On Sunday, J.D. Vance—the author and Ron Howard muse turned GOP gubernatorial candidate—tried to repent for committing the cardinal sin of post-2016 Republican politics: having said anything slightly critical of Donald Trump in the past. “In four years, I hope people remember that it was those of us who empathized with Trump’s voters who fought him most aggressively,” Vance tweeted in March 2016. At the time, the Hillbilly Elegy author was positioning himself as the reasonable alternative to the GOP’s populist turn: Vance was marketing himself as an Appalachian-born venture capitalist who knew the magic words poor people needed to hear to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, coincidentally a folksy sort of homespun wisdom that flattered the sentimentality of wealthy liberals. Trump, Vance argued, was “unfit,” his attacks on immigrants were “reprehensible,” and his policies ranged from “immoral to absurd.” When it came time to offer an endorsement, Vance backed Evan McMullin.
Vance’s decisions back then probably ensured he’d seamlessly float through the elite aeries to which he’d become accustomed. For a Republican running in an Ohio primary—or nearly anywhere else, for that matter—in 2021, the rules have changed: These comments now represent a serious electoral liability. And so Vance made a pilgrimage to Fox News to recant his previously held beliefs and earn a pardon. “Like a lot of people, I criticized Trump back in 2016,” he said. “And I ask folks not to judge me based on what I said in 2016, because I’ve been very open that I did say those critical things and I regret them, and I regret being wrong about the guy.” Vance’s apology was comparatively belated. Republicans have been purged for less since 2017: In contemporary GOP politics, total allegiance to Donald Trump is mandatory.
The demands go far beyond support for the former president. Fealty to Trump in 2021 also means fealty to the Big Lie. Vance is hoping to reinvent himself as a Trump Republican and has adopted the language of the new total culture war. Victory, he said earlier this year, “will require us completely replacing the existing ruling class with another ruling class.… Unless we overthrow them in some way, we’re gonna keep losing.” Without simultaneously embracing the idea that the election was stolen from Trump, however, Vance’s efforts at redemption aren’t quite complete.
Republicans across the country are starting to realize this. A Washington Post report published on Tuesday found that “at least a third” of the nearly 700 GOP candidates who have filed initial paperwork to run for Congress next year “have embraced Trump’s false claims about his defeat.” It’s not just congressional candidates: Dozens of Republicans vying for statewide office—including positions like governor or secretary of state, which would give them power to administer elections—have similarly embraced Trump’s Big Lie. Meanwhile, 136 sitting members of Congress have also parroted his false claims about the election; at least 16 attended the “Stop the Steal” protest events that preceded the Capitol riot on January 6.
As Jena Griswold, who is currently the Democratic secretary of state in Colorado, told the Post: “What’s really frightening right now is the extent of the effort to steal power over future elections. That’s what we’re seeing across the nation. Literally in almost every swing state, we have someone running for secretary of state who has been fearmongering about the 2020 election or was at the insurrection. Democracy will be on the ballot in 2022.”
Bogus concerns about “election integrity,” if not all-out trumpeting of the Big Lie itself, have become a crucial litmus test for Republican politicians. It’s fair to think of it as the Trump version of Grover Norquist’s infamous Taxpayer Protection Pledge, the commitment to no tax increases that has shaped Republican politics for more than 30 years. That pledge has been instrumental to the dysfunction and gridlock that has taken over American politics in the post-Soviet era; it is also de rigueur for Republicans. Only a handful of Republicans sitting in Congress haven’t signed it. Norquist’s pledge has been around since 1986; in recent election cycles, GOP candidates have essentially been required to sign on the dotted line. Looking ahead, it seems that backing the false claims about voter fraud and the 2020 election has become just as, if not more, important.
In any case, concern-trolling about election integrity has joined anti–gun control measures and tax cuts for the rich as pillars of Republican rhetoric. In fact, there might not be much more to the GOP platform. As the Republican Party has become obsessed with red meat culture-war issues that animate its base, it has shed interest in governing. If the refusal to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge was sure to earn the Republican refusenik a potent primary challenge from the right, denying Trump’s election lies as gospel truth will likely lead to the same punishment. In this case, it’s akin to the old “Bloody Mary” game that children would play at sleepovers: If a Republican mouths the words “Biden is a legitimate president” aloud, a Trump-backed challenger shall magically appear.