Among Donald Trump’s opponents, the all-consuming anxiety that typified his presidency isn’t over. Far from it. Despite Joe Biden’s convincing victory at the polls, the president remains committed to the notion that he has been cheated out of a second term. And Republicans have indulged Trump’s impetuous fancy. Even if the world has largely moved on from the Trump era, the GOP hasn’t—and that, like so much of this presidency, is supremely dangerous.
It would be foolish to insist that Donald Trump’s evidence-free assertions of voter fraud massive enough t to overturn the election’s results cannot have a deleterious effect on national comity. Claims like Trump’s will almost certainly try the public’s faith in American institutions, though that isn’t a new phenomenon. Moreover, the president’s supporters surely could be radicalized by Trump’s recalcitrance and resolve to do something reckless about it. That threat isn’t imaginary, but it is largely hypothetical.
Nevertheless, Trump’s opponents have not only misread how Republican-led institutions are mollifying the president in his hour of grief. They are also holding themselves to a lower standard of conduct than they expect from the president.
“Despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud,” read the Associated Press headline, “McConnell and most GOP lawmakers fall in line behind Trump.” The suggestion here that the Republican Senate majority leader has reinforced Trump’s insistence that widespread voter fraud cost him the election is genuinely troubling. Or, it would be, if that had occurred. Fortunately for us, it did not.
“Our institutions are actually built for this,” McConnell said. “We have the system in place to consider concerns, and President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.” There is no honest interpretation of these remarks that would lead observers to suggest that he has endorsed any of the president’s allegations. What McConnell said is quite clear: The president has the legal right to petition the courts for relief. And when those avenues are exhausted, as they will be in short order, the process will “reach its conclusion.”
If, as many observers appear reasonably convinced (and the courts so far seem to agree), Trump’s petitions are meritless, there is no cause for apoplexy. But McConnell isn’t the only source of Democratic trepidation. To hear Democrats tell it, Attorney General Bill Barr has stepped into the breach to engineer a reversal of key electoral outcomes on Donald Trump’s behalf.
Once again, the headlines insist, Barr’s Justice Department has determined to investigate voting irregularities “despite lack of evidence of massive voter fraud.” The construction of this sentence is designed to suggest that something terribly untoward is happening.
The memo authorizing Justice officials to probe outstanding questions around the vote sounds much more anodyne than headlines like these. The Justice Department is authorized “to pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities,” yes. “Substantial,” as in “of substance.” The attorney general went on to warn that “specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be a basis for initiating federal inquiries.” Moreover, those investigations should be limited to “irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State.” The rest should be “deferred until after the election certification process is completed.”
All those caveats taken together create the clear impression that, if there is any malfeasance here, it is in the fact that this memo represents a sop to the president’s wounded ego, and that is not the best use of the DOJ’s time. It is hard to imagine a pattern of voting irregularities broad enough in scope to overturn the margin of Biden’s victories in closely contested states like Arizona and Georgia. And even if those results were somehow overturned (which, again, is extremely unlikely), the president-elect is on track to win the White House by a comfortable margin elsewhere.
Okay, fine. Maybe Republican-led institutions aren’t engaged in a surreptitious effort to overturn the voters’ will, but what about the impropriety of it all? Shouldn’t Trump concede for the sake of national comity and continuity of government. Perhaps, but Donald Trump wouldn’t be the first to accuse his opponents of being illegitimate occupants of the Oval Office. After all, Democrats spent the last several years saying the same about Trump.
Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, said she takes comfort from the understanding that Trump himself “knows he’s an illegitimate president.” Former President Jimmy Carter said the same. “He lost the election,” the 39th president alleged, “and he was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf.” Even the incoming president-elect has echoed these sentiments. When confronted by an animated supporter who affirmed that Trump is an “illegitimate president in my mind,” Joe Biden replied, “I absolutely agree.”
Are these crass expressions of partisan zeal at the expense of national concord? Yes. Have they rocked the American civic compact at its foundations and threatened the stability of the Republic? No.
Equally incautious comments like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion on Tuesday that there “will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” are reckless, irresponsible, and just as legally relevant as what Democrats have said about Trump. The president’s term ends on a date set in the Constitution, and the states certify the results of elections that will determine who takes the oath of office on January 20, 2021. No amount of rhetoric will change that fact.
That is a testament to the durability of both America’s tested institutions—institutions which Democrats, in particular, regularly underestimate—and the fact that most Americans are not so invested in partisan games that they will internalize a patent falsehood merely because it makes them feel better about losing an election.
Given all this, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Democrats prefer their anxiety to the abundant evidence that might mitigate it. They wanted from this election an unmistakable repudiation not just of Trump but of all his works, and they didn’t get it. So an effort is now underway to lobby the Republican officeholders whom voters returned to Washington in unexpected numbers to deliver the coup de grâce that voters did not. If Republicans fail to oblige, they will be deemed by Democrats and their allies in media unequal to this critical moment in American history. So, what else is new?
Republicans should continue to ignore these exertions. What they’re doing now—indulging the president to the point at which his options are exhausted, thereby conveying the legitimacy of his loss to his more suspicious supporters—is the right course of action. And if it is successful, no one will remember this phase of the interregnum. Congressional Republicans can take solace in how uneventful this process was and also in the short memories of their opponents, who will have already moved on to the next existential crisis.