If, in 2014, you had told the average Republican they'd endorse what their party was doing from 2016 to 2020, they'd have been appalled. More than appalled -- they'd accuse you of suffering from a sort of derangement syndrome, of viewing the opposing party in such an implausibly demonic light that it rendered you unable to ascribe even a modicum of decency or principle to one's ideological opponents. From nominating a birther for president to the Muslim ban to trying to nullify legally cast ballots, the story of the past four years has been Republicans acceding to racist authoritarianism in cases where -- had it been pitched as a hypothetical prediction -- they'd have sworn up and down "of course we'd never do that!"
What is going on? The answer is straightforward, and it really does trace back to Donald Trump. Once Trump and his campaign endorses one of these illiberal and extreme actions, two things happen for Republicans deciding whether to endorse or oppose them:
- They're put in a position where opposing the action means standing up to Trump;
- They're on notice that some significant sector of political elite actors will endorse the decision -- it is no longer the province of the fringe or kooks.
The first factor matters because if there's one thing the last four years have made clear, it's that Republican politicians cannot and will not stand up to Donald Trump. You can find stronger moral backbones in a Bill Cosby Jell-O commercial than in the Republican political class these days. And the second factor matters because it suggests that the action in question may well succeed. It's easy to proudly disavow the thought of stealing an election when you know you won't get away with it. But once it actually becomes a live option, well, then it's a bit more tempting to jump onboard. And even if it doesn't ultimately succeed, the endorsement by a significant segment of mainstream political elites* provides moral cover after the fact -- it becomes the stuff of ordinary partisan dispute rather than an extremist power grab.
And of course, all of this dovetails with the GOP's personal partisan advantage. Put it together, and you have a recipe for Republican acquiescence, one we've seen over and over again for the past four years.
Will we see it once more if Donald Trump tries to steal the election? It's true that just because we've only seen grey ducks so far, that doesn't mean the next duck won't be white. But boy would I not count on the GOP breaking the cycle.
* One of the most frustrating things about how Trumpism has been covered is the refusal of many commentators to identify it as existing as part of elite (in the sense of highly-placed) mainstream (in the sense of carrying considerable public support) politics. When people try to criticize Trumpism, the response often is to act as if his views are "fringe" or "not respectable" or "out there", such that it's a form of nutpicking to even pay attention to them. But they're not fringe! They occupy the Oval Office! They're the dominant force in one of the two major political parties! Trumpism at the moment has far more power in both elite political institutions and mainstream political organizations than does, say, Colin Kaepernick. If you're looking to criticize views that have considerable public influence and purchase, Trumpism should rank far, far higher than whatever example of "performative wokeness" you're currently writing up your forty-fifth column on, and this would be obvious to anyone who remembers that places outside of Brooklyn exist.