The downside of 'humoring' Trump following his election defeat

GOP insiders may not see a "downside" to "humoring" Trump for a "little bit of time," but their base doesn't see the wink and the nod.
President Donald J. Trump
President Donald J. Trump walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on Feb 7, 2020.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Imagesfile

Following through on his pre-election promises, Donald Trump decided to attack his own country's democracy, pretending he won, fight to disregard the votes he doesn't like, and make every possible effort to discredit the results that didn't go his way. The outgoing president is throwing an elaborate tantrum, indifferent to the fact that he looks like a small, petulant child.

Perhaps more important, however, nearly everyone surrounding Trump -- White House officials, congressional Republican leaders, et al. -- is going through the motions, pretending his tantrum has merit. The Washington Post quoted one GOP insider on the party's rationale:

"What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change," said one senior Republican official. "He went golfing this weekend. It's not like he's plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He's tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he'll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he'll leave."

To borrow a page from Dan Drezner, this senior Republican official sounds a bit like a babysitter: sure, pitiful Donnie is throwing a fit now, but he'll soon tire himself out, at which point the grown-ups can move on.

And it's tempting to embrace such an assumption. Maybe Trump will stomp his feet for a while, but it won't amount to much of anything, and the political world will soon see this as little more than the latest in a series of embarrassments.

But let's not be too quick to dismiss the implications and possible consequences of the outgoing president's latest tantrum.

For one thing, the excerpted quote suggests Trump and his team are treating their own supporters as fools. Insiders may not see a "downside" to "humoring" the president for a "little bit of time," but the Republican base is being led to believe that their own country's election really is illegitimate.

In other words, Trump voters aren't in on the game. They're not seeing the wink and the nod. These Americans have no idea that Republicans are merely "humoring" their flailing leader. On the contrary, they genuinely are under the impression that the losing candidate is actually the winning candidate, and that there's an elaborate scheme underway to deny power to the rightful winner -- because that's the ridiculous message Trump is telling them, and much of the party is too cowardly to say otherwise.

This won't soon fade in the minds of far-right voters, who may very well spend the next four years insisting that the election was "stolen" from them, from Democrats who "cheat," reality be damned.

As Michael Gerson added in his new column, "[I]t is Republican leaders who are responsible for poisoning whatever wells of goodwill still exist in our republic. Having aided Trump's autocratic delusions, they are now abetting his assault on the orderly transfer of power. Through their active support or guilty silence, most elected Republicans are encouraging their fellow citizens to believe that America's democratic system is fundamentally corrupt. No agent of China or Russia could do a better job of sabotage. Republicans are fostering cynicism about the constitutional order on a massive scale."

There are also practical consequences to the GOP "humoring" Trump for a while. The presidential transition period is always a difficult sprint, and every day it's delayed, the harder it gets for those involved.

Why should the typical voter care? Because everyone benefits when a new administration is able to hit the ground running on Jan. 20. Concerned about distributing a coronavirus vaccine? Then you should care about a smooth transition process. Care about national security? Then you should care about a smooth transition process.

The sooner Republicans focus less on humoring and more on governing, the better off we'll all be.