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Why GOP's instant dismissal of Barr's election fraud denial is so concerning

After four years of Trump, ignoring reality is no longer a reflex; it's at the center of the right’s political culture.
Image: Two elephants, one black and white and the other red, interlock their trunks against red and black backgrounds.
Trump’s consistent lies are forcing the GOP into an existential crisis.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Library of Congress

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s loyal attorney general, Bill Barr, said he has “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

If this is going to be yet another test of the GOP’s integrity, it’s probably best to keep your optimism in check.

This would have been disastrous for Trump if facts actually mattered. Fortunately for the president, the grievance movement he is building rests more on raw belief than any actual evidence that would hold up in a court of law.

Cults, after all, are built and sustained on faith, not data.

On cue, much of Trump’s supporters denounced the attorney general. Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network lashed out at Barr, saying he is “either a liar or a fool,” while other Trump-friendly media outlets labelled the one-time loyalist “just another card-carrying swamp rat.”

None of this is especially surprising, since actual evidence of fraud is beside the point for much of Trump’s base. They simply cannot believe that it is possible that he lost. “Does anyone believe that Biden got 15 million more votes than Obama in 2012?” Eric Trump tweeted. “This from a candidate who would go days/weeks while hardly campaigning.”

In the pro-Trump publication “American Greatness,” the theft of the election is treated as a matter of uncontestable fact. “The question is not whether the Democrats tried to steal the election; they did,” writes author Bruce Bawer. “At this point, there’s no honest question about that. The only question is whether there’s enough time to prove it in court, and whether the judges involved will dare to make honest rulings.”

The conservative website RedState published a piece that stated “without a doubt, this election was stolen,” based on “circumstantial evidence.”

“The enthusiasm for the Trump team seemed insurmountable,”’ the author insists. “There is no way Biden and Harris jumped over that by holding rallies for 10 people at a time. I’ll die on that hill.”

This would have been disastrous for Trump if facts actually mattered.

For Republicans, the long nightmare of Trump is not even close to being over. Despite his defeat, it seems increasingly likely that Trump will continue to hold the GOP hostage, insisting that they continue to support his claim that the election was stolen from him.

In the days immediately after the vote, some Republicans told themselves that there was no harm in indulging Trump, because, surely, he would eventually come around. But far from psychologically adapting to his defeat, Trump has used the last month to launch a multifront attack on the election. And despite his serial legal defeats in court, he and his supporters have escalated their rhetoric about conspiracies, rigged machines, communist plots to overthrow the government, and rampant fraud. He has also continued to raise massive amounts of money to combat the “theft” of the election.

Some Republicans are reportedly “quietly rattled” that Trump’s false claims could hurt turnout in the Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia that will determine control of the Senate. But the fallout will last far longer.

Even after he leaves office, Trump’s lies about the election are likely to be a litmus test for the GOP. Trump has already threatened primary challenges against governors who have followed the law and certified election results. He has denounced Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as an “enemy of the people.”

Indeed, Trump’s insistence that he was stabbed in the back could shape right-wing politics for decades. In the short term, there is no longer any easy exit strategy for Republicans. Trump’s denialism won’t end with the certification of the state votes; it won’t end with the counting of the Electoral College votes; and it won’t end on Jan. 20 with his departure from the White House.

Trump reportedly will boycott the inauguration and may stage a counter-event to announce that he is running in 2024. (Speaking of litmus tests: Will Vice President Mike Pence attend the formal inauguration or the Trumpian anti-inauguration? What will other GOP senators do?)

What would another Trump campaign mean? If he says he’s running, Republicans will find themselves married to his election trutherism for another four, or perhaps even eight, years. Trump’s lies about fraud will be central to that campaign — a chant at every rally; the juice behind massive fundraising appeals; the centerpiece of any post-presidential media enterprise; and the subject of thousands of tweets.

There are scattered signs of resistance, but if this is going to be yet another test of the GOP’s integrity, it’s probably best to keep your optimism in check. After four years of Trump, the habit of ignoring reality is no longer simply a reflex; it is now at the center of the right’s political culture. Indeed, ignoring the reality of the coronavirus was a dress rehearsal for ignoring the reality of an American election. It makes sense then that most Republican officials remain afraid to offend the president or his MAGA base.

And even as he slides closer to defeat, Trump continues to stoke doubt and the anger. In just the last few days we have seen:

  • A member of the president’s legal team claimed he was merely joking when he suggested that the Department Homeland Security’s former cybersecurity head Chris Krebs be “taken out at dawn and shot” for defending the integrity of the election.
  • A prominent conservative attorney in Georgia called on Trump to declare martial law because the Communist Chinese were plotting to overthrow the government.
  • A well-known Christian conservative author and broadcaster said to Trump in an interview: "I'd be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us."
  • Trump’s former lawyer retweeted a call for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, set up "military tribunals," cancel the electoral college vote and postpone the Jan. 20 Inauguration.
  • Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was pardoned by the president last week, endorsed a manifesto calling on Trump “to immediately declare a limited form of Martial Law and temporarily suspend the Constitution and civilian control of these federal elections for the sole purpose of having the military oversee a national re-vote.”
  • Trump himself called on Georgia’s governor to “Do something,” and to “call off the election. It won’t be needed. We will all WIN!”

All of that was too much for one of Georgia’s top election officials. Gabriel Sterling, the voting implementation manager with the Georgia secretary of state's office and a Republican, made an emotional plea for decency and called out Trump’s own rhetoric. “Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language,” he said. “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right. It has to stop,” Sterling said.

But it won’t, because Trump thinks this is working for him. And he’s counting on Republicans to go along with him, because they have so many times before.