In its effort to overturn the verdict voters rendered in November, the Trump campaign has exhausted every option. It filed dozens of petitions seeking to invalidate the votes that cost the incumbent president his reelection, almost all of which were rejected by courts at every level of the judiciary. The campaign sought to inject paranoia into the national bloodstream, insisting without evidence that everyone from George Soros, to the Chinese Communist Party, to the ghost of Hugo Chavez had surreptitiously intervened in the election on Joe Biden’s behalf. Members of the campaign even put pressure on state-level Republicans to disregard their states’ certified election results, culminating in Donald Trump’s request of Georgia’s Secretary of State to “find” precisely 11,780 votes in his favor—just enough to overcome Biden’s 11,779-vote victory.
But the guardrails held. Republican elected officials possessed of a sense of propriety and Republican-appointed judges whose tenures provide them some remove from the political fray, all acting within the parameters of a stable and decentralized federalist system, thwarted Trump’s half-baked usurpation. It’s all over, and it has been over for some time. But among Trump’s congressional allies possessed of either too much ambition or not enough sense, this is a situation that requires a futile and stupid gesture on somebody’s part. And the congressional GOP has just the guys to do it.
On January 6, when Congress engages in the formality of certifying the presidential election results already decided at the state level, more than 100 House Republicans and nearly a dozen GOP Senators will object on the most spurious grounds. Their objective is not to overturn the results of the election—that’s off the table. One Republican official told Fox News that their goal is to avoid being “a great disappointment to the president” and “their constituents.”
This maneuver is a more reckless assault on the national civic compact than anything Trump or his campaign has yet attempted. It is a display of abject contempt for the sovereignty of the states and their voters, the independence of the courts, and the constitutional prerogatives delegated to lawmakers. Worse, it is designed to fail, and that failure will establish in the minds of Republicans’ more credulous constituents the predicate for a paranoid conspiracy theory that will persist for years or even decades. Worse still, it will set a precedent that Republicans will come to regret.
The GOP’s more self-conscious would-be objectors seem to know that they are expanding the terms of political engagement based only on their unconvincing attempts to justify their actions. Democrats mounted similar stunts in the last decade, they insist. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus objected to the certification of the 2000 vote in which George W. Bush won. Some, including former Sen. Barbara Boxer, reprised this escapade in 2004. But with hundreds of members legitimizing a sitting president’s efforts to reverse his own defeat at the polls, not only is the GOP’s plot grander by orders of magnitude, it suggests that an irrational political arms race is upon us. Given the increasing popularity of cynical maneuvers like these, we cannot rule out the possibility that the dog may one day catch the bus.
This is how precedents work. They are built upon and expanded. Bad precedents beget worse precedents. And worryingly enough, in their efforts to ingratiate themselves with Trump and his supporters, Republicans have set or broadened a lot of dubious precedents.
For example, after congressional Republicans spent two years balking at the president’s demand to fund his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump went ahead and declared a national emergency that would allow him to make good on this campaign promise under the guise that it was an urgent national interest. All but 13 Republicans essentially endorsed Trump’s end-run around the legislature’s appropriations powers.
Although they objected to the president’s goal, Democrats did not disguise their satisfaction with the methods by which Trump and his Republican allies secured it. “A Democratic president can declare emergencies as well,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi accurately observed. Gun violence, she noted, is a national emergency. Climate change, too, is a national emergency, noted Rep. Earl Blumenauer. And that’s just the low-hanging fruit. Who knows what unpopular Democratic initiatives that wouldn’t otherwise survive congressional scrutiny might be enacted by simply attaching them to an “emergency?”
Republicans could also come to be frustrated by how they have allowed the distinctions between the Republican Party’s institutions and the person of Donald Trump to blur. In 2019, Trump’s political operation mounted a genuinely unprecedented campaign to monitor state-level Republican Party operations and pressure local GOP officials. It sought and often secured rules changes that would limit the options available to Trump’s opponents within the GOP and increase the likelihood that only Trump loyalists would emerge from nominating conventions. Those efforts culminated in the cancellation of five Republican primaries or caucuses in which Trump might have faced the most of challenges from within his party.
Combined with the Republican base’s attraction to demagoguery, this attack on intraparty competition in deference to Trump’s insecurity has had one foreseeable consequence: the atrophying of Republican candidates farther down the ballot. But as Democrats render themselves an unacceptable alternative to Republican governance in district after district, this condition hasn’t resulted in the decimation of the GOP’s farm team, nor has it produced a doctrinally populist Republican Party. Rather, it’s giving way to a GOP that seems most energized by its own victimhood complex—a philosophy untethered to anything resembling principle.
Republicans didn’t go along with the president on everything. They fought Trump’s hidebound belief in the value of protectionist tariffs; they opposed him on Russia sanctions, and on his desire to limit the legal protections available to social-media organizations. But when they did go along, they did so when the matter at hand wasn’t so arcane that it could be easily demagogued. In the process, they have sacrificed consistency and helped condition their party and the country to demagoguery. What’s more, Republicans have provided their opponents with a broader range of tools to seek and pursue their own objectives when they get the chance. And Republicans will regret it when their opponents do just that.