Steven V. Roberts: Choosing Trump or the truth

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 21, 2021

To glimpse the future of the Republican Party if Trump and Trumpism continue to prevail, just look at what’s happening in Arizona. Cheered on by the former president, the Republican-controlled state senate is sponsoring a wackadoodle recount aimed at overturning Joe Biden’s narrow victory last November.

That victory has been reaffirmed numerous times by state officials, federal judges and the Republican governor, Doug Ducey. Nevertheless, the senate persists. That caused the Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richter, a Republican, to brand the whole effort “unhinged” and add: “We can’t indulge these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country.”

Insane is the right word, which Merriam-Webster defines as “exhibiting a severely disordered state of mind.” One of the tactics employed by Cyber Ninjas, the Florida firm owned by a Trump supporter that’s conducting the recount: using microscopes and high-intensity lights to search for traces of bamboo in paper ballots, “which might indicate ballots were illegally smuggled from Asia,” reports The Washington Post.

Trump has fully embraced the nuttiness, recently telling a crowd at his Florida retreat: “Some very interesting things are happening in Arizona … I wouldn’t be surprised if they found thousands and thousands and thousands of votes … This was a rigged election, everybody knows it, and we’re going to be watching it very closely.”

That is a Big Lie, and everybody knows it, but a very popular one among True Trumpists. Two-thirds of Republicans in the latest CBS/YouGov poll said Biden was not the “legitimate winner” of the election — the same number that pledged loyalty to Trump.

That’s why Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland and a frequent Trump critic, told CNN that the ex-president is “toxic for the Republican Party and for the country.”

That toxicity plays out on two levels, and the first is Trump’s demand that the party purge itself of any heretic who won’t pledge total fealty to him personally. From a purely political perspective, that makes absolutely no sense.

Politics is always about addition, not subtraction; about expanding your appeal, not shrinking it. And yet House Republicans overwhelmingly booted one of their leaders: Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, an orthodox conservative and party loyalist who committed exactly one sin — telling the truth about Trump’s Big Lie. And 80% of Republicans in the CBS survey supported her ouster.

Here’s the problem: Trump’s core base of support has never exceeded 40%, and Republicans who can still count, like Hogan, know that a party composed solely of True Trumpists cannot succeed. As he put it, “To ostracize somebody, remove them from their leadership position, is crazy. I mean, it’s kind of doubling down on failure. We’ve lost the White House, the House, the Senate over the past four years, and to continue to do the exact same thing and expect a different result is the definition of insanity.”

But Trump’s toxicity pollutes much more than the GOP’s electoral prospects. His unyielding — and totally unjustified — refusal to accept the results of the last election threatens to erode a basic pillar of democracy: the rule of law. Faith in the system. The willingness of the losers to accept the judgment of the voters.

Cheney emphasized that point on Fox News, telling host Chris Wallace: “Those millions of people that you mentioned who supported the president have been misled. They’ve been betrayed. And certainly, as we see his continued action to attack our democracy, his continued refusal to accept the results of the last election, you see that ongoing danger.”

Which brings us back to Arizona. This is not just Trump spouting off at a rally, railing to Sean Hannity or tweeting some conspiratorial nonsense. This is the real world, with real actions and real consequences. The whole exercise might be “unhinged,” but that doesn’t make it unimportant. It is Trumpism at its worst, and it foreshadows the future.

Trump predicts that in the months ahead, unwarranted and undemocratic challenges to well-established election results could happen in other swing states, as well. And they will almost certainly recur after the 2022 and 2024 elections if Republicans lose again.

“Elected Republicans, I think, are afraid of the next election, and they can’t be,” said Bill Gates, the Republican vice chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. “They’ve got to stand for what is right. Otherwise, why did they run for office in the first place?”

Good question. But right now, most of those Republicans are choosing between Trump and Truth — and Truth is losing.

Steven Roberts teaches  at George Washington University. Email him at