It will be a fitting coda to Donald Trump’s presidency if we dedicate its final weeks to litigating a conspiracy theory.
The outcome of the presidential race is still unknown, but Republican loyalists are already bargaining their way out of the consequences of a likely Trump loss. That process has produced two contradictory but, nevertheless, concurrent ideas.
Republican stalwarts insist that Trumpism is vindicated even if Trump is not. According to the preliminary exit polling data and results in a variety of key precincts, Trump improved on his performance in 2016 almost across the board. Not only did Trump beat expectations, so, too, did his party. This must mean that Donald Trump is a singularly impressive campaigner, and the example he has set is the one to which all future Republican candidates must aspire. And yet, despite all this competence, Trump and his supporters are watching helplessly as the election is stolen right out from under him.
These two thoughts should not reside comfortably in the same head. That they often do is a testament to their illogic.
First, the president’s style of politics—his disposition and his combative, often bombastic style—showed itself to be effective on the campaign trail. The recent election results are not the first evidence of this. It is, however, much harder to make the case that the president’s brand of governance was equally as adroit. Trump’s greatest successes were those executed by the conventional conservative Republicans who primarily staffed his government. The debacles, of which there were many, were largely attributable to the unconventional functionaries who regularly engineered public-relations nightmares when they weren’t mollifying the president’s base on cable news.
What’s more, the notion that Trump himself is some kind of campaign genius is betrayed not just by the fact that he is on a path toward a single term in office but where he is losing. As I write this, the political world is poring over razor-thin margins in Republican-led states like Arizona and Georgia. Say it out loud: Arizona and Georgia—two states that have not gone Democratic in 24 and 28 years, respectively. This, to say nothing of Trump’s failure to match his 2016 performance in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, refutes the notion that the president is a political force of nature.
Trump’s repudiation is further exemplified by how the GOP outperformed him almost across the board. Republican House candidates won more votes than the president to the tune of 1.2 points on average, beating expectations and winning at least 10 new seats. In competitive Senate races in places like Georgia, Texas, Colorado, and Maine, Republican candidates appear to have beaten Trump’s statewide margins. Perhaps most important, Republican candidates managed unexpectedly to hold their own at the legislative level—critically important victories for the party ahead of redistricting in 2021. In New Hampshire, a state Trump lost by nearly eight points, Republicans secured control of all levels of government.
Some will insist that Trump doesn’t deserve the blame for his loss because he was unfairly treated in the press or because no president could have overcome pandemic-related headwinds. But the Republican Party—the governing party—suffered the same conditions, and the rate at which voters retained incumbents in this election suggests voters were not rendering a negative verdict on the GOP. They were turning in a vote of no confidence in Donald Trump alone.
Which brings us to the lower-brow conspiracy theories percolating on the right. The most resonant alleges that a sprawling intrigue is afoot to steal the presidency for Joe Biden. It is no use to go into all the particulars of this theory, in part, because they will change between the writing of this piece and the time at which it is published. The allegations vary, but the conclusion remains the same: A plot so vast that it involves officials in at least six states is underway. It is a plan so well executed that there is no irrefutable proof of its existence. And yet, it is an intrigue that has somehow been bungled to the point that it allowed Republicans to improve their margins, frustrate the incoming Biden administration, and position them to retake both chambers of Congress in 2022.
Extraordinary claims like these used to demand extraordinary evidence. Moreover, it was once understood that the burden of proof was on the accuser. Those were simpler times. What proponents of this theory have posited in the place of evidence is mere suspicion. Whole tranches of ballots, 100 percent of which went to Biden, mysteriously materialized. Protesters who besieged vote-counting centers had their views obstructed—who knows what went on behind those blockaded windows? A Pennsylvania judge would not allow Trump campaign observers access to Philadelphia’s ballots. It’s all very suspicious.
It cannot be that those tranches of Biden ballots were the result of an error not on the part of local elections officials but average civilians watching the vote count. (It is.) It couldn’t be that those protesters didn’t have access to vote-counting facilities because they are disruptive, or, as the AP reported, that “observers from both major political parties were inside the election center as ballots were processed and counted, and the procedure was live-streamed online at all times.” (It was.) It must not be that the Trump campaign was thwarted in its pursuit of unprecedented and potentially intimidating access to vote-counters. We simply can’t attribute all this to the closeness of the race, and the usual efforts by campaigns and their attorneys to contest every contestable ballot and frustrate the other campaign’s efforts to do the same.
For its proponents, the conspiracy theory is substantiated by the number of people willing to believe it and their collective sense of grievance. “They” have done it to us again. But who specifically is the “they” here? Don’t ask.
As always, the simplest explanation for events is usually the more accurate one, even if it is unsatisfying. And the truth is that Donald Trump suffered a rebuke while his party did not, and Trump did that to himself. There is no nefarious plot underway to stop him—no irredeemable villains to reinforce a sense of persecution. Just millions of average Americans. And when the GOP’s various elements are no longer invested in polishing Trump’s image as a proxy for their own, that will be easier to admit.