The fight to save American democracy is just beginning. The outcome is far from certain, but the stakes are clear. It is a battle for objective truth over paranoid fantasy. And one of our two major parties, the onetime “Party of Lincoln,” is on the wrong side. We must be blunt about how broadly and deeply the delusions advanced by President Donald Trump have taken hold. Only then will we be prepared for the real work before us.
It should be uncontroversial that Trump must be impeached and promptly removed from office, even if he has just days left in his term. But the vast majority of Republicans in Congress will resist this necessary step. Instead, they may cast such necessary consequences as another attempt to steal an election that was “stolen” from Trump, tarring Joe Biden’s presidency as illegitimate even before he is even sworn in on Jan. 20.
This narrative is false: Election officials, governors, legislatures and courts nationwide have established that there was no voter fraud that could have changed the result in a single state or even a single county. Yet even now, after last Wednesday’s attempted insurrection, precious few congressional Republicans are willing to tell the truth to disappointed GOP voters, or even to demur from spreading falsehoods.
It would be bad enough if the only offenders were cynically ambitious presidential hopefuls such as Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, who advance the ridiculous idea that mere “allegations” are enough to overturn an election — or at least to hold up its inevitable result. It is infinitely worse that the fiction of vague “irregularities” in the election is the standard Republican position — and that even after the Capitol had been sacked, and a U.S. Capitol Police officer and four rioters had lost their lives, eight U.S. senators and a majority of the House GOP caucus persisted in the voter-fraud lie.
Pretending the election was stolen from Trump is popular with the GOP base, which only gives lawmakers an incentive to participate in this awful pantomime. The result is the insurrection we saw last Wednesday.
On Jan. 1, after his baseless lawsuit seeking to overturn the election had been thrown out by a federal judge, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tex., said this on the far-right Newsmax network: “The bottom line is, the court is saying, ‘We’re not going to touch this. You have no remedy’ — basically, in effect, the ruling would be that you gotta go to the streets and be as violent as antifa and BLM.”
Leaving aside, for the moment, the slander against Black Lives Matter, let’s begin with what Gohmert’s mind-set reveals. It appears that he sincerely believes some sort of “remedy” is needed for a free and fair election that did not produce the outcome he wanted. This is authoritarian thinking, plain and simple.
It would be comforting, but wrong, to think of Gohmert as representative only of the GOP fringe. When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., voted Wednesday night to object to certification of Arizona’s electoral votes, he posted his rationale on Facebook: “Because of the irregularities there and in several other states, Americans are right to have reasonable doubts about the election results.”
That’s the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, telling his supporters not to have faith in our democracy — on the same day that rioters broke into the Capitol and threatened the nation’s Republican vice president with the chant, “Hang Mike Pence!” Still later that same night, McCarthy objected to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes as well.
A few Republicans will likely join Democrats in voting to impeach Trump for “incitement to insurrection” but people such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah can hardly be thought of as the party’s mainstream. “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore,” Donald Trump Jr. truthfully told the mob Wednesday before his father sent them off to the Capitol. “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.”
Indeed, when the president called in to a Republican National Committee breakfast meeting on Thursday morning, he was roundly cheered. The old saying is that “the fish rots from the head,” but the decay in the GOP has reached the tail.
That is what makes the war to save democracy so difficult. Next week, Trump will lose his power. Twitter has already — finally — taken away his principal megaphone. His hold over the Republican Party will not last forever.
But Trump’s would-be successors are not rejecting Trumpism. They are embracing it. Today’s GOP is not a party at all; it is a cult whose belief system is based on lies. If the American experiment is to survive, truth must win. The past week showed how hard it will be to secure that victory.
Eugene Robinson is on Twitter: @Eugene_Robinson