Conspiracy theories are damaging the country today and will hurt Republicans tomorrow.
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No hard evidence of widespread fraud, no success in the courts or prospect of it. You can have a theory that a bad thing was done, but only facts will establish it. You need to do more than what Rudy Giuliani did at his news conference Thursday, which was throw out huge, barely comprehensible allegations and call people “crooks.” You need to do more than Sidney Powell, who, at the same news conference, charged that “communist money” is behind an international conspiracy to rig the U.S. election. There was drama, hyperbole, perhaps madness. But the wilder the charges, the more insubstantial the case appeared.
More than two weeks after the election, it’s clear where this is going. The winner will be certified and acknowledged; Joe Biden will be inaugurated. But it’s right to worry about the damage being done on the journey.
It’s one thing when supporters of the president say, simply, “Let’s go through the process and see where we are.” It’s not bad to look into how messy the voting system is, not the worst to realize it needs long-term remedial attention. How did we devolve into a nation that no longer has an election night but an election month?
But the sheer nuttiness surrounding the current mess is becoming deeply destructive. Online you see the websites read by millions saying the entire election system is shot through with criminality. The headlines read: It was stolen. We have proof of coordinated vote tampering. The president has many avenues to victory. The Trump campaign sent an email under the name of formerly respectable Republican Newt Gingrich, once speaker of the House, saying “The Corruption is Unprecedented”: “It’s time for us to get MAD.” We can’t “roll over.” “Please contribute $45 RIGHT NOW to the Official Election Defense Fund.”
This isn’t a game. America isn’t your plaything. Doesn’t Mr. Gingrich realize how dangerous it is to stoke people like this, to rev them up on the idea that holding even the slightest faith in the system is for suckers?
Trump staff and supporters should know at this point that in trying to change the outcome they are doing harm—undercutting respect in and hope for democracy. Republican senators and representatives, in their silence, are allowing the idea to take hold that the whole system is rigged. This lessens faith in institutions and in their party’s reputation. Republicans were once protective of who we are and what we created in this democratic republic long ago.
Now they’re not even protecting themselves; in future years what’s happening now will give their voters an excuse not to take part or show up. What’s the point? It’s all rigged.
And they are accepting a new postelection precedent, that national results won’t be accepted until all states are certified and all legal options, even the most bizarre and absurd, exhausted. Wait until this is used against you, in 2024 or ’28. You won’t like it.
I found myself thinking this week of the 1960s and the John Birch Society, which had some power in its day as an anticommunist movement whose core belief was that officials of the U.S. government were conspiring with international communism to take down America. They were pretty wild. In time they accused Dwight D. Eisenhower, president of the United States and hero of Normandy, of being a secret communist agent.
Rising conservative leaders, embarrassed by the Birchers, didn’t wish to see their movement tainted. They also didn’t want to alienate voters who sympathized with the Birchers: Every movement has its nuts. Russell Kirk, Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley pushed back, the last calling the head of the society, Robert Welch, “far removed from common sense.” Even Ayn Rand joined in: Thinking the country’s woes were due to a communist conspiracy “is childishly naive and superficial.” Anyway, “they are not for capitalism but merely against communism.”
The John Birch Society faded because all these conservative leaders, and more, sort of congealed and took the larger weight of their movement in other directions. And so modern conservatism was born as pretty much a healthy movement, and not pretty much a sick one.
I’ve been thinking about all this because of the question: What would have happened if the John Birch Society had been online, if it had existed in the internet age when accusations, dark warnings and violent talk can rip through a country in a millisecond and anonymous voices can whip things up for profit or pleasure?
It wouldn’t have faded. It would have prospered.
We’ve all decried this aspect of the internet for 20 years; our alarm about its ability to enable and encourage extremism is so old, we forget to keep feeling it. But we’ll look back on this time as one in which the least responsible among us shook big foundations.
Responsible Republican leaders ought to congeal and address the fact that what rough faith and trust we have in the system is being damaged. Which means our ability to proceed as a healthy democracy is being damaged.
There is no realistic route to victory for the president, only to confusion and chaos and undermining. He is not going to find the votes in recounts to win the election. Dominion, the voting-machine company under attack, has not been credibly charged with doing anything wrong. As the Journal said this week in an editorial, “Strong claims need strong proof, not rumors and innuendo on Twitter. ”
The irony is that this election will be remembered for the president’s attempts to sow chaos, not for what it actually appears to have been, which is a triumph for America. In the middle of a pandemic, with new rules, there was historically high turnout. Under stress the system worked. Voters were committed, trusting, and stood in line for hours. There was no violence at the polls, no serious charges of voter suppression. In a time of legitimate hacking fears, there were no reports of foreign interference. Our defenses held. On top of all that, the outcome was moderate: for all the strife and stress of recent years, the split decision amounted to a reassertion of centrism.
You’d think the president would take his winnings and go home, because he had them. He outperformed polls and exceeded his 2016 vote total by more than 10 million. For one brief shining moment, on Nov. 3, he’d finally expanded his base to almost 50% of the electorate. He found new sources of support.
Imagine if he’d acted even remotely normal in his first term, if he’d had the intellectual, emotional and spiritual resources to moderate himself, to act respectably. Heck, imagine if he’d worn a mask. He might have won.
He is set on going out like a villain. He and his people would find this Jacksonian—he’s refusing to bow to entrenched establishments! He would think this is what his base wants—the old battler refusing to accept the illicit judgments of a decadent elite.
If he were clever and disciplined, he’d do it differently. He’d accept the election’s outcome, if not graciously at least with finality, go home to Mar-a-Lago, play golf, and have fun torturing his party by plotting his return. “I’ll be back.”
Instead he leaves behind real and politically pointless ruin.