‘Not a happy story’: But how does it end?

January 5, 2021 12:01 am

President Donald J. Trump disembarks Air Force One Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, at Steward International Airport in Orange County, N.Y., where Trump attended the Army-Navy football game nearby at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. (Official White House Photos by. Shealah Craighead)

Already the first days of 2021 feel less like the darkness before the dawn and more like a deeper plunge into our bitter polarization and the ceaseless ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the arrival of vaccines, the initial batches have been slow to be doled out amid a morass of confusion at the state and local level and a federal government that evidently failed to consider the “final mile” of distribution.

That means that in Virginia and elsewhere, even as transmission surges and deaths mount, some potentially life-saving doses are apparently sitting quite literally in a deep freeze or worse. At a D.C. supermarket, for example, a pharmacist administered the vaccine to random customers, saying otherwise that the doses would have to be tossed out, presumably with the rotting produce.

Like the response to the pandemic, our national politics continue to be our great national shame. The latest nadir, coming during the last days of a presidency that relentlessly kept digging for rock bottom but always found new depths to plumb, is  the scores of GOP members of Congress rallying to President Donald Trump’s bid to overturn the election results, even after the stunning audio was released of his call to Georgia’s top election official (a Republican) demanding that he find him “11,780 votes” and throwing around threats about criminal offenses.

Three Virginia Republican congressmen joined a failed Texas lawsuit that sought to toss out the election results from four battleground states. At least one of those, joined by newly elected Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell, says he will vote against certifying the election results Wednesday.

Of course, not many, if any, of these people believe Trump’s nonsensical claims of election fraud, ballot destruction and voting machine tampering, assertions plucked from fringe websites, social media and obscure chatrooms.

Here’s how the conservative writer David French put it: “Intimidated by Trump and desperate for the approval of Trump’s base, they have lent their own gravitas to utterly frivolous arguments, used their platforms to falsely whip up public concerns about election integrity, and then used the concerns they helped create as the justification for continuing a fruitless fight.”

What do Republicans hope to gain by fluffing the president’s delusions all the way to the bitter end? It’s probably more about what they have to lose. Because so many congressional districts are so gerrymandered, many GOP lawmakers live in mortal fear of a challenge from the right, to the point that they’re willing to debase themselves endlessly rather than give any opening to a Trumpier challenger.

“The paranoid strain of American politics always operated way outside the mainstream, always was marginalized and widely dismissed as the purview of a relatively small number of people with no influence in politics,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “What is shocking about this current movement is the extent to which the paranoid stream has entered the public forum via elected officials in positions of responsibility.”

Rozell, who spent 40 years studying, teaching and writing about government and political science, sounded genuinely flabbergasted by the degree to which Republican politicians have been stoking baseless election conspiracies when I spoke to him before the holidays.

“I never thought in my lifetime or any time we would be having discussions about martial law in America or overturning a legitimate national election,” he said. “I can only surmise they do so because they believe it is critical to their own political survival as Republicans. … It is beyond me to understand why preserving one’s short term electoral viability would be a bigger motivator than upholding the very principles of our Republic and the rule of law.”

High-minded notions aside, there are huge potential practical ramifications for our system and the politicians who line up to get on what another conservative writer, Jonah Goldberg, called the “stupid side of history.”

Trump has been an absolute albatross for Virginia Republicans, but apparently not even years of electoral defeats — the GOP hasn’t won a statewide race here since 2009, has seen its legislative majorities obliterated and lost three congressional seats — will allow the dread bird to slip from their necks into the sea.

“I think they’re afraid that Trump doesn’t go away — that he maintains his hold over the Republican voting base during his post presidency,” Rozell said. “The demographics of the state, the transition that is happening here is so clearly obvious that it’s astonishing that Republicans continue to run as if this is old Virginia. … Trump is bringing down the party in Virginia time and again and they’re staying on the sinking ship with him. And it makes no political sense.”

They’re also opening the door to every election (including the ones they run in) to be challenged in similar fashion when the loser doesn’t like the result.

And while too many people on the left ran with the idea that Trump’s 2017 win was illegitimate because of Russian interference and the ensuing investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russian operatives, many Democrats were reluctant to openly question Trump’s legitimacy. (While they’re howling now, a handful of Democrats have engaged in the same type of electoral college challenges in the past, though not in the numbers Republicans are marshaling for this week’s vote.)

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Montross, speaks during a hearing before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee April 14, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Wittman says he’ll vote against certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s election win. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“There are a lot of Democrats who assumed that somehow or another the Russians had hacked voting systems,” said Eric Oliver, a University of Chicago political science professor who studies conspiracy theories and political psychology. “Leaders of the Democratic Party didn’t really foster that. … This is where the asymmetry comes in. You see all these Republicans who would privately say they know better.”

Oliver said studies suggest people who identify as strongly conservative are less persuaded by reason or rationality and more susceptible to what he calls “magical thinking,” which he describes as making “attributions to unobservable forces to try to explain some event.”

That predisposition, combined with Trump’s insistence the election was stolen from him and the willingness of other top Republicans to go along for the ride, have led to a massive rejection of the election results by Republican voters.

A December poll found that 77 percent of Republican voters think there was widespread voter fraud — though not a shred of actual evidence has emerged and down-ballot performance by the GOP was indeed better than expected  — and 70 percent of them think Biden’s victory was illegitimate.

“Add those two factors together and it’s really ripe for deepening this sense of misinformation,” Oliver said, calling the most corrosive aspect of the current climate the flagging confidence in American institutions aligning with surging anti-democratic sentiment. Throw in the hollowing out of the middle class, anxiety of evangelicals and other conservative religious people in an increasingly secular nation, political elites more focused on elections than crafting policy and these United States look increasingly like a tangled mass of yowling cats more interested in combat than compromise.

“One quarter of people we survey say we’re living in biblical end times and prophecy,” he said. “That’s a very different way of understanding the world. … I don’t know how we bridge that gap honestly.”

How quickly and fully the page gets turned on Trumpism remains to be seen. Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who has fully embraced the “Stop the Steal” song and dance and is seeking the GOP nomination for governor this year, is a sign that Trump’s strain of conspiratorial conservative politics will remain with us for the near term at least.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, speaks at a “Stop the Steal” rally outside of the Virginia Department of Elections on Nov. 7, 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Rozell said he used to lecture foreign visitors about U.S. elections and the transition of power, relating the cornerstone values about constitutional powers and the rule of law. A prime example was the disputed 2000 presidential election, during which Florida recounts were scuttled in controversial fashion by the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in a concession by then Vice President Al Gore in which he took issue with the court’s decision but accepted it in the spirit of national unity, Rozell said.

“I can’t tell that story to those groups anymore,” he said. “This is having a profoundly damaging effect on the reputation of this country internationally. We have been looked to as a guidepost on how to conduct peaceful elections and transfer of power. It doesn’t look that way right now.”

Is there a way out of the hole?

Rozell thinks there’s a chance that with Trump out of the picture, “institutionalists” in the House and Senate, seizing on Biden’s long history in the Senate and pledge to restore some unity, might rediscover the art of compromise and legislating. It’s incumbent on leadership in both parties, but particularly the GOP, to tone down the partisan shots, he said.

“I don’t think most Americans enjoy this. The vast majority of Americans are not political extremists,” he said. “And I think the vast majority of the country would be extremely receptive to a shift in political tone.”

However, that depends on the massive shadow Trump has cast over the nation’s politics and the Republican Party receding significantly.

“I don’t think he’s going away,” Rozell said, calling Trump’s dramatic and total remaking of the GOP in his image over the past four years “unprecedented.”

“This is one for the history books. It’s not a happy story. He has reconstituted the Republican Party into something I never would have expected.”

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]