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The Media Finally Figured Out Trump. Now Do the GOP.

Why the Republican Party’s “performance art” excuse for undermining the election rings hollow

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Republican officials across the country are backing Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of a lawful and legitimate election. They are questioning vote counts at the state level, while refusing to acknowledge that Joe Biden is president-elect. They are doing everything they can to undermine a clear and not particularly close contest. And their excuse is that it’s all for show—a line that members of the mainstream press are peddling.

“President Donald Trump’s allies know he’s lost,” wrote the authors of Politico’s Playbook newsletter on Wednesday morning. “They know there’s no lawsuit they’ll win, or recount that will get him the tens of thousands of votes he needs in the multiple states he needs to get closer to a second term. Trump’s aides are looking for the exits, trying to find new jobs. Republicans are readjusting to the reality of a Joe Biden presidency. Yes, plenty of people are pretending otherwise, but it’s mostly performance art.”

There is certainly some truth to this. The Trump campaign’s lawsuits are flimsy, and its efforts to convince people outside the most rabid corners of the president’s base are farcical. One can see two goals driving this breathtakingly cynical approach: keeping the base engaged enough to win control of the Senate, which will be decided by runoff elections in Georgia in early January, and delegitimizing Biden’s presidency in the eyes of millions of voters.

But the “performance art” approach, in which both Republicans and media figures wink and nod about what’s really going on here, points to a larger media failure: a willingness to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt, when they are just as responsible for the party’s decades-long anti-democratic drift as Donald Trump. Republican leaders can count on the media giving them yet another pass, even as they openly question and undermine the results of a legitimate election.

In the media narrative of America’s drift toward authoritarianism, the Republican Party was given a supporting role. Donald Trump was the star, an American Orbán, a one-man eroder of norms.

In this version of recent history, Republicans were enablers and toadies, but there was a hint of performance art as well. The failure to stand up to the president was depicted as cowardice or, in more cynical terms, politics—not as manifestations of these officials’ own beliefs. Trump was the most powerful person in the party. He could destroy a respectable career in politics with a mere tweet. Turning on him, even gently, was sure to create a primary challenge, and it was better to retire than to try to fend off a Trumpist from the right. And so, in public, Republicans backed the president: They claimed not to have read the tweets, they found silver linings in his most insane rants. In private, they told reporters that they did not approve of the president’s antics. Given Trump’s power within the party, what else were they supposed to do?

But the GOP’s anti-democratic ideology long preceded Trump—indeed, it paved the way for him. The press has been unwilling to acknowledge this fact, instead depicting the ongoing crisis over the election’s results as a purely Trumpian phenomenon.

This approach leaves out a great deal. It misses the obscene redistricting efforts in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina that have attempted to cement Republican rule for eternity. It ignores the Herculean efforts to suppress voters, particularly people of color, that have become the focal point of the GOP’s electoral efforts—efforts that will certainly increase in the future, thanks to the false allegations of fraud being perpetrated by nearly every Republican official. It ignores Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s legislative intransigence, his efforts to stop democratically elected Democrats from getting anything done, and his theft of two Supreme Court seats.

McConnell and other Republican officials are betting that they can endorse Trump’s attempted coup, delegitimize Biden’s presidency, and still be treated as run-of-the-mill politicians by much of the press. They will suppress the vote and block the Biden administration at every turn, all while casting themselves as protectors of election integrity and fierce believers in fiscal responsibility. The long shadow that Trump will cast may very well make all of this easier—at least these Republicans are not Trump! What the Beltway press still hasn’t figured out is that is exactly what they are.