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?