and you’d care.”
Of course, as Carlson neglected to mention, the figures in the media Trump and his supporters have accused of making hasty calls include the coastal elites at Fox News. The network called Arizona remarkably early for Biden, which shocked Trump’s camp enough that Rupert Murdoch was phoned immediately and asked to have the network reverse the announcement. He refused. And that refusal tells us all we might want to know about where things stand between Trump, the establishment of the Republican Party, and the conservative press. The powers that be know, on some level, that Trump is finished, absent a set of belated miracles. The task now is winding things down without acknowledging that Trump failed and alienating his base.
The advantage of the Carlson approach is that it marks Trump’s rhetoric on fraud as valid without explicitly endorsing his specific claims, allowing Republicans who want to preserve a veneer of respectability after he’s gone. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson is among those showing the rest of the party how it’s to be done. “It’s very unfortunate that no matter who wins, the other half of America is not going to view this as a particularly legitimate election,” he told reporters on Friday. “That’s a real problem. I’m not saying it’s legitimate or not. I’m saying this process has been set up where people are not going to view it as legitimate. And that’s a real problem.”
But it’s clearly a “problem” many Republicans don’t intend to do a real thing about. And that has Trump’s circle visibly alarmed. “Where are Republicans!” Eric Trump tweeted Thursday. “Have some backbone. Fight against this fraud. Our voters will never forget you if your sheep!”
He’s not wrong. It seems like a certainty that where candidates stood this week on alleged fraud and how vehemently they defended Trump, in general, will be major issues in Republican primary contests moving forward, especially if Trump sticks around the political scene to whine about his supposed mistreatment. But the fact that the party appears to be moving forward at all is a grim reality for Trump. As Republican ambivalence about shoring up his campaign with more coronavirus relief already suggested, Trump’s services are no longer required. The GOP is ending his term with a 6–3 majority on the Supreme Court and conservative justices up and down the rest of the federal judiciary, a massive tax cut, an end to Obamacare’s individual mandate, years of regulatory rollbacks, and an infusion of reactionary energy. It evidently doesn’t expect much more than this from a Republican presidency. Trump failed to articulate a sizable second-term agenda over the course of his campaign, and the conservative movement’s leading lights and intellectual institutions didn’t make a real effort to articulate one for him. They’ve already gotten what they needed, and anxieties about Democrats sweeping their gains and power away with a progressive agenda under Biden have been quelled substantially by the Republican victories in the Senate.
That’s not to say Republicans are set to spend the years ahead in a state of relaxed contentment. Things are about to get messy internally. Moderates hoping that the party can be rehabilitated in the eyes of centrists and winnable Democrats will want to turn the page from Trump. An ambitious cadre of reactionary populists would like to seize his mantle. Both factions have an interest in Trump fading away; to their certain disappointment, neither he nor his biggest fans in the Republican electorate are likely to. But Trump is on his way out of the White House. Whether he realizes it or not, his party has already packed his bags.