GOP heavyweights who appease ex-President Donald Trump and whitewash his election lies to advance their own political careers only encourage even more damaging attacks on democracy and his building authoritarianism. It was true in the 2016 campaign, when the GOP abetted Trump’s demagoguery on the assumption he would behave in office. It was the same story when he escaped conviction by Republican senators in two impeachments. And it is true now, when Trump’s attempts to destroy faith in an election system that ejected him from office are getting worse.
The 45th President, who is making unmistakable moves to fire up a 2024 campaign, on Wednesday issued his latest assault on the truth of his 2020 defeat and the attempted coup he inspired when he attacked the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection.
His lie-filled missive came in a week in which several other possible Republican candidates — including ex-Vice President Mike Pence and ex-UN Ambassador Nikki Haley — tried to ingratiate themselves back into Trump world. By paying their respects to the commander in chief, they underscored his dominance of their party and the way his anti-democratic behavior is ignored. They also demonstrated that, as in a totalitarian system, there can be no criticism of the leader. They choose to ostentatiously profess loyalty — to escape the fates of those purged from the party’s affections for telling the truth, like Republican Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the only two Republicans who serve on the January 6 committee.
Nine months to the day after his mob smashed its way into the US Capitol, assaulting police officers and sending lawmakers running for their lives, Trump took aim at the panel probing the outrage.
His comment was one of the most inflammatory statements yet in his long record of incitement. He is effectively arguing that the election — the core expression of democratic values that have sustained America for nearly two-and-a-half centuries — was illegitimate and violence is a more appropriate expression of political will. It is the kind of rhetoric typical of totalitarian leaders and it would once have seemed unthinkable to hear from one of the leading US political figures. It also encapsulates the danger still facing US democracy.
He said the committee should conclude that “the real insurrection happened on November 3rd, the Presidential Election, not on January 6th—which was a day of protesting the Fake Election results.”
In normal circumstances, the rantings of an election-losing, twice-impeached, one-term President might not merit much attention. Some Trump critics believe he should be ignored by the media and not rewarded with the attention he seeks. Yet the ex-President’s incessant attacks on the sanctity of free and fair elections carry extra weight, given his status as the prohibitive favorite for the 2024 nomination, and serve as a warning for the perils that would lie in wait if he runs and succeeds in regaining the White House.
And this week especially, Trump’s statement underscores how his corrosive behavior is enabled by leading Republicans who tolerate his abuses of truth because standing up for reality would block their own paths to power.
Pence and Haley try to mend fences
Pence, for instance, dancing on a political pin to restore his own 2024 viability after being forced to do his constitutional duty and certify Joe Biden’s election win, did his own piece of historical reinvention.
Speaking on Fox News earlier this week, he argued that “the media wants to distract from the Biden administration’s failed agenda by focusing on one day in January.” It’s hardly as if the media has ignored Biden’s troubles. Coverage of his chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal was highly critical and the President’s dipping approval ratings and struggles to enact his multitrillion-dollar agenda have filled news shows and the internet for days.
But not for the first time, Pence was quickly hung out to dry by Trump. The former President’s Wednesday statement obliterated his ex-number two’s argument that January 6 was just a media obsession. It proved yet again that the main driver of debate about the insurrection, in which the mob chanted for Pence to be hanged, is Trump himself.
If he is to have any chance at a future presidential run, Pence must make peace with millions of Republican voters who believe the Big Lie spewed every day by Trump and compliant conservative propaganda networks.
So he boasted on Sean Hannity’s show that he had spent four years in a “foxhole” with Trump and they remain good friends. But that friendship depends on not confronting the gusher of lies about the election, which are threatening the very democratic political system that Pence one day hopes to lead.
Another potential 2024 candidate trying to make up for her apostasy to Trumpism is former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who said after January 6 that the ex-President would be judged harshly by history and had taken his party down a path that it shouldn’t have followed — comments she later softened, adding in April that she would back Trump if he runs again in 2024 and would not run against him.
Positioning herself for a potential future presidential run this week, Haley completed her reversal in a Wall Street Journal interview, suggesting that Trump is vital to the party because he has the “ability to move the ball” and can get “strong people” elected. At least she conceded that he had been defeated in the election, trying to have it both ways by saying there had been fraud but not enough to change the result. (According to multiple audits, court cases and even Trump’s own Justice Department, there was not significant fraud in the 2020 election).
In the interview, Haley also pledged to confer with Trump before launching a presidential run, leaving open the possibility she could step aside if he wants another shot. “I would pick up the phone and meet with the president,” she said. “I would talk to him and see what his plans are. I would tell him about my plans. We would work on it together.”
In remarks to the GOP faithful at the Reagan Library on Tuesday night, Haley did not allude to January 6 and barely mentioned Trump, instead choosing to lean into foreign policy, while delivering a gentle reminder that the party “cannot ignore minorities and women.”
Like Pence, Haley’s route to power would run through an accommodation with a former President responsible for the worst attack on the seat of US democratic government in history. She is far from alone in her appeasement, however. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who castigated Trump after January 6 only to quickly try to make up with him, is effectively anchoring his bid to win the House next year on the ex-President.
Multiple hopefuls approaching GOP primary races ahead of the midterm elections have embraced Trump’s democracy-tainting lies in an effort to win his endorsement. This is all a sign of how the former President’s strange magic, and still-roaring appeal among Republican grassroots voters, still dominates his party.
“I don’t get this toxic hold that Trump has over people,” Kinzinger said on CNN’s “Newsroom” this week.
“He never had it over me. Maybe I just missed out. But I’m glad I did.”
A huge political machine
The political machine spawned by Trump’s slanders about the 2020 election is extraordinary. After all, it is based on nothing more than his refusal to admit that he lost. Trump, apparently fearing he would be beaten by Biden, laid the groundwork for his post-election behavior by lashing out at mail-in voting ahead of time. But it was his unhinged tantrum on election night itself, when he falsely claimed he had won with many votes yet to be counted, that fired up a stunning chain of events that is now the worst threat to US democracy in generations.
It remains barely believable that one of America’s major political parties — apparently willing to tolerate even the most dangerous assaults on reality to win power — is still so in thrall to one man’s crushed ego. But the GOP’s continued tolerance of Trump is so dangerous because democracy can survive only when candidates rejected by the people admit their losses. The burying of personal ambition and vanity in the service of the wider national will expressed at the ballot box is the pillar of any system of self-government by the people.
Trump’s nursing of his own ego in defeat inspired a massive tale of lies and conspiracies that have convinced, without any evidence, 78% of Republicans that Biden didn’t win the election, according to a CNN/SSRS poll released last month. Based on Trump’s lies, 19 states have now enacted 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Trump has endorsed candidates for secretary of state — a position with vast sway over elections — in pivotal swing states Arizona, Michigan and Georgia who support his lies about fraud. The move is a transparent effort to put in place an infrastructure in 2024 that could be used to steal the election if Trump is a candidate and fails to win enough votes.
With key Republicans ignoring his anti-democratic quest in order to protect their own appeals to his voters, the threat to American democracy — which has survived a Civil War, two world wars, economic depressions and the long journey toward civil rights — is likely to get even worse.