Republican leaders who give latitude to conspiracy theorists are no better than the people they enable, and they’re doing lasting damage.
The 2020 election has long been over. Millions of Trump supporters have refused to accept this, insisting that there are millions of illegal votes currently counted for President-elect Biden that shouldn’t be. And alongside them, there are countless conservatives who are too fearful to tell their voters, their listeners, their readers, and their subscribers the unpleasant truth that they have lost.
While every legal vote needs to be counted—and the Trump campaign and its allies are well within their rights to challenge any irregularities—state officials across the country have consistently rejected the existence of voter fraud substantial enough that it could have swayed the election.
Not all the allegations have been ridiculous. Some of these claims—like a recent video out of Georgia that purported to show election malfeasance—look, at first glance, to be genuinely concerning. But thus far, additional context has proved exculpatory; that viral video was deceptively edited and has been debunked by Georgia’s (Republican) secretary of state.
The #StopTheSteal crowd often points to alleged wrongdoing in two specific states: Georgia and Pennsylvania. But Georgia has had not one, but two, separate recounts that haven’t found any evidence of irregularities. Cases have been tossed—even laughed—out of courts across the country. Trump’s own Department of Justice said they “have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” The last daggers came when the Supreme Court rejected a challenge from the Trump team and, finally, when the Electoral College certified the results of the election.
Yet the claims persist.
Among those who reject the election results there are the obvious pied pipers—people like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former prosecutor Sidney Powell—whose increasingly harebrained conspiracy theories spring up like weeds as they promise, like the false prophets of old, that justice and retribution are nigh. President Trump reportedly continues to fume about a supposed lack of loyalty and interest from those close to him.
But this has been less than a Profiles in Courage moment even among the rest of the Republican Party ecosystem. Despite this spectacle, plenty of conservatives—seemingly of good faith—have been conspicuously absent while millions of their fellows spout nonsense.
Where were the 2024 hopefuls—the Nikki Haleys, the Josh Hawleys, the Kristi Noems—who should have said unequivocally that Donald Trump lost the election? In the Senate, Ted Cruz is a constitutional scholar, someone who, alongside Senator Tom Cotton, was on President Trump’s shortlist of SCOTUS nominees. Why hasn’t he said in no uncertain terms that these efforts are a circus, and a harmful one at that?
Instead we get half-measures; Senator Hawley said that “we’ll see,” Senator Lindsay Graham told President Trump to “keep it up” but attend Biden’s swearing in, Senator Cruz offered to fight Trump’s case at the Supreme Court—a challenge that never took place.
While there are certainly true believers, many of those involved have much to gain by ginning up Trump’s supporters. The fundraising emails have continued; so far, the Trump team has raised more than $200 million since Election Day. Surely, Rudy Giuliani isn’t fighting out of charity, and his legal fees are unlikely to be cheap. Elected officials are fearful of their base and have been since Trump’s election, saying only in private what they really think. Conservative commentators earn their keep by attracting eyeballs, and conspiracy theories sell.
And those on the sidelines have seen the beating received by those who admit that Biden won. They’ve been called cowards—even “traitors”—for telling the truth. They’ve been derided as “snakes,” “spineless,” and other terms not fit to print. Election officials in Georgia need police protection. Cowardice carries far less of a penalty.
All the incentives point in the same direction: to silence and acquiescence, tacking a course somewhere between reality and the beliefs of those who pay their bills.
The Electoral College decision has forced some conservatives, at last, to find their voice. But their silence and tacit support for conspiracy theorists in the waning days of 2020—and the resulting damage to our body politic—are a stain on the integrity of the conservative movement that will linger long after Biden’s Inauguration Day.
Drew Holden (@DrewHolden360) is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C., and a former Republican congressional staff member.
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