Missouri Senator Josh Hawley announced on Wednesday that he would take the courageous step of trying to overthrow an American election. When Congress formally counts the Electoral College votes on January 6, Hawley said he would try to challenge at least one state’s results, which requires at least one member of the House and Senate each. There aren’t enough votes in either chamber to toss out a state result, so the maneuver will only delay President-elect Joe Biden’s final victory by a few more hours.
“I cannot vote to certify the electoral college results on January 6 without raising the fact that some states, particularly Pennsylvania, failed to follow their own state election laws,” Hawley said in a statement. “And I cannot vote to certify without pointing out the unprecedented effort of mega corporations, including Facebook and Twitter, to interfere in this election, in support of Joe Biden. At the very least, Congress should investigate allegations of voter fraud and adopt measures to secure the integrity of our elections. But Congress has so far failed to act.”
This move is unsurprising from Hawley, who has been running for president ever since he arrived in Washington. Trump is using his lies about voter fraud as a litmus test of sorts for GOP office-holders across the country, implicitly conditioning his future political support for them on their willingness to support his false claims about the 2020 election. For ambitious conservatives like Hawley who aspire to even higher office, undermining the legitimacy of this election is just another step on the path to winning the next one.
There’s a feedback loop of sorts at work here: The more that Republicans validate Trump’s Lost Cause narrative now, the more they will have to do so in the future. “The idea that the election was stolen from Trump will be maintained as a kind of foundation myth of the post-Trump era—one that Republicans will have to tiptoe around for years,” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote on Wednesday. There is just one problem with this calculation by 2024 hopefuls: Trump himself isn’t going anywhere.
A 2024 bid by Trump himself wouldn’t be wholly unprecedented. Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888, then defeated him for a second non-consecutive term in 1892. Theodore Roosevelt ran against William Howard Taft, his own successor, in 1912. But most presidents since World War II have served two terms, and the few who’ve lost their reelection bids haven’t sought to return to office again. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush transitioned into elder statesmen roles after their defeats, mixing semi-retirement hobbies with humanitarian and diplomatic activities. They and other ex-presidents also generally avoided involvement in electoral politics, either out of respect for their successors or relief at escaping from it.
Can you imagine Trump taking such a placid, secondary role in public life? All of his moves so far suggest that, at minimum, he wants to remain the axial figure in Republican politics for the foreseeable future. Trump hasn’t yet publicly signaled that he would run again in 2024, of course. Such a move would effectively concede that he lost this election, after all. But he has reportedly told aides that he would do so in private, perhaps even announcing the decision on Inauguration Day to steal some of Biden’s thunder. His false claims about this election are also a lucrative fundraising tool—more than $200 million, and counting—as he amasses a financial war chest for the future. Even serious legal trouble may not deter Trump from mounting a 2024 bid: Socialist candidate Eugene Debs ran for president in 1920 from an Indiana prison and won 3 percent of the vote.
If Hawley and his cohorts genuinely believed there was electoral fraud, their moves would be slightly more defensible. But all of the available evidence suggests that cynical self-interest is the real motive at play. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican and an occasional critic of Trump, confirmed those suspicions in a Facebook post on Wednesday night. “When we talk in private, I haven’t heard a single Congressional Republican allege that the election results were fraudulent—not one,” he wrote. “Instead, I hear them talk about their worries about how they will ‘look’ to President Trump’s most ardent supporters.”
Most of Sasse’s post was devoted to discussing why Trump’s claims of election fraud didn’t hold water. But he also threw an implicit jab at grandstanding by Hawley and other “institutional arsonist” members of Congress. “Let’s be clear what is happening here: We have a bunch of ambitious politicians who think there’s a quick way to tap into the president’s populist base without doing any real, long-term damage,” Sasse wrote. “But they’re wrong—and this issue is bigger than anyone’s personal ambitions. Adults don’t point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government.”
The Trump era is, in some respects, a long chain of Faustian bargains between various prominent conservatives and the soon-to-be-former president. They embraced an incompetent authoritarian in exchange for Supreme Court seats, a Senate majority, tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks, and raw political influence. Now Josh Hawley is cutting a deal with the devil—except this time, the devil may be the one who knocks him out of the running in 2024.