Republicans: Calculating, not Cowards

The sense that the GOP only puts up with Trump out of fear masks the much scarier reality of who they are and what they are capable of doing.


First, let’s get a few things straight:

  • Joe Biden is going to be the next President.

  • Donald Trump is a loser.

  • Donald Trump’s pitiful, misguided attempts to steal the election are embarrassing.

  • Trump has thus far refused to lift a finger to help his party in Georgia.

  • On his way out, Trump is making the pandemic worse, the recession more painful, and America’s situation around the world more dire and leaving the rest of Republicans to pay the tab.

So, why the hell are Republicans sticking with Trump on his farewell self-immolation tour?

The leading theory in Washington is cowardice. Most political observers believe that for the last four years Republicans remained silent about Trump’s chaotic incompetence and crass corruption out of trepidation. Whenever a Republican enables another Trump transgression, every liberal blue checkmark tweets “COWARD.” The sense among reporters is that Republicans don’t like what Trump says or does, but if they speak up they will be tweeted out of the party.

This narrative is comforting because it implies that the Republican Party is not beyond repair — they are just cowards, not bad people. Here’s the problem: the events of the last few weeks make it crystal clear that this narrative is wrong. It is way too generous to the Republicans.

Cowards want to to do the right thing but are too afraid to do it. I do not believe the Republicans want to do the right thing and I do not believe they are concerned about the damage Trump is doing to our democracy. Ultimately what bothers them about Trump is not that he is a racist authoritarian. It’s that he is a clumsy, incompetent racist authoritarian. The Republican supplication to Trump’s whims — before and after the election — is not cowardice, it’s calculation. Understanding the difference is critical. If we don’t, we will not be prepared for the battles to come nor we will fully comprehend the very dire threat to democracy that the Republican Party poses.

Party over Country

If the Republicans are motivated by political calculation as opposed to cowardice, what’s the calculation?

Republicans represent a dwindling base of mostly white, working class voters. With every passing election, this base gets smaller. Therefore, in order to win they need to get higher and higher turnout from that base. Trump has proven that the best way to jack up turnout with these voters is through an apocalyptic, conspiracy theory laden narrative of victimization at the hands of others. The “others” in this narrative are almost always people of color. This is the core of Trump’s white nationalist immigration appeal — immigrants/gang members/Muslims are coming to your community to take your job and threaten your life. It’s bullshit, but it’s clearly powerful with a relatively sizable portion of the population.

While the modern Republican Party tossed out the dog whistle in exchange for a MAGA bullhorn, this has long been the core message and strategy of the party. It is why Ronald Reagan talked about “Welfare Queens.” It’s why George H.W. Bush ran the “Willie Horton” ad. It’s why Mitt Romney ran a birther-adjacent, virulently anti-immigration campaign in 212. And it’s why Republicans feel the need to abide by the absurd conspiracy theories related to the 2020 election. An election “stolen” in majority minority cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee is exactly the sort of racially divisive conspiracy theory that Republicans believe help them fire up their base. The Republicans continue to promulgate this absurd lie even though Trump actually improved on his 2016 performance in most of these cities.

The Republican approach to the post-election period is a very specific political calculation about what they believe is best for the party — regardless of the impact on the country. To disabuse the base of the absurd notion that the election was stolen would risk lower turnout in the two Georgia special elections that will determine control of the Senate. Once these Senate elections are behind us, the prospect of taking the House in 2022 will once again push Republicans to adopt a proto-Trumpian strategy. And then with the 2024 GOP primary looming, things will get worse.

Danger to Democracy

There is a sense among many that the Republican silence over the attempted coup is because the coup is destined to fail. A senior Republican told the Washington Post:

What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.

The implication is that if things ever got really serious, the Republicans would step in to stop the election theft. I do not believe that. Math — not morals — is why Biden’s election victory is secure. He simply won by too large a margin in too many states for the results to be overturned. I believe without a shadow of doubt that if the election came down to a small margin in one state, the Republican Party — from top to bottom — would be engaged in a full fledged effort to overturn the will of the voters.

If you are skeptical that Republicans are capable of this level of malevolence, do not forget that Lindsey Graham — the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee — tried to strong arm the Georgia Secretary of State into throwing out enough legally cast votes to flip the state to Trump.

I don’t know why anyone is surprised by this. Voter suppression has been the primary political strategy of the Republican Party for more than a decade. Throwing out legally cast ballots is barely a hop, skip and a jump from stopping legally eligible voters from casting ballots in the first place.

Paying the Proper Price

I am deeply concerned that the Republican behavior over the last few weeks is the new normal in American politics. Politicians make decisions based on their incentives and the incentive structure for a party that loses when more votes are cast and counted pushes the GOP in a very dangerous election.

The danger is not that Trump will steal this election. It is that election theft is being normalized as not just acceptable, but as necessary Republican strategy. The next Republican that doesn’t try to steal an election will be branded a RINO and face a primary challenge.

The Republicans are very aware of just how damaging their approach has been. They just don’t care. I don’t want to mince words. Because of Republican silence, Trump has refused to allow Biden to begin the official transition in the middle of raging pandemic. Because of this delay under these dangerous circumstances, more Americans will get sick and die. That’s a choice Republicans are making and they are apparently fine with it because they think it will help them hold onto political power.

As scary as this analysis may feel, there is something we can do about it. Brute political force is the only language the Republicans understand. The runoffs in Georgia are an opportunity to demonstrate that there is a political price to pay for putting party over country. You can find out how to help in Georgia by visiting https://votesaveamerica.com/state/georgia/

Handing Mitch McConnell and his co-conspirators a huge defeat in the Peach State won’t solve all the problems, but it’s a start.

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