Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Friday, January 08, 2021
The most prevalent conspiracy theory within the Republican Party, promoted for decades by many of its elected officials and opinion leaders, holds that the Democratic opposition regularly steals elections via organized plots of fraudulent balloting and ballot-counting. On Wednesday, January 6, this theory took human form and broke down the doors and windows of the U.S. Capitol in Washington as the officers of the American government fled in fear for their safety, and even their lives.
It's impossible to know for sure how many Republicans actually believe these claims of widespread Democratic voter fraud, how many do not, and how many land somewhere in the middle. But even those who are not sincere adherents can find conspiracy theories to be quite useful. For decades now, accusations and insinuations of electoral dishonesty have accompanied Republican resistance to Democratic initiatives aiming to lower the administrative burdens of voting, and have justified the imposition of voter identification requirements at polling places in a number of states. (Both parties tend to believe, accurately or not, that measures making it easier to vote work to the advantage of Democratic electoral fortunes.)
The results of the 2020 presidential contest supplied even more reasons for Republicans to promote stories of a stolen election. This claim could provide a psychologically satisfying explanation for why a president whom many conservatives admire to the point of hero worship nevertheless failed to win a second term in office. It could allow other figures in the party to demonstrate their solidarity with the president in question, who is well-known for demanding regular gestures of personal loyalty. And it could fuel a simmering anger among conservative voters at the supposed illegitimacy of the incoming president, which could helpfully stimulate high engagement and turnout in future elections.
But when a large population of citizens is told repeatedly by authorities they trust that political power is being improperly seized by a nefarious cabal, many will naturally start to think that they should do something drastic to stop it. And so whatever strategic cleverness might have inspired the repeated promotion of this and other conspiracy theories has been abruptly joined this week by what might be euphemistically called the corresponding downside risk.
The past five years have been especially valuable in revealing where power within the Republican Party does and doesn't reside. Republican members of Congress enjoy substantial internal influence in certain areas: they largely controlled the party's legislative agenda and shaped much of the policy-making during the tenure of the outgoing administration. But in the realm of rhetoric and communication, of speaking for their party and guiding its members, congressional Republicans are clearly at the mercy of a conservative media apparatus that has achieved the ability to dictate what the Republican Party should and shouldn’t publicly stand for.
If being a true conservative requires refusing to deny that the 2020 presidential election was rigged by treacherous Democrats, then Republican politicians will, regardless of their private views, be reluctant to defend the integrity of the electoral system, will support the disenfranchisement of voters from multiple states merely on the basis of improbable claims and rumors dismissed in courts of law by judicial appointees of both parties, and will pile on to demand the resignation of a fellow Republican elected official who was baselessly accused of mismanaging the administration of his state’s election once it became clear that the Democrats had narrowly won there.
The personal calculation at play here is obvious enough, and politicians of both parties can be expected to protect their own interests. But what do these acts add up to, in the end, if not the willful spreading of untruth, and the cession of massive national power to a set of voices who hardly even claim to prize or reward anything more than victory over their political adversaries? Recent events raise the question of whether the inarguable failure of security forces to defend the Capitol has been mirrored by an equally damaging weakness of responsible leadership from those who are supposed, at least some of the time, to lead. Can our form of government count on faithful protection from its stewards regardless of the partisan winds of the moment? Or are civic values, like the buildings that so often symbolize them, vulnerable to being smashed to pieces by those angry that they lost the last fight?
Wednesday, December 09, 2020
It was easy to predict before the 2020 election that Donald Trump would never personally acknowledge that he lost fairly, if indeed he were to lose. This expectation was apparent enough from any casual observation of Trump's behavior over his entire career in public life. Trump had even made accusations of widespread illegal voting in 2016, immediately after his surprising electoral success, so there was little reason to wonder whether he would dismiss the validity of any contest in which he was actually defeated.
What's become clear in the weeks following the vote is that this view is spreading widely within the Republican Party. A Monmouth University poll found that 77 percent of Trump supporters believed that Joe Biden's victory was due to fraud. Lawsuits and protests in multiple states have sought to overturn the results of the election or visit revenge on the officials responsible for counting the votes. Attuned to the winds blowing within their party, most Republican members of Congress either openly deny that Biden is the rightful president-elect or simply refuse to explicitly acknowledge Trump's defeat, a play-it-coy strategy that is reminiscent of many Republican elected officials' treatment of the "birther" conspiracy theory during the Obama administration.
In a provocative recent piece, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative critic of Trump, confirmed the popularity of the stolen-election theory on the American right—even among those whom he describes as "people I would not have expected to embrace it." Searching for explanations for this development, he not only lays responsibility on Trump's own claims and those of the president's vocal allies in the conservative media, but also describes a pre-existing skepticism of bureaucratic, academic, and journalistic institutions fueled by the underrepresentation of conservatives within their ranks. This perceived exclusion, Douthat argues, naturally encourages an anti-authority mentality on the right that easily leads to a search for alternative forms of knowledge—or "knowledge"—fulfilling a psychological demand for challenging the official accounts of emotionally unwelcome events. In other words, the very insistence of the "liberal media" and "liberal experts" that Trump was unambiguously defeated in a fair election is breeding a kind of reflexive resistance to the idea among those who distrust these traditional sources of information.
The dynamic that Douthat describes is likely an important part of the story. But there's another reason for the appeal of claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump that draws a bit more on conservatives' own long-held working theories of electoral politics.
The landslide victories of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s convinced many conservatives that there was no tradeoff between ideological purity and popular success—to the contrary, that an unambiguous embrace of the conservative cause brought reliable electoral reward. Subsequent Republican losses in presidential elections have often been explained away as cases when the party was rejected by the electorate after straying from its true ideological path, thereby reducing the participatory enthusiasm of the Republican base while causing other voters to lose respect for the GOP's wavering devotion to its own supposed principles. This view cites George H. W. Bush's loss in 1992 after violating the "no-new-taxes" pledge that he was elected on four years before; the Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008 after the George W. Bush administration deviated from small-government doctrine on domestic policy; and the back-to-back defeats of John McCain and Mitt Romney, both dismissed in retrospect as imperfectly loyal standard-bearers for the conservative movement.
Had Trump also lost in 2016, conservatives could have easily explained his defeat without revising this theory; simply pointing in the direction of Trump's politically inconsistent personal history and various rhetorical heterodoxies during the campaign would have allowed them to claim that he, too, failed because he wasn't a faithful enough conservative. But once elected, Trump began to preside over a strongly ideological administration that quickly and enduringly achieved both the committed support of leading conservative media figures and a remarkable, arguably unmatched degree of mobilized passion within the Republican popular base. If Republican presidential candidates only lose when they turn their back on conservatism and disappoint their own party's grassroots supporters, Trump's presidency seemed like it was custom-built to avoid such a fate.
On top of this, the belief that voter fraud is a serious problem in American elections, and that it is perpetrated in particular by liberal Democrats in big cities, has long been prevalent among conservatives. For years before the 2020 election, this claim has been used to justify the passage of voter ID laws and other restrictive measures by Republican-controlled state legislatures despite the absence of hard evidence substantiating it.
Even without Trump's own accusations further stirring the pot, then, the situation was ripe in 2020 for many conservatives to believe that the only way the president could lose would be through a fraudulent election, and that Democrats had both the means and the inclination to commit such fraud. The narrow popular margins in pivotal states, the record amount of mail-in voting, the late reporting of urban vote piles, and the victory of an opponent (Biden) whom few conservatives view as a particularly wily or charismatic adversary all serve as additional fodder for this conspiratorial thinking, but it would probably have spread after a loss of any size or scope. Rather than revisit decades of assumptions about the administration of, and dynamics of vote choice in, American elections, it is psychologically easier to simply conclude that any defeat of a conservative popular hero must have been rigged by unscrupulous liberals.
Partisans on both sides are susceptible to conspiracy theories in the wake of political disappointment; claims of biased voting machines circulated for a time among Democratic supporters in the wake of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election, for example. But most Democrats subscribe to foundational assumptions that, though they may also be factually incorrect at times, allow for the possibility of electoral defeat that is at least legally—if perhaps not morally—legitimate. Rather than assert outright theft, they more commonly accuse Republicans of cynically exploiting popular prejudices or riding waves of corporate cash to victory, or blame their own side's candidates and advisors for blowing the race through strategic incompetence. (Even the 2020 results, by no means a total failure for Democrats, have inspired plenty of internal recriminations.) Conservatives, by contrast, are more likely to assume that a valid Republican defeat must be the electorate's punishment for the sin of ideological impurity. If Trump gave the American public the steadfast conservatism it supposedly craves, it's emotionally satisfying for them to conclude that maybe the voters didn't actually intend to end his presidency after all.
Thursday, November 19, 2020
One widespread assumption of the last four years has held that most Republican members of Congress and other top elected officials privately disdain Donald Trump, view him as a serious political liability foisted on them by misguided voters, and would just as soon be rid of him forever as the leader and dominant personality of their party. This view unites liberals whose own hatred of Trump is so strong that they presume it simply must be widely shared (even by Mrs. Trump), anti-Trump conservatives who insist on maintaining a sharp distinction between Trump and the rest of the GOP, and journalists who have often seen Republican politicians roll their eyes at, or complain on background about, various Trump-related antics.
But the events of the past two weeks confirm that anti-Trump sentiment is by no means widespread among the national Republican leadership. Congressional Republicans have hardly used the opportunity of Trump's electoral defeat to put his presidency behind them. In fact, they have done little to dispel, and in some cases have openly promoted, Trump's own claims that the election was illegitimately decided—even though the acceptance of such beliefs among Republican voters makes it more likely that Trump retains his hold on the party for at least another four years, potentially culminating in a third consecutive presidential nomination in 2024.
The burdens that Trump hangs on his fellow partisans are obvious and well-chronicled. But he also provides some valuable benefits to other Republican politicians that aren't as widely appreciated. Here are three important ways in which Trump keeps many of them satisfied with, and even enthusiastic about, his continued leadership of the party:
1. Ideology. Everybody remembers how little support Trump received from Republican officials when he first ran for president in 2015 and 2016. But a fair amount of that opposition wasn't really based on a moral objection to Trump the man, as has been made clear in retrospect. Instead, it reflected Republican worries that Trump would be an unelectable nominee or that he couldn't be trusted to uphold conservative ideology. Both concerns were soon alleviated: Trump was indeed elected president, and he quickly proceeded to lead the most consistently conservative administration in nearly a century. Whereas even George W. Bush, once a national conservative hero, occasionally pushed his partisan allies in Congress to support ideologically impure legislation (the No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare Part D, comprehensive immigration reform), Trump has left the Republican right with few tough dilemmas and much to cheer. His policy agenda and personnel appointments (including to the federal judiciary) have been almost uniformly conservative, and—despite the "deal-making maverick" persona of his first campaign—he has never shown much interest in forcing his party into compromise with the Democratic opposition.
2. Protection. Beneath the Type-A bravado that many Republicans prefer to adopt in public lies a great deal of fear and vulnerability. The Obama years were a difficult time for Republican politicians, who found themselves the targets of constant criticism from conservative activists. For every veteran incumbent who was seriously challenged in a Republican primary election, many more suffered repeated attacks from angry constituents and conservative media figures who accused them of failing to prevent Obama's rise to power. But the Trump presidency has eased these conflicts. Trump's popularity among the Republican electorate is so profound that an endorsement or word of praise from him is usually enough to protect other Republicans from backlash among the grassroots. And to earn this precious seal of approval, Republicans don't need to take a series of tough votes or alienate important constituencies; they just need to stay publicly loyal to "Mr. Trump" and defend him from his enemies. For most Republican incumbents, who represent safely red states or districts where Trump is popular and Democratic challengers aren't a serious threat, that's a pretty good bargain.
3. Mobilization. Both the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election produced voter turnout rates that hadn't been matched in a century or more. Democrats were able to harness deep antipathy to Trump to mobilize their supporters and win control of the House of Representatives in 2018 and the presidency in 2020. But Republicans flocked to the polls as well to defend Trump, even in a midterm election when he wasn't on the ballot. Though this conservative electoral engagement couldn't save Trump from defeat or keep the House in Republican hands, it did allow Republicans to pick up Senate seats in 2018 and potentially maintain control of the chamber for at least the first two years of Biden's presidency as well—while the unanticipated gains in House races this year make a return to power in 2022 very possible. Trump critics were hoping that the 2020 elections would deliver a national popular repudiation of the Republican Party as punishment for the perceived sins of its leader. Instead, Trump lost an unexpectedly close race for re-election while other Republican candidates benefited from the turnout surge among his devotees and a critical slice of down-ballot support from voters who opted for Biden at the top of the ticket. Never before in modern American history has a party emerged as unscathed from the defeat of its incumbent president.
Enthusiasm for Trump's leadership is, of course, hardly universal within the GOP; the existence of openly critical figures like Mitt Romney and John Kasich suggests the presence of additional anti-Trump Republicans who keep their opposition quiet for reasons of political self-interest. But we shouldn't assume that publicly-stated support for Trump is only motivated by a strategic calculation to pander to the Republican electorate. For many Republicans, Trump's flaws are accompanied by some very real assets, and they can envision a worse future than one where he continues to lead the Republican Party even while in exile.
Monday, November 09, 2020
Imagine someone who set off into the Siberian wilderness right after the 2018 midterms, didn't experience any of the 2020 campaign, and returned to civilization today to see the outcome of last week's election. This person would come back to the following results:
• A close national presidential contest decided by crucial victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
• A set of Senate races that almost perfectly mirrored the presidential results in each state, with the lone exception of Republican moderate Susan Collins outrunning the rest of her party's candidates in Maine.
• A mostly incumbent-friendly set of House elections, with a few of the 2018 Democratic wave's biggest upset winners—Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico—unable to defend their Republican-leaning seats when facing a presidential-year electorate.
• A continuation of the ongoing pro-Democratic shift in the nation's largest metropolitan areas, pushing former "red states" Arizona and Georgia into full partisan competitiveness and reducing the size of the Republican statewide advantage in Texas.
• A partially countervailing solidification of Republican electoral strength in small towns and rural areas nearly everywhere in the country except New England, keeping key states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania highly competitive while shifting Ohio and Iowa further toward the GOP.
If this person were a Democrat, he or she might be perfectly content with an election in which Donald Trump was defeated and Nancy Pelosi's House majority remained intact. Or maybe there would be some dismay that the popular repudiation of Trump was not strong enough to deliver Democrats an outright national landslide that handed the party clear control of the Senate. Likewise, a Republican supporter might mourn Trump's defeat—or conclude that, under the circumstances, the outcome could have been even worse.
But there would be no reason for our returning wanderer to be surprised about any of the major results of the 2020 election. The outcome represents a doggedly consistent continuation of the basic electoral fundamentals of the last decade or more: closely-matched popular support for each party, severe and growing geographic polarization, rampant straight-ticket voting, and important Republican structural advantages in the electoral college and congressional apportionment, especially in the Senate.
Those advantages meant that Biden's victory over Donald Trump was in fact very narrow; a shift of 1 percent of the vote in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona would have re-elected Trump despite Biden's comfortable lead in the national popular vote. But they also increase the magnitude of Biden's achievement: the defeat of an elected incumbent president for only the fourth time in the last century, and the ejection of a party from control of the White House after just four years in power for only the second time since 1896. And the pro-Republican tilt of our electoral institutions helps to explain why Democrats were unable to grow their margin in the House of Representatives or win a majority in the Senate, which wound up tempering some party members' delight in the election results.
That disappointment was mostly a testament to the power of pre-election polling to sway expectations. Thanks to overly rosy survey results, optimistic Democrats had visions of revolutionary success dancing in their heads: Senate victories in Montana, Kansas, and even South Carolina; breakthroughs in House races in Indiana and Missouri; even Texas turning "blue" for the first time in 44 years. This wasn't just partisan daydreaming; Republican operatives told journalists that their own private polls were as potentially devastating to their party as the publicly-released data.
There's a lesson here beyond the obvious need to re-evaluate the trustworthiness of polling methodology and forecasting models. For all the ways in which American politics seems to have entered a period of rapid and disorienting change, the partisan preferences of the electorate have only become more and more entrenched over time. Events and developments that might seem inevitably transformative, from Trump's election to the COVID epidemic to piles of small-dollar donations raised by congressional candidates from Maine to Alaska, have repeatedly proven to have only minor effects on the voting choices of citizens loyally committed to their existing partisan teams. If we simply assume that this electoral stability will prevail until proven otherwise, we are much less likely to be surprised by what we see.