The Frightening New Republican Consensus

Conservatives may disagree with one another about what happened in 2020, but they’re converging on a belief that Democrats win close elections only through fraud.

Protestors at a 'Stop the Steal' rally
Spencer Platt / Getty

Former President Donald Trump has been speaking publicly about running to reclaim the White House in 2024, but he’s also reportedly expecting to make a comeback before then. “Trump has been telling a number of people he’s in contact with that he expects he will get reinstated by August,” Maggie Haberman, the New York Times’ ace Trump reporter, tweeted Tuesday.

There’s no such thing as reinstating a president, but Trump is echoing claims made by Sidney Powell, the lawyer who briefly pursued his specious election-fraud claims in court after the November election. Trump “can simply be reinstated,” she said this weekend. “A new inauguration date is set, and Biden is told to move out of the White House, and President Trump should be moved back in.” Powell is the same person who argued in a court filing this spring that no reasonable person would believe her election-fraud arguments.

If reinstatement sounds kooky, that’s because it is. Most Republicans don’t believe that Trump is set to return to the Oval Office later this summer. But there is widespread agreement inside the GOP that Democratic fraud is stealing elections, and that Republicans must not let that happen. If there’s a civil war in the Republican Party, it’s not about whether the problem exists, but how to fix it—by trying to undo the 2020 result, or instead by preparing for 2024.

From the most devoted QAnon fringes of the GOP to the surviving redoubts of old-school country-club Republicanism, the party’s leaders have come to a shared conclusion that the party doesn’t lose close elections—Democrats steal them. Republicans grant that Democrats win in heavily blue areas. Hardly anyone doubts that Democrats are winning big in majority-minority U.S. House districts in the South or in urban centers (though Trump did question low vote tallies for Republican candidates in Philadelphia).

But in close elections—which in this divided era include practically every presidential race and many U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races—the GOP has come to largely reject the notions that it didn’t turn out its core supporters, failed to persuade swing voters, or alienated former supporters by nominating fringe candidates. Instead, Republicans insist, they are losing because of rampant and systemic fraud. If this were true (which it is not), then it would stand to reason that Republicans must be able to prevent such theft or, failing that, overturn the results. In the Senate last week, the GOP caucus even filibustered a bipartisan panel to investigate the violent attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election.

Conservatives have long complained about election shenanigans, especially in urban areas. Historically, there is evidence that major fraud once occurred, but changes to laws and processes make old-school corruption nearly impossible, and even advocacy groups have been able to find only a handful of cases of fraud, despite diligent searching—practically none of it having been enough to swing an election’s outcome. (One rare counterexample, in a U.S. House race in North Carolina, benefited the Republican candidate.)

The new claims are different in scale—encompassing jurisdictions across the country—and popular support. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that more than half of Republicans view Trump as the true president. But even GOP leaders who reject Trump’s allegations of fraud are happy to back stricter voting laws predicated on bogus fraud claims.

The responses of elected Republicans to this new consensus form a spectrum from the ridiculous to putatively respectable. On the far end of the range are chimerical answers such as those that Powell and Trump are apparently spreading, rooted in faith but with no factual basis.

More dangerous, and slightly more realistic—or at least achievable—are calls for a coup to topple the Biden presidency, which these opponents view as illegitimate. Over the weekend, Michael Flynn—a former three-star Army general, a (short-tenured) national security adviser to Trump, and the brother of a current Army three-star—appeared to endorse a Myanmar-style military coup during an event in Texas. (Flynn denies this, but the remarks were caught on video.)

Edging closer to normal political discourse, some states and other jurisdictions, led by Arizona, have embarked on efforts to recount or audit the November election results, with an eye toward discrediting them and the system—even if proponents do not claim that it will result in Joe Biden’s expulsion from office. “Normal” here is a relative matter. As I have written, the audit under way in Arizona is deeply troubling on both operational and philosophical levels. That count, as well as copycat processes in other jurisdictions, starts from the evidence-less premise that the election was marred by fraud, and then works backwards to try to establish it.

Although these fringe efforts are retrospective, GOP legislators have mounted a prospective campaign to make voting harder in states across the country. Arizona, Georgia, and Florida have already passed laws that tighten voting in various ways. A high-profile bill in Texas failed this weekend when Democrats in Austin staged a walkout, but the bill is expected to be revived and to pass in a special session. In all, the Brennan Center for Justice has found restrictive bills proposed in 48 states.

The many bills under consideration do a range of different things, but common themes include reducing voting hours, banning or restricting the use of ballot drop boxes, tightening rules for mail-in voting, and purging rolls of infrequent voters. In general, these changes seem designed to target constituencies that vote Democratic, though as I have written, they could backfire on GOP voters. And if they fail to prevent Democrats from winning by changing the rules, some state legislators have put forward proposals that would allow themselves, or judges, to overturn results.

Even Republicans who have condemned Trump’s lies about the 2020 election have backed these stricter voting laws. Perhaps that isn’t a huge surprise: Spurious claims of fraud antedate Trump, even though he catalyzed them into something far larger. Representative Liz Cheney, the most outspoken Republican critic of Trump’s postelection behavior, defended the new laws in an interview with Axios in May.

“I will never understand the resistance, for example, to [requiring a] voter ID,” she said. “There’s a big difference between that and a president of the United States who loses an election after he tried to steal the election and refuses to concede.”

There is a difference, but it is not that big. Both ideas are rooted in imaginary claims of tainted elections, and both lead to the same place: warping the system to keep Democrats from taking office, even when they enjoy the support of a majority of voters.