Donald Trump has long harbored a tendency to confess to his sins in public. Now he’s done it again, revealing a large truth about today’s Republican Party in the process: He declared that his lies about the 2020 election are instrumentally useful in motivating GOP base voters.
Opinion | Trump lets the truth slip about the MAGA base — and today’s GOP
“You’re going to lose that base,” Trump told Masters, citing Kari Lake, the GOP candidate who might win the state’s governor’s race: “Kari’s winning with very little money. And if they say, ‘How is your family?’ she says the election was rigged and stolen.”
Trump is not always right about this. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp will likely win reelection despite publicly defying Trump’s pressure to steal the 2020 election. Glenn Youngkin became Virginia governor while carefully couching his appeals to the base’s anger about 2020 in scripted, anodyne terms.
But it is unavoidably clear that many Republican elites have decided that adhering to or merely humoring Trump’s 2020 lies is essential to feeding that anger — and that they view these lies as a critical mobilizing tool in the midterm elections.
Trump singled out Lake, and she illustrates the point perfectly. Lake echoes Trump’s lies about 2020, but has also refused to commit to accepting a loss herself, insisting voters “don’t trust” the integrity of our elections.
Lake’s own state recently passed an onerous voter suppression bill in the name of “election integrity.” Yet she keeps citing mistrust of elections to justify the potential treatment of future losses as nonbinding. As Steve Benen notes, no amount of election integrity legislation is likely to ever get people like Lake to accept losses as legitimate.
In Trump’s own telling, GOP base voters must be told that when they lose, they’ve been robbed — the outcome is illegitimate by definition. Scores of other GOP candidates are running for positions of control over elections — while essentially vowing to treat future elections as subject to nullification — which makes Trump’s point harder to deny.
Similarly, we recently learned that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) believed the mob assaulting the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, might kill him. Yet even though McCarthy blamed Trump for inciting the riot, McCarthy publicly patched things up with Trump, then spent the next year helping cover up his insurrection.
Why? Trump has supplied a plausible answer: Planting yourself squarely on the wrong side of Trump’s lies about 2020 might risk demobilizing or alienating the base, which could have imperiled McCarthy’s hopes of winning the House. What’s required instead is treating Jan. 6’s underlying cause as in some sense just.
The fate of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) illustrates the point. Cheney demanded that Republicans as a party unequivocally renounce Trump’s insurrectionism, even if it costs them Trump voters. This is precisely what required her purging from the party.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) has been very clear on exactly this point. In a telling moment last year, Graham said of Cheney: “She’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump. I’ ve determined we can’t grow without him.”
Now Trump has said the same thing in his own way: The GOP needs his voters to succeed; keeping his voters in the fold requires telling them that when they lose elections, it doesn’t count.
All this creates an unstable dynamic. This insurrectionist spirit is highly unpopular with the broader electorate: A new NBC News poll finds that 57 percent of voters say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who says Trump won in 2020. Only 21 percent say they are more likely.
Yet a very large block of election-denying GOP candidates will win anyway. A FiveThirtyEight analysis predicts that well over 100 such Republicans could ascend to House seats.
How to reconcile these facts? First, as FiveThirtyEight notes, most of those Republicans will win in solidly red districts. Not many election deniers are running for seats that are regarded as toss-ups. But also, the fate of democracy doesn’t rank high among voter concerns.
The paradoxical result: A large number of new lawmakers will be adherents of an ethos built on hostility to democracy at its very foundation. That’s a deeply fringe position, yet it will exercise a powerful gravitational pull on the party that at a minimum will likely control the House and at least one key new swing-state governorship after 2022.
We don’t know how damaging this will prove over time. But one thing is clear right now: In saying that large swaths of the GOP base are energized by that ethos, Trump is very likely right.