The GOP's looming legitimacy crisis

If Republicans take the White House in 2024, will anyone believe they did so fair and square?

Donald Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, AP Images, iStock)

If Donald Trump wins back the presidency in 2024, will anybody but his most-devoted followers believe he did so fair and square?

As has been well-documented, Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have spent recent months passing bills ostensibly designed to enhance "election integrity," but widely seen as simply trying to make it more difficult for Democratic constituencies to get to the polls. It doesn't appear that Dems can or will block these actions — Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Sunday said he would vote against his party's For the People Act, dealing a blow to progressive hopes the federal government might override the GOP's maneuvers. On top of these debates, there is growing concern that conservative legislators might simply choose to award their states' electoral votes to their party's presidential candidate in 2024, no matter what voters actually decide. Who would be able to stop them? Republicans might well be able to win power using such techniques. But they might also be able to win without them.

But in so openly working to tilt the playing field in their favor, Republicans may already be convincing American voters the party can't win the White House without a little funny business. In that case, the party will have created a crisis of legitimacy for itself when it next takes power. That would be a massive self-own — darkly amusing, if the possible consequences weren't so serious.

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Legitimacy matters. All governments depend on some mix of coercion (laws, prisons, taxes, police) and public acceptance of a regime's right to rule. When you have more of the latter, you often need less of the former. And when government's legitimacy falters, unrest can often follow — witness last summer's Black Lives Matter protests after the police murder of George Floyd. The balance is a living thing, always in flux.

In a democracy, nothing undermines legitimacy faster than the public's sense that its leaders didn't follow the rules while acquiring power. Indeed, Trump has already created both an outright insurrection and an ongoing crisis for President Biden by convincing so many of his followers — falsely, egregiously — that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election. The shocking revelation of the Trump Era is that it takes only one particularly bold liar to threaten the underpinnings of a government that couldn't even be undone by the horrors of the Civil War.

It doesn't have to be this way. Playing under 2020's ground rules, Trump came within a whisker's hair of winning an Electoral College victory again — and probably would have if the COVID-19 pandemic had not dramatically altered the course of the campaign. Republicans outperformed expectations in House and Senate elections, and a new Democratic post-mortem suggests that minority voters may be increasingly inclined to align with the GOP. There are plenty of reasons to believe conservatives can still win national elections without suppressing the opposition's votes.

So why don't they try to win fair and square?

Probably for the same reason that the Houston Astros, who were loaded with baseball talent, rigged the game in favor of their hitters: It's just an easier way to win, and it's better to win than to lose. Maybe Republicans have watched their candidates win the presidency twice this century without winning even a plurality of the popular vote, and noticed that Americans didn't actually mount a full-blown rebellion. And maybe they aren't all that concerned about creating legitimacy problems for themselves, believing that some combination of Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN will manufacture just enough consent to make the whole thing work. Who really knows?

Trump is the catalyst for the GOP's recent attempts to shape the electorate to its liking — but even if he doesn't or can't run in 2024, the Republican who replaces him as the nominee will be the beneficiary of the rules changes. If the GOP wins the White House, that person will almost certainly be the focus of widespread skepticism about the fairness of their victory. He or she might well find that skepticism makes it much more difficult to govern.

If so, the resulting challenges will be richly deserved. Republicans, by their actions during the months since Jan. 6, have demonstrated that they don't really believe they can win a fairly contested national election. They shouldn't be surprised if and when Americans believe them.

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.