To move back in a libertarian direction, the Republican Party will have to do more than jettison Trump. But as long as it remains in Trump's thrall, that reversal is all but impossible.
A month ago, The Washington Post published what remains the definitive summary of President Donald Trump's post-election legal and political maneuvers—and probably one of the best explanations for the Trump era in general.
"What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change," an unidentified "senior Republican official" told the Post. "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."
That was on November 9.
In the 31 days that have followed, there have been many tweets. And Trump's legal team did indeed file and lose a lot of lawsuits, which prompted more tweets. The one case that remains in play, Texas v. Pennsylvania, filed earlier this week at the U.S. Supreme Court, is without precedent in American legal history—as Reason's Damon Root wrote yesterday, "no state has ever pulled off a stunt even remotely like overturning the results of a presidential election by going straight to SCOTUS to challenge the results in another state."
The Supreme Court is likely to dismiss that final legal effort by the end of the week. All 50 states plus the District of Columbia have now certified their election results. The Electoral College is set to meet on Monday. Trump has tried to pressure Republican state officials to nominate alternate slates of electors, but that effort has been no more successful than his campaign's lawsuits. Unless something wildly unexpected takes place in the next few days, the Electoral College will confirm what already seems evident: Joe Biden won the election.
In that sense, the prediction of the Post's unnamed GOP official holds up—and, yes, there's almost no reason to take seriously the idea that Trump won't leave office in January. But the notion that there's no harm in "humoring" Trump is more suspect.
Indeed, if there is a coup happening in these waning days of 2020, then it appears to be Trump versus whatever remains of the non-Trump Republican Party. The president is using allegations of a stolen election to fundraise and to consolidate his control over the GOP—and those "humoring" him will wake up on January 21 to find that the problem hasn't vanished.
"Everyone laughs at how stupid the Trump lawsuits are," writes Jonathan V. Last, editor of The Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative publication."But that's the wrong way to think about Trump's actions since November 3. Because his goal hasn't been to keep the office of the president. It's been to keep the Republican party."
In Last's view, the focus on Trump's laughable "coup" has obscured the effectiveness of a political strategy that has tightened the president's grasp on the party. By reflexively falling back on their survival strategy of "humoring" Trump, Republicans are missing the chance to excise his influence over the GOP's future.
That matters in ways that go beyond internal party politics. Under Trump, the Republican Party has grown increasingly hostile to the free movement of goods and people. It has embraced deficit spending to a degree almost unimaginable a few years ago. Populism and nationalism are resurgent. To move back in a libertarian direction, the Republican Party will have to do more than jettison Trump—but as long as it remains in Trump's thrall, that reversal is all but impossible.
Anyone who still believes that humoring Trump will eventually cause him to go away isn't paying attention. Trump has made no secret of his intention to remain active in politics. Even if his dreams of running for president again in 2024 come to nothing, it is undeniable that he will be a kingmaker—or a career-killer—in Republican politics for years to come.
That he will continue to be a major gravitational force for the party is obvious. How else can you explain Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) agreeing to argue Trump's last-ditch election case before the Supreme Court? Cruz, who in his younger days clerked for late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, surely has a sharp enough legal mind to know this lawsuit is comically inept. Yet he appears willing to debase himself in front of the Supreme Court because doing otherwise would invite Trump's anger—which could doom Cruz's political aspirations.
Wednesday provided yet more examples of this phenomenon. The attorneys general of 17 states filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Texas v. Pennsylvania lawsuit. That's 17 elected and/or appointed high-ranking Republican officials who are willing to put their professional and political reputations on the line in order to make a performative show of loyalty. The same is true for members of Congress who sign a petition now being circulated among Republicans asking for the overturning of the Electoral College vote.
What motivates such behavior? Not only rank partisanship, but fear—the kind that comes from looking over your shoulder at the angry masses of Trump superfans otherwise known as Republican primary voters.
Not all Republicans have gone along with humoring the president, and the country should be grateful for that. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, for example, has been steadfast in his refusal to endorse conspiracy theories about the election. In one of the most acute moments of potential crisis, Aaron Van Langevelde, one of two Republicans on the Michigan State Board of Canvassers, refused to block certification of the state's election results. Al Schmidt, a Republican city commissioner in Philadelphia, has debunked and denounced allegations of mass voter fraud in his city.
Those who have had the courage to stand up to Trump have faced vitriol from their fellow Republicans. The Arizona GOP has used its official Twitter account to bully the state's Republican governor for being insufficiently committed to Trump's stolen election fantasy. Some of the president's allies in Congress have called for Raffensberger to resign. When Georgia's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, refused to go along with that crusade, Trump targeted him too. Raffensberger says his family has been threatened, and Schmidt told 60 Minutes that he's received death threats.
"From the inside looking out, it feels all very deranged," Schmidt said.
Republicans who continue "humoring" Trump are feeding that derangement. They are saying, in effect, that they want someone else—Raffensberger or the U.S. Supreme Court—to stand up to the president's delusions because they have no stomach or spine for it. After five years of humoring the president's increasingly unhinged beliefs, some Republicans see no other way forward. Like an addict, they may believe they can stop any time they want—but it is delusional for the rest of us to believe this will change as soon as the Electoral College meets or as soon as Biden is inaugurated.