In what must be the least surprising (but nonetheless demoralizing) story of the week, The New York Times reports that Republicans in California have begun to make accusations of voter fraud ahead of Tuesday's gubernatorial recall election. The story is unsurprising because all political observers are by now well aware that, thanks to the lies of Donald Trump and the self-serving gullibility of millions of Republican voters, the GOP has actively embraced the position that American elections are systematically and unfairly rigged against them.
This is hands down the most dangerous political development in recent American history — a civic time bomb placed smack dab at the center of American democracy.
It's more dangerous than a reality-show demagogue ascending to the presidency. Or partisan gridlock in Congress making governing and passing legislation extremely difficult. Or constitutional disagreement about the scope of women's reproductive rights. Or conflicts surrounding masking and vaccine mandates. Or disputes about what Joe Biden can accomplish for public health through executive branch rule-making.
All of those issues are important, and some of them contribute to the degradation of American democracy. But none of them degrade it more than spreading the lie that elections in the United States are systematically untrustworthy and rigged against one of the country's two parties. That's the kind of claim that could ultimately make American self-government impossible.
That's because this is a battle over the rules of the political game — the rules that enable the U.S. to function as a democracy that is deemed fair by everyone, the winners as well as losers, in any given electoral contest. Once faith in that fairness has been undermined and obliterated, the peaceful transfer of power is bound to break down entirely. Where will it end? Nowhere good.
Unfortunately, belief in the lie has become quite widespread since the 2020 election and its immediate aftermath, when Trump deployed it to suggest that the presidency had been stolen from him by Democrats and their media apologists. A recent CNN poll reveals that fully 59 percent of Republicans consider it "very" or "somewhat" important for members of the party to affirm that Trump won the 2020 election.
What this means is that Republican candidates for high office — not everywhere, but in many red states, and certainly in national contests like the GOP presidential primaries — are going to be asked about the issue and feel considerable pressure to affirm the election-fraud line. They will be expected to assert that they believe President Biden ascended to the Oval Office through cheating and thus that his presidency is democratically illegitimate.
Why are Republicans doing this? I don't mean the rank-and-file members of the party who sincerely embrace the conspiracy in order to make sense of the GOP's political challenges and failures. I mean officeholders and candidates who know full well that election fraud is a minor and marginal problem in 21st-century American elections and yet go along with and encourage the madness anyway.
You'd think they'd have learned the lesson by now that indulging and amplifying grassroots fury can backfire, empowering political forces that take the party and the country in perilous directions. Then there's the more self-interested lesson that telling Republican voters that the system is rigged against them could easily lead to a kind of political fatalism or passivity. That arguably played a small but electorally decisive role in the party's narrow loss of two special elections for Senate seats in Georgia last Jan. 5.
Yet the evidence is decidedly mixed — and that, I suspect, is what leads so many Republicans to go along with the lies.
The day after talk of election fraud may have depressed turnout in Georgia, Trump's baseless claims of a stolen presidential election inspired thousands of his most fervent supporters to descend on the nation's capital to demand that Congress refuse to certify Biden's victory. This showed that, far from demoralizing Republicans, accusations of fraud can whip up their passion, driving large numbers of them to make an effort far in excess of showing up to vote on Election Day. Here were GOP voters who drove long distances or purchased plane tickets and traveled across the country to show their solidarity with the head of their party and demand that justice be done on his, and their own, behalf.
Wouldn't it be dangerous to defy such intensely committed voters? And couldn't it prove politically potent to keep them riled up and motivated to cast ballots in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections and then in 2024 for the next presidential contest, kind of like a standard get-out-the-vote operation amped up on amphetamines?
This, I suspect, is what GOP officeholders are thinking — that they can and must try to ride the tiger of the Republican base. And that if they do, the rewards could be substantial, just as the electoral consequences for the party going forward could be catastrophic if they fail.
The problem with this strategy, of course, is that the tiger can turn on and devour the ostensibly responsible rider on its back, much as it did when Trump took advantage of the party's hesitation to take down his candidacy in the run-up to the 2016 primaries and as a result ended up winning the nomination and wresting control of the party away from its well-meaning institutional minders. "This time will be different" may be consoling to some. But in the wake of Trump's presidency, the sentiment lacks evidence and feels quite a lot like wishful thinking.
Just as it was the whole country that suffered when Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016, so it is all Americans who could lose if the GOP continues down the path of delegitimizing elections. When one large faction of citizens begins to blame its losses on the rules of the game, the system breaks down, with those who feel themselves systematically disenfranchised going outside the bounds of normal politics to find other, often violent, ways of acquiring and holding onto power.
Where do Republican officials think this is going to end?