Locked out of Facebook, marooned in Mar-a-Lago and mocked for an amateurish new website, Donald Trump remained largely out of public sight this past week. Yet the Republican Party’s capitulation to the former president became clearer than ever, as did the damage to American politics he has caused with his lie that the election was stolen from him.
In Washington, Republicans moved to strip Rep. Liz Cheney of her House leadership position, a punishment for denouncing Trump’s false claims of voter fraud as a threat to democracy. Lawmakers in Florida and Texas advanced sweeping new measures that would curtail voting, echoing the fictional narrative from Trump and his allies that the electoral system was rigged against him. And in Arizona, the state Republican Party started a bizarre reexamination of the November election results that involved searching for traces of bamboo in last year’s ballots.
The churning dramas cast into sharp relief the extent to which the nation, six months after the election, is still struggling with the consequences of an unprecedented assault by a losing presidential candidate on a bedrock principle of American democracy: that the nation’s elections are legitimate.
They also provided stark evidence that the former president has not only managed to squelch any dissent within his party but has also persuaded most of the GOP to make a gigantic bet: that the surest way to regain power is to embrace his pugilistic style, racial divisiveness and beyond-the-pale conspiracy theories rather than to court the suburban swing voters who cost the party the White House and who might be looking for substantive policies on the pandemic, the economy, health care and other issues.
The loyalty to the former president persists despite his role in inciting his supporters ahead of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, with his adherents either ignoring, redefining or in some cases tacitly accepting the deadly attack on Congress.
“We’ve just gotten so far afield from any sane construction,” said Barbara Comstock, a longtime party official who was swept out of her suburban Virginia congressional seat in the 2018 midterm backlash to Trump. “It’s a real sickness that is infecting the party at every level. We’re just going to say that black is white now.”
Yet as Republicans wrap themselves in the fantasy of a stolen election, Democrats are anchored in the day-to-day business of governing a nation that is still struggling to emerge from a deadly pandemic.
Strategists from both parties say that discordant dynamic — two parties operating in two different realities — is likely to define the country’s politics for years to come.
At the same time, President Joe Biden faces a broader challenge: what to do about the large segment of the public that doubts his legitimacy and a Republican Party courting the support of that segment by pushing bills that would restrict voting and perhaps further undermine faith in future elections.
A CNN poll released last week found that nearly a third of Americans, including 70% of Republicans, said Biden had not legitimately won enough votes to win the presidency.
White House aides say Biden believes that the best way to restore some faith in the democratic process is demonstrating that government can deliver tangible benefits — whether vaccines or economic stimulus checks — to voters.
Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who oversaw the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s strategy to win the House during the last midterm elections, said the Republican focus on cultural issues, like bans on transgender athletes, was a “win-win” for his party. Many Democrats will face only scattershot attacks on their agenda while continuing to run against the polarizing rhetoric of Trump, which helped the party flip suburban swing districts in 2018 and 2020.
“I would much rather have a record of siding with Americans on recovery,” Sena said. “Which tale do the American public want to listen to — what Democrats have done to get the country moving again or Donald Trump and his culture war?”
Biden predicted during the campaign that Republicans would have an “epiphany” once Trump was gone and would revert to being the party he knew during his decades in the Senate. When asked about Republicans this week, Biden lamented that he didn’t understand them anymore and appeared slightly flummoxed about the “mini-revolution” in their ranks.
“I think the Republicans are further away from trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for than I thought they would be at this point,” he said.
But for much of the past week, Republicans put on vivid display exactly what they now stand for: Trumpism. Many have adopted his approach of courting white grievance with racist statements, and Republican-led legislatures across the country are pushing through restrictions that would curtail voting access in ways that disproportionally impact voters of color.
There are also high-stakes electoral considerations. With his deeply polarizing style, Trump motivated his base and his detractors alike, pushing both parties to record voter turnout in the 2020 election. His total of 74 million votes was the second-highest ever, behind only Biden’s 81 million, and Trump has shown an ability to turn his political supporters against any Republican who opposes him.
That has left Republicans convinced that they must display unwavering fealty to a departed president to retain the voters he won over.
“I would just say to my Republican colleagues: Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in an interview on Fox News this week. “I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”
In some ways, the former president is more diminished than ever. Defeated at the polls, he spends his time at his Florida resort playing golf and entertaining visitors. He lacks the bully pulpit of the presidency, has been banished from Twitter and failed this past week to have his account restored by Facebook. He left office with his approval rating below 40%, the lowest final first-term rating for any president since Jimmy Carter in 1979.
Still, his dominance over Republicans is reflected from Congress to statehouses. Local and federal lawmakers who have pushed their party to accept the results of the election, and thus Trump’s loss, have faced a steady drumbeat of censure and primary challenges. Those threats appear to be having an impact: The small number of Republican officials who have been critical of Trump in the past, including the 10 who voted for his impeachment in February, remained largely silent this week, refusing interview requests and offering little public support for Cheney.
Her likely replacement, Rep. Elise Stefanik, publicly promoted herself for the post and moved to establish her Trump bona fides by lending credence to his baseless voter fraud claims in interviews with hard-right supporters of the former president.
The focus on the election has crowded out nearly any discussion of policy or party orthodoxy. The Heritage Action scorecard, which rates lawmakers on their conservative voting records, awarded Cheney a lifetime score of 82%. Stefanik, who has more moderate voting record but is a far more vocal supporter of the former president, scored 52%.
Stefanik and many other Republican leaders are betting that the path to keeping the electoral gains of the Trump era lies in stoking their base with the populist politics that are central to the president’s brand, even if they repel swing voters.
After months of being fed lies about the election by the conservative news media, much of the party has come to embrace them as true. Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who has been conducting focus groups of Trump voters for years, said that since the election she had found an increased openness to what she calls “QAnon curious,” a willingness to entertain conspiracy theories about stolen elections and a deep state. “A lot of these base voters are living in a post-truth nihilism where you believe in nothing and think that everything might be untrue,” said Longwell, who opposed Trump.
Some Republican strategists worry that the party is missing opportunities to attack Biden, who has proposed the most sweeping spending and tax plans in generations.
“Republicans need to go back to kitchen-table issues that voters really care about, sprinkle in a little culture here and there but not get carried away,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist who helped crush right-wing populists in past elections. “And some of them are making an industry out of getting carried away.”
While clinging to Trump could help the party increase turnout among its base, Republicans like Comstock argue that such a strategy will damage the party with crucial demographics, including younger voters, voters of color, women and suburbanites. Already, intraparty fights are emerging in nascent primaries as candidates accuse each other of disloyalty to the former president. Many party leaders fear that could result in hard-right candidates’ emerging victorious and eventually losing general elections in conservative states where Republicans should prevail, like Missouri and Ohio.
“To declare Trump the winner of a shrinking minority, that’s not a territory you want to head up,” Comstock said. “The future of the party is not going to be some 70-year-old man talking in the mirror at Mar-a-Lago and having all these sycophants come down and do the limbo to get his approval.”
Yet those who have objected to Trump — and paid the price — say there’s little political incentive to pushing against the tide. Criticizing Trump, or even defending those who do, can leave elected officials in a kind of political no man’s land: seen as traitorous to Republican voters but still too conservative on other issues to be accepted by Democrats and independents.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult, it seems, for people to go out on the stump and defend somebody like Liz Cheney or Mitt Romney,” former Sen. Jeff Flake, who endorsed Biden and was censured by the Arizona Republican Party this year, said during a panel appearance at Harvard this week. “About 70% of Republicans probably genuinely believe that the election was stolen, and that’s debilitating. It really is.”