On Thursday afternoon, something obscene happened. One of the two major parties hosted an event where the president’s lawyers spewed an unfounded and nutso conspiracy theory in an effort to overturn an election and to poison the national discourse. There was a comic element to the moment: Rudy Giuliani, with hair dye running down his face, and the others contended that a vast conspiracy involving Antifa, George Soros, the Democrats, the media, Big Tech, Germany, Hugo Chavez (or perhaps his ghost), voting machine companies, Cuba, and other nefarious actors, had mounted a plot to steal the election from Donald Trump. They produced no evidence to substantiate this outlandish accusation, and their legal actions in court—which focus on more mundane issues and do not allege such a grand scheme—have been failing. But this stunt is dangerous nevertheless, as it undermines popular confidence in the American political system, impedes an effective presidential transition (which is a matter of life and death during a pandemic), and sows widespread suspicion and paranoia in an already much-divided country. It’s not a shocker that Trump, a narcissist so often motivated by spite, would orchestrate such perilous chaos on the way out. And while some GOPers have fully echoed his crazy allegations, many other Republicans have helped Trump impose great harm upon the republic by remaining silent or by supporting the notion that he ought to be permitted to break with tradition, hold off on any concession, and pursue other options.
Overall, the Republicans, who have enabled Trump’s demagoguery and his steps toward authoritarianism since he became its presumptive nominee in 2016, have aided and abetted Trump’s war on the 2020 election. The RNC provided Giuliani and Co. with an indoor space for this absurd press conference. (No masks were worn by the participants, and Giuliani’s son was present—a day before he tested positive for COVID-19.) Afterward, the GOP’s official Twitter account posted excerpts of the event, including Sidney Powell, one of the Trump attorneys, claiming “Trump won by a landslide.” (Powell, who gained prominence pushing various conspiracy theories to help her client Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, exclaimed, “Globalist dictators, corporations, you name it. Everybody is against us.”) And since the election, top Republican officials also have assisted Trump by insisting that he needed space to deal with his loss and that he had the right to examine vote counts and file legal challenges. But this coddling of Trump yielded him an opportunity to go far beyond examining specific vote tallies and requesting recounts. It provided him the running room to try to overturn the results of the election so he can stay in power.
In the weeks following Election Day, senior Republicans largely stuck to the same hymnal. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell summed it up: Trump is “100-percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) observed, “I think he’s got a constitutional right if there are legal challenges they want to make, and I think everyone ought to let that play out.” Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy of Alaska said, “I, for one, will support our president’s efforts to ensure that the election is completed with integrity. Let us hope and pray that it is.” The message: give Trump a chance—and the time to accept that he was defeated. On CNN, former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum remarked, “This is a very emotional time. Give people space to work through this.” People? He meant Trump. (No similar request for “space” was issued when Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush lost. Each one-termer congratulated their vanquisher and proceeded with the transition.)
This Republican support for the Trump campaign’s legal maneuvers might have sounded reasonable. It certainly allowed GOPers to side with Trump, as he refused to concede, without accepting his baseless claim that he had actually won more votes. And, of course, Trump exploited the cowardice of Republican officials and their desire to not challenge or defy him. Instead of searching for reasonable claims of voting irregularities, Trump and his crew have used this time and space to create and advance various false counter-narratives about the election, all to discredit the results. Their message: the election was completely crooked. Giuliani at one point referred to a debunked story alleging the mafia had stolen votes in Philadelphia to help Joe Biden. Trump has tweeted out a false chart suggesting that Biden got 138,000 mysterious votes in Michigan.
With many Republicans staying mute, Trump used the weeks after Election Day to disparage and debase American democracy and to pursue a scheme that would sidestep the vote counts and keep him in the White House. He was no longer just raising questions about vote counts. He has been conniving to find Republican state legislators in states Biden won who will ignore the popular vote and choose a slate of Trump electors for the Electoral College. Legal and voting experts believe such a move would be illegal. Yet Trump, egged on by Giuliani and former White House strategist Steve Bannon (who was indicted for fraud and who recently called for Dr. Anthony Fauci to be beheaded), has grasped on to this strategy. That’s why he invited two top Republican legislators in Michigan to see him in the White House.
Trump is considering a political coup. It’s unlikely he can pull it off—especially with a legal team that has lost almost every case and that practically every day embarrasses itself with some new act of utter incompetence. But to justify such a course of action, Trump and his minions are spreading dark conspiracy theories that assert evil forces have assaulted the US election to deny 70-plus million Americans of their right to keep Trump in office. Whatever happens with the Trump-Giuliani coup clown show, this dissemination of disinformation will do great damage to the country. All those Republicans who blithely said that the nation should let the Trump challenges play out missed the fact that the resolution of these court cases will not be the end of the story that Trump is peddling. In a way, Trump’s mounting losses in various courts across the land bolster Giuliani’s bogus narrative: it’s all one massive fraud.
In recent days, a few Republicans have started to gently suggest it’s time to wrap things up and start preparing for the Biden administration. And they have called BS on the Trump-Giuliani claim that Trump is the victim of a diabolical cabal (which managed to rob him of a win but not do the same with Republican senators and House members). Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Trump ought to concede: “No one has seen any real identification of any real fraud.” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) remarked that Trump’s lawyers had showed no signs of significant fraud: “Wild press conferences erode public trust. So no, obviously Rudy and his buddies should not pressure electors to ignore their certification obligations under the statute. We are a nation of laws, not tweets.”
Sen, Mitt Romney (R-Utah) went further: “Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the President has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election. It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President.” Even Fox host Tucker Carlson got into the act, saying that he had asked Powell for evidence of election fraud but “she never sent us any evidence despite a lot of requests, polite requests, not a page.”
But all of this is coming too late. The conservative media, Republican officialdom—they all stood back and stood by as Trump planted the seeds of conspiracy. (Some eagerly provided water.) They afforded him the chance to lay a phony foundation for his against-all-odds stab at defying voters and attempting a power-grab. This is merely a continuation of the GOP’s acceptance of Trump’s ceaseless assault on democratic norms and values. But it’s one of the worst episodes of GOP acquiescence (in part because this is causing a delay in the transition, which could lead to more COVID-19 deaths). Sure, Trump will be out of office soon. But his last acts in office will include the profound wounding of American democracy, and his Republican comrades facilitated this treachery. Those corrupt seeds Trump is sowing right now will grow in their field of complicity.