THE FIRST foreign congratulations for president-elect Joe Biden began to flow almost immediately after news organisations called his victory on November 7th. Leaders of democracies, notably in Europe, were quickest off the mark. Within days, even erstwhile allies of President Donald Trump had tweeted their cautious acknowledgements to Mr Biden. On November 10th the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sent his congratulations, adding to those from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Meanwhile Mr Biden has started holding phone calls with leaders of Canada and European countries. Even as Mr Trump continued to rage-tweet, claiming (with no evidence) that various states’ presidential-election results were rigged or fraudulent, most outsiders have judged his game was up.
How different it has been among Mr Trump’s domestic allies. Rather than conclude that the president is a sufficiently diminished force to cross, almost all Republicans prefer to go along with his dangerous fiction that the electoral process needs questioning. Without producing any specific or meaningful evidence that elections were badly run, they risk reducing popular trust in electoral institutions and democracy.
By November 10th only four Republican senators—Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse—had publicly recognised Mr Biden’s victory. A few elected officials, reportedly, were ready to pass on private congratulations to the president-elect. One Republican official, according to the Washington Post, said nobody really believed the election result could be overturned, but there was no harm in “humouring” the president in his refusal to concede.
The rest, led by Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, offered Mr Trump various forms of public support. Mr McConnell said the president was “100% within his rights” to challenge the outcome. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, served up a similar message. William Barr, the ultra-loyal attorney-general, told federal prosecutors to break a decades-long convention and begin investigating supposed “substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities” even before states certify their election results. That provoked Richard Pilger, the official overseeing such investigations for the Justice Department, to resign on November 9th. Republican politicians offered no criticism. The next day Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, talked of preparing for a transition to a second Trump administration.
Read between the lines and some of this support, though far from conventional, does appear muted. Republicans saying that Mr Trump has the right to seek evidence of electoral wrongdoing is not (quite) the same as their saying that they agree such evidence will ever be found. Nor is it terribly surprising. For months Mr Trump had been claiming he could only lose the election if it were rigged. Everyone was braced for a period when the president would refuse to accept an otherwise clear outcome.
Mr Trump has self-interested reasons to drag this out, though nobody can be sure what the cost to the country might be. By refusing to concede he remains in the spotlight, where he hopes to profit both politically and financially. Casting doubt on the legitimacy of Mr Biden’s win is a way to undermine him in office and discourage bipartisan co-operation in Congress. Saying electoral officials, poll monitors or Democrats cheated meanwhile is a way to keep his supporters fired up. This is working. A Politico/Morning Consult poll, carried out after voting ended last week, suggests 70% of Republicans now don’t believe the election was free and fair, while 64% are sceptical about the results. (In contrast 86% of Democrats do trust them.) Those shares are far higher than in polls before voting took place.
Mr Trump, whatever specific path he takes next, hopes to exploit this large faction of supporters. Such voters, along with those drawn to conspiracies such as QAnon, are the core of his (and his family’s) future political backers, television viewers, rally attendees, donors and buyers of his Trump-branded merchandise. He has just launched a leadership PAC, to let him raise money in the post-election period. That’s much easier to do when voters are enraged at their political opponents. It also suggests he plans to exert influence on congressional candidates and their primary races in the coming months and years. Even insisting on recounts that are doomed to fail can boost Mr Trump personally. Any surplus in fundraising to pay the millions required for a recount in Wisconsin, for example, can be used to pay down other campaign debts.
Might other Republicans tire of this before long? Some are too intimidated to dare break with him. Though he lost the presidential election, he did scoop more than 71m votes (several million behind Mr Biden, but otherwise a record). He also expanded his party’s appeal, for example among many Latino voters, and led Republicans to gains in the House while limiting losses in the Senate. Among the many aspirants to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024, there is no wish to make an enemy of Mr Trump.
His burn-down-the-house style has paid some dividends, so others are emulating it. The two Republican Senate candidates in Georgia, who face run-off elections in January, have also decided to attack the state government, for example. On November 9th both Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue called for the resignation of Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, alleging that his office had “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections”. No matter that Mr Raffensperger is a fellow Republican. They offered no evidence to back up their claims and he rebuffed them. But, like Mr Trump, they seem to judge that voters can be stirred up by attacking institutions.
Where does this end? It remains most likely that Mr Trump’s domestic allies will eventually follow the path taken by his foreign ones and conclude that there is no realistic, legal prospect of the presidential election being overturned. At some point humouring the president will no longer make sense. The longer they wait, however, the more that useful norms of co-operation get worn away, the more difficult it is to effect a smooth transition, and the more that trust in government is eroded.
William Kristol, an anxious Never-Trumper conservative, thinks this is the most likely outcome. But he also worries there is a slender possibility of something worse. He asks whether Mr Trump and allies may yet try a more drastic, anti-democratic move, such as persuading Republican state legislators to ignore voters’ wishes and send electors to the electoral college who would support him instead. That sounds alarmist, but as Mr Kristol writes: “A little alarmism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Complacency in the defence of democracy is not virtue.”
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