Most of the Republican critics of Donald Trump's attempt to dismiss the 2020 election result have fallen silent.
Sure, Liz Cheney has spoken out – and was spectacularly booted by the House Republican leadership earlier this month. But she is the exception. The rest of the party has come together on a strategy of progress, as evidenced by Mitch McConnell's recently announced opposition to a non-partisan commission investigating the January Capitol storm.
For the segment of the party made up of die-hard Trump supporters, this approach makes sense. But even Republicans with deep concerns about Trump's post-election behavior have managed to streamline avoiding the issue.
There are probably three reasons for this. First, there is the cynical calculation that the GOP can best win future elections by appearing to be united, rather than highlighting the divisions of the parties. Second, there is a fear of openly defying Trump and earning the hostility of his supporters, as those who are not sufficiently loyal to the former president tend to put their jobs at risk. And third, there is the fatalistic view that this criticism simply doesn't work because the GOP base will trust the conservative media and social media propaganda pipeline towards their own leaders.
A recent poll conducted by Democracy Corps, polling voters in battlefield states and districts, found that two-thirds of GOP voters there still "strongly support" Trump. These Trump loyalists are also among the most likely to say that they are very interested in the 2022 election at this point. In an April CNN / SSRS poll, 70 percent of Republican respondents said Biden didn't get enough votes to win the presidency. In the face of all this, any attempt to free the Trumpians' influence from the party is doomed to failure.
While the electoral incentives for the party as a whole are to unite before mid-term 2022 and look ahead, the incentives for individual politicians may be different. Josh Mandel, a candidate in what is likely to be a highly competitive Ohio Senate GOP primary, recently told a crowd that "Donald Trump's election was stolen." He added, "My muddy opponents in this race won't say those words. But I will."
So long as so many grassroots Republican voters hold this belief, truthful conspiracy theorists or cynical opportunists willing to pretend to hold such views will have incentives to attend to them. Meanwhile, Republicans who disapprove of Trump's election lies are being pressured to remain silent or risk electoral defeat. For example, Geoff Duncan, the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia who questioned Trump's lies, said this week that he would not run for another term. The sorting process continues.
This next presidential nomination could make things better – or worse
Is there a way out of this downward spiral? The optimistic case of Republicans who don't like conspiracy tendencies in the party is pretty simple: they want to hold on to and deal with Trump through 2024, and hope that anyone who wins the nomination will contribute to the party to steer in a healthy direction.
Washington Examiner's Byron York recently columnized this mindset. “There is a robust field of Republicans preparing to flee. DeSantis, Pompeo, Pence, Haley, Cotton, Hawley, Noem and a few other possible candidates, ”York writes. "Put them together and this is a strong group of competitors, all of whom will be concerned with incorporating Trump's achievements into a new type of Republican platform."
There are differences among these Republicans in how lenient they were with Trump's stolen electoral claims – Hawley was clearly the least responsible for this bunch. But most of the others, in fact, seem unlikely to take things anywhere near as far as Trump if they lose the 2024 general election. And while they may have their flaws, they are unlikely to make conspiratorial thinking as central to their policies as Trump.
The more unsavory tendencies in the Republican base are sure to not go away entirely if a more traditional Republican wins. But if the party leader stopped throwing fuel on this fire, their influence would likely weaken.
One problem, of course, is that Trump could run again in 2024. York is skeptical that he will end up doing this, and maybe Trump will actually decide against it. But the awkward truth is, it's not because of the Republican elites – it's really just Trump himself. Given the popularity numbers above and how the 2016 primaries went, it's hard to find a Republican who actually believes Trump does the Nomination for 2024 would lose if he ran.
Even if Trump chooses not to run, another question is whether, if the GOP base has gone this far into Trump's rabbit hole, another Trumpist candidate will win the base's loyalty instead. It's also worth remembering that Trump's runner-up in 2016 wasn't exactly a moderate election – it was Ted Cruz, an avid participant, who objected to the 2020 election results. The alleged all-star cast of other competitors, from Jeb Bush to Scott Walker to Marco Rubio, was completely shaken.
Even so, Trumpist voters will limit themselves to the candidates who actually stand for election. And it is unclear whether a potential Trump successor would be able to achieve his particular star power. (One who could, Fox host Tucker Carlson, says he's not running.) So that seems like Republicans' best hope against conspiracy theory – keeping their fingers crossed and hoping the grassroots won't find the candidate of their dreams get next time.