A democratic republic is a fragile thing. A large, diverse one such as ours is more fragile still.
Conservatives, whose political philosophy is rooted in the importance of tradition and preserving institutions, should know this. Yet too many are ignoring the obvious damage that President Donald Trump has done—and continues to do—by denying his electoral loss.
I write as a conservative, a lifelong Republican, and a committed member of the Federalist Society. I have worked as counsel and adviser to several Senate Republicans. I am delighted by how well the party performed relative to expectations in this election and think it of vital importance that Republicans retain both Senate seats in January’s runoff elections. I’m quite alarmed by the policy agenda of the incoming Biden administration. But none of that changes my horror at an American president undermining faith in our democracy. Republicans—especially those serving in public office—have a duty to condemn this.
To be clear, the president has every right, even an obligation, to pursue legal remedies if he and his team have identified irregularities or fraud in the election result. It’s also his prerogative, if churlish, to refuse to concede until the process has run its course and results are certified. He has not, however, confined himself to this. Instead, he’s insisted, without evidence, that the election in multiple states was “stolen” and “rigged.” And with each court appearance, even the more modest claims his legal team is willing to make on the record look ever more specious.
Few elected Republicans have joined the president in his most toxic claims. But similarly few have acknowledged that Joe Biden is the presumptive president-elect. Senators Ben Sasse, Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins; Governors Mike DeWine, Larry Hogan, and Charlie Baker; and former President George W. Bush are among the most prominent to have done so. More recently, Senators Pat Toomey and Bill Cassidy have joined that roster. Others have used the phrase president-elect in passing or have stated that aspects of the transition should begin as a prudential matter. And finally, nearly three weeks after Election Day, the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, grudgingly acknowledged what has been clear for most of that time, that Joe Biden is the “apparent” winner of the election, thereby releasing funds to begin a transition. The president allowed this, but vowed to fight on.
The trend is in the right direction, but it is still shockingly little and sadly late. Too many Republicans continue to deny reality. Too many elected Republicans retreat to repeating truisms: The president has the right to challenge election results, he has no obligation to concede while he’s still pursuing these claims, and states have not yet certified their votes. These positions have the virtue of being accurate, but they ignore the president’s more outrageous claims and the real harm he is doing.
Trump has the faith of tens of millions of Americans, and he is encouraging them to believe that we are in the midst of a coup and that living under the rule of the other party would be intolerable. He’s casually declaring official results he dislikes illegitimate. He’s doing exactly what our Founders wanted to avoid.
Trump is not the first to use this type of corrosive rhetoric or to conjure the forces of division and delegitimization. Hillary Clinton spoke for many Democrats when she called him “an illegitimate president.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Justice Amy Coney Barrett “illegitimate.” Stacey Abrams still hasn’t conceded the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race.
That doesn’t make it right. The president is the head of state and possesses the biggest microphone in the world. Corrosive language does more damage when it comes from him. And the scope, breadth, and toxicity of his rhetoric—not to mention the significance of his claims—dwarf these other examples.
Both the president and members of Congress take an oath to uphold the Constitution. President Trump is violating his oath. Congressional Republicans who hesitate to speak this truth fall short of theirs. Given the weakness of the president's position and the audacity of his claims, that it has taken this long for partisans to just begin acknowledging reality is astounding. One shudders to contemplate how our system might respond to a murkier election result.
Each day that goes by, the credible excuses for the president’s position further evaporate: His lawyers fail to allege evidence that, even if proved true, could reverse results; lawsuits are dropped. Meanwhile, the president’s allies muse about Republican state legislatures defying the result of the vote and certifying an alternative slate of electors, contravening the actual will of the people. Each day that goes by, the refuge many elected Republicans have taken in legitimate post–Election Day procedure becomes less tenable. Each day, it becomes more urgent that Republicans and conservatives speak in defense of institutions and in defiance of the president’s posture.
Republicans, with good reason, think of ourselves as the party of the Constitution. We take pride in the men and women whom Trump has nominated to the judiciary and whom the Republican-led Senate has confirmed. They are men and women who promise to apply the law and Constitution as written. We have confidence they will preserve the rule of law that has so blessed our country. But sound laws applied by worthy judges alone will not preserve a Republic.
The Republican form of government guaranteed by our Constitution requires citizens to do an unnatural thing: to willfully submit to the rule of politicians they passionately oppose. It asks those elected rulers, in turn, to govern with magnanimity out of a commitment to a shared public trust, not in spite or in pursuit of retribution. No matter how well designed a Constitution, without this shared commitment, a republic’s days are numbered.