If people “define situations as real, they are real in their consequences,” William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas wrote in 1928. That sociological insight—often referred to as the Thomas theorem—offers the best way to think about this peculiar moment in American politics.
It’s what the “senior Republican official” quoted by The Washington Post in early November, on how to respond to President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of electoral fraud, failed to understand. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” the official asked.
No one seriously thinks the results will change. He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.
On January 3, The Washington Post reported on an hour-long phone call in which the president urged Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find 11,780 votes” to put him over the top. Trump alleged, without any evidence, that thousands of ballots had been destroyed in Fulton County, and demanded that these phantom votes somehow be found and recorded in his favor. “That’s a criminal offense,” Trump told Brad Raffensperger, complaining about the destruction of the ballots, “and you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan [Germany], your lawyer.”
Raffensperger recorded the call—which he answered after 18 attempts by the president to get him on the line—because this wasn’t the first time he’d been pressured. “Lindsey Graham asked us to throw out legally cast ballots. So yeah, after that call, we decided maybe we should do this,” a Raffensperger adviser told Politico. (Senator Graham has denied that account of his call.)