“How do we get out of this?”
That’s the question preoccupying the right these days. The specific “this” varies, but what unites all the concerns is the mess Donald Trump has made.
For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the “this” is the embarrassing mess in Georgia, where many gettable Republican voters believe there’s no point in returning to the polls for the Senate runoff next month.
Hence one of the great ironies of 2020: For two years, Democrats falsely claimed Republicans had stolen the governor’s race from Stacey Abrams with “voter suppression.” Now, because of the president’s tantrum, Republicans are poised to give away two Senate seats—and control of the Senate—by actually suppressing their own vote with equally false claims of fraud. Even Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, the Trump loyalist who defeated Abrams, is now said to be in on a conspiracy to hand the state to Joe Biden.
For the Republicans who’d like to be president, the “this” they’re trying to extricate themselves from is Trump’s captivity of the party.
In 2016, the GOP was trapped in a game-theory version of the parable—often attributed to Aesop—of belling the cat. It’s in the collective interest of all the mice to put a bell on the cat, but it’s not in the self-interest of any individual mouse to be the one to do it. Each Republican presidential candidate wanted Trump out of the race, but none wanted to volunteer for the political suicide mission to get rid of him—at least not until it was too late. By threatening to run again in 2024, Trump has put the presidential hopefuls in the same predicament they faced in 2016.
Even if Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley and the rest actually believe the fawning things they say about Trump, none believe them so strongly that they would like to see him maintain his hold on the party and block their paths. But none of them want bell duty because Trump’s ability to slaughter mice is far greater than it was in 2016. They helped build a better mousetrap and now have no idea how to dismantle it.
But “this” doesn’t end there. As Trump and his apparatchiks pull the party down around them, they’re lashing out not just at the democratic system, but at the right itself. Fox News (where I am a contributor) is now a hive of villainy in Trump’s eyes for not reading from the approved script. The thinking seems to be that what America and the right need most in the years ahead is a right-of-center media fully committed to a definition of conservatism that begins and ends as a Trump cult of personality, eagerly trafficking in the conspiratorial phantasms that sustain the soon-to-be-former president.
Over the weekend, on Fox News no less, Trump lashed out at the FBI and Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department for possibly being in on the conspiracy to “rig the election” and for being “missing in action” in the effort to expose the crime.
And because Trump was dealt his biggest legal defeat by a Pennsylvania federal judge who, despite being an Obama appointee, is a member of the conservative Federalist Society, there’s a growing murmur that the Federalist Society must be in on it, too. Of course, most of Trump’s court picks are also Federalist Society members.
You can be sure that if Trump gets his wish in the form of a hearing before the Supreme Court—or a refusal by the court to give him one—the murmurs will become a crescendo.
Among many conservatives, Trump’s destructive response to his defeat is seen as the problem. That is certainly a problem. But it’s downstream of the original sin of embracing Trump in the first place. To borrow again from Aesop, it was clear he was a scorpion from the outset.
“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be,” C.S. Lewis observed. “And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
The best solution to the right’s predicament is to turn around and head back in the right direction they skipped in 2016. But politics is the art of getting the crowd to follow you. And the people who followed Trump down this path understandably fear that if they turn around now, nobody will follow them.
Photo by Tia Dufour/The White House via Getty Images.