In the weeks and months leading up to Election Day 2020, Donald Trump told us exactly what he intended to do. The incumbent president, fearing a likely defeat, left little doubt that he would denounce the results, file a flurry of hollow lawsuits, attack his own country's democracy, and refuse to accept any outcome that didn't make him happy.
The Republican, we now know, wasn't kidding. Trump's multi-tantrum reflects his ugliest autocratic reflexes, up to and including pretending to have won a race he lost. Vox's Ezra Klein summarized over the weekend, "Joe Biden has won the presidency. But the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, is attempting a coup in plain sight. 'I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!' he tweeted on Saturday morning. This came after he demanded that states cease counting votes when the total began to turn against him."
But something Rachel said on the air on Saturday, as part of MSNBC's coverage of the race being called for Biden, resonated with me.
"[T]here's a great distance, for me, between what I expected to be the impact of those words from the president, and what they feel like today. I think I thought it would be scary or at least it would feel like it was sort of shaking the foundations of the republic a little bit for the incumbent president -- who's still the commander in chief of the military, who still commands the executive branch of the United States government -- for him to defy the election result and say, 'No, no, no, I'm still president.' I thought that would be big and ominous. And now Trump is in fact doing it, with Biden as president-elect, and it just feels laughable. It just feels small and pitiful and irrelevant."
Quite right. On the surface, the stage may appear to be set for some kind of crisis -- an incumbent American president balking at his own electoral rebuke -- but in practice, Trump appears ridiculous. The outgoing leader looks less like a powerful autocrat and more like a toddler who's dropped a rattle.
It's easy to marvel at Trump's outburst; it's harder to care. The tantrum, at least for now, seems largely inconsequential.
What strikes me as more notable, however, is the reaction from his partisan allies. The president can stomp his feet, but in a couple of months, he'll be out of office. After Trump leaves the White House to spend more time with his defense attorneys, however, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill will still wield considerable power, which makes their perspective far more relevant.
Axios noted this morning, "Most top Republicans have followed Trump's orders not to accept the Biden victory." That's as true as it is bizarre -- not only because of the clarity of the election's outcome, but also because so many GOP lawmakers have decided the defeated president's "orders" are still worth following.
Leading congressional Republicans see the same election results as everyone else. They can read the writing on the wall and start preparing for a change in leadership at the White House. But with some notable exceptions, GOP leaders are following the president's lead anyway.
Maybe the party fears Trump's followers. Maybe Republican leaders think Trump will run again in 2024. Maybe the party has been Trumpified to such an extent that this was inevitable.
Whatever the motivation, the bottom line remains the same: most leading GOP officials aren't acknowledging Biden's victory, and they're going along with Trump's nonsensical claims about electoral improprieties no one in the party can prove with evidence.
Politico's Tim Alberta noted the other day, "We don't yet have any evidence proving voter fraud was committed in this election. We do have evidence that Republicans -- from the president to congressional leaders to the party chair and her aides -- are lying to the public."
In an accompanying article, Alberta added, "After four years of turning a blind eye to the president's subversive rhetoric and manic behavior and relentless dishonesty, the ultimate test for the Republican Party was whether it would accommodate the president's rebellion against this country's democratic norms or denounce it. The Republican Party has failed that test.... A healthy Republican Party would not abide this. Then again, a healthy Republican Party would not have winked and nodded at birtherism, nor would it have nominated Trump to the presidency in the first place. In November 2016, Republicans looked upon Trump's victory and wondered if there was any going back. In November 2020, they looked upon Trump's defeat and decided the answer was no."
I am, of course, mindful of the fact that some in the Republican Party, including former President George W. Bush, have adopted a far more responsible posture, and I'm inclined to give them credit for clearing a low bar.
But the fact that this list is short says a great deal about the state of the GOP and Trump's hold over it.