The Tipping Point of Stupid

In most states, you can’t pass yourself off as an election-denying January 6 truther and still be taken seriously by a majority of voters.

A pyramid of MAGA hats
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Mark Leibovich is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Thank You for Your Servitude and This Town.

Donald Trump has a knack for making his most committed apologists look like complete imbeciles—even if they are not complete imbeciles, though many of them are. This has been true for several years. But in recent weeks, Trump’s trickle-down idiocy has become a significant midterm-election issue for Republicans, and a drag on some of the party’s most vulnerable Senate candidates.

If you’re a candidate seeking a GOP nomination, Trump’s blessing can be a political wonder drug. But it comes with debilitating side effects. These go beyond the standard debasements that Trump inflicts on his dependents (for instance, Trump boasting at a Youngstown, Ohio, rally on Saturday that J. D. Vance, who is running for Senate there, was “in love” with him and “kissing my ass, he wants my support so much”). Assuming an acceptable Trumpian posture requires a determined self-lobotomy. In most states, it’s nearly impossible to pass yourself off as an election-denying January 6 truther and still be taken seriously by a majority of voters. Yet many candidates who clearly know better are doing exactly this.

You might be a media-slick, Ivy-bred brainiac like Vance or Dr. Mehmet Oz, and even admit backstage that you don’t really believe the asininity you’re spouting. As a general rule, though, discerning swing voters tend not to differentiate between fools and those who just play them on TV.

Not every Trump knockoff is faking it, of course. The former president has mainstreamed an authentic collection of cranks, bozos, and racists. The preponderance of safe, gerrymandered seats probably ensures continued employment in the House for the loony-tunes likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene.

The trickier proposition for Republicans involves statewide elections in toss-up states—which is why someone like Greene would almost certainly never win, say, a Senate race in her home state of Georgia. (The actual Republican nominee, Herschel Walker, is himself bananas, but also something of a special case given that he was a University of Georgia football legend.) While the primary successes of Trump’s protégés have saddled Republicans with, as Mitch McConnell put it, low “candidate quality”—people like Walker, Oz, and Blake Masters in Arizona—the former president has imposed a mental headwind against even the most seasoned GOP incumbents. It is to their great disadvantage, at least with most college-educated voters, that remaining Trump-accredited requires shaving dozens of IQ points off an otherwise sound candidate’s brain.

I was contemplating this phenomenon the other day as I watched Senator Marco Rubio of Florida beclown himself in service to the man he used to openly loathe. As Trump’s opponent in 2016, Rubio was one of those ostentatiously saddened and troubled candidates who kept lamenting that Trump was turning that campaign into “a freak show.” Before Rubio became a cast member in the freak show himself, he talked a lot about how dangerous Trump was, how he would not trust Trump with nuclear secrets if, God forbid, he were ever to become president. Perhaps he was worried about something like Trump stashing deeply classified documents in his Mar-a-Lago closets.

During a recent interview, a Florida TV host asked Rubio, who is facing a reelection challenge from Democratic Representative Val Demings, about the Department of Justice’s efforts to retrieve those classified documents. Rubio dismissed the matter as a “storage issue.” DOJ, he argued, doesn’t “deny he should have access to those documents. What they deny is that they were not properly stored.” ​​Rubio’s self-correction to Made MAGA Man apparently compelled him to downplay Trump’s frightful conduct, even though it was something he obviously would have screamed bloody murder about if Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton had done the same. This was not a mere “storage issue,” at least not primarily. It was a “Why is the former president refusing to relinquish scores of classified and highly sensitive documents that don’t belong to him?” issue.

As the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Rubio is clearly aware of this. But he’s been playing this game for a while, and he knew what was required of him. He spoke in his usual rat-a-tat of righteously rehearsed lines, and he did not appear to be having much fun. In fact, Rubio sounded miserable, as he often does when called upon to defend Trump’s indefensibles. He seemed to fully anticipate scorn and ridicule raining down.

It did, but mostly from people who don’t like Rubio anyway. In Florida, a state the former president carried twice, Rubio is probably right that it’s more important to avoid angering Trump or his supporters. But the overriding hassle was that Rubio had to be talking about this topic at all two months before his election. I might have felt a twinge of sympathy, except no one was forcing Rubio to do this.

From the get-go, Republican officials have had to contort themselves in ridiculous ways to navigate Trump’s reality-distortion field. Sean Spicer became the paradigmatic example when the ill-fated White House press secretary spent his second day on the job vomiting his credibility into thin air by insisting—on orders from the new boss—that Trump had drawn a bigger inauguration crowd than Barack Obama had, despite clear visual evidence to the contrary.

We’ve gotten so used to the Trickle-Down-Idiocy Effect that it no longer engenders surprise, let alone outrage. It goes well beyond candidates having to perpetrate lies or offer preposterous explanations such as “storage issue,” “alternative facts,” “normal tourist visit,” and whatnot. Trump’s reckless claims and behaviors have led his dependents into a minefield of topics that, in previous campaign cycles, would likely never have come up, let alone be so fraught.

Absent Trump, Republican candidates in 2022 would be able to focus on subjects that would be more favorable to them and their party, such as inflation, crime, and Biden’s unpopularity. Trump continuously muddles their efforts and requires them to dwell in the bizarre realm of his narcissistic delusions. From Trump’s perspective—and therefore, much of the GOP’s perspective—that world never advanced beyond November 2020. He has done his best to ensure that the stolen-election myth has remained the most important issue in America.

Candidates are well accustomed to playing to the base for the primary and then pivoting to the center for the midterms. Savvy voters understand and tolerate this to a degree. But Trump has made finessing the gap far more complicated.

Dr. Oz, for instance, was recently asked whether he would have voted to certify Biden’s election if he had been in the Senate on January 6. He was never a full-on “it was rigged” guy, but he was always careful to be vague about it. “We cannot leave 2020 behind,” he said more than once during his primary campaign. He was much more definitive this month, however, in response to the question about Biden’s certification. “I would not have objected to it,” Oz said. “By the time the delegates and those reports were sent to the U.S. Senate, our job was to approve it, which is what I would have done.”

By opting for the sky-is-blue answer, Oz took the risk of antagonizing Trump and his election-denying supporters. Was he smart to answer this way, or reckless? Did Trump—being Trump—place Oz in a no-win position where he would come off as either a kook or a traitor?

Oz received this question during a press conference in which he was endorsed by the Republican senator he was vying to replace, Pat Toomey. Again, in any rational political world, the backing of the retiring incumbent would be a straightforward plus. But Toomey’s name has become pure sewage in Trump World over his vote to convict the former president in his second impeachment trial. Trump was reportedly not pleased by Oz’s certification blasphemy or by his willingness to appear with Treasonous Toomey. But props to Oz for doing the bare minimum.

J. D. Vance was no Trump fan at first; the Yale Law grad and Silicon Valley venture capitalist once likened the future president to “cultural heroin.” But since converting to MAGAism, Vance has proved a righteous acolyte. On the holy-grail issue of 2020, he has maintained that the election was stolen, sparing himself, at the very least, the embarrassment of whiplash.

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Vance can be cavalier at times, taking stupid much too far. Back in February, he appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast and declared, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” I have no idea whether Vance really felt this way or was just engaging in performative indifference and isolationism in an effort to mimic the couch-potato parochialism of his patron (Trump) or the “flood the zone with shit” nihilism of his host (Bannon).

But Vance paid a price. His “I don’t care about Ukraine” grenade detonated in his own face when Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked invasion a few days later. People in both parties rallied behind Ukraine, most notably in northeastern Ohio, home to one of the largest concentrations of Ukrainian Americans in the country. Vance later issued a cleanup statement in which described the Russian invasion as “unquestionably a tragedy.”

Like Rubio in Florida, Vance is vying to represent a GOP-trending state that Trump won twice, so he probably has a bigger cushion to absorb whatever pain his election lies cause him. He remains a slight favorite in his race against Democratic Representative Tim Ryan.

In a less Trump-hospitable state, Vance would have a much harder time. New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc became the latest toadying Trump endorsee to see his apparent faith rewarded, having won the state’s Republican nomination for Senate this month. He spent more than a year as a loud and unrelenting election denier, but just 36 hours after winning the primary, he made a screeching 180. Bolduc, a retired Army general, said he had “come to the conclusion” that the vote “was not stolen” after all. “I’ve done a lot of research on this,” he claimed. (They always do a lot of research!)

Presumably, Bolduc was trying to make himself look like a reasonable general-election candidate, and not a total idiot.