Why aren’t Republicans angry at Trump for losing?
Donald Trump refuses to accept that he has lost re-election. Whether it is more in defense of his personal ego or his public corruption, this refusal appears set to last right up until he leaves office on January 20, 2021. And whether from fear or conviction or simply from having been fired, the personnel of the executive branch are equally bent to the project of denying former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory and stalling the orderly transition. Baseless lawsuits await their dismissal, and far-fetched legislative gambits await defeat.
But more shocking than the president’s fundamentally petty and self-protecting denial is the extent to which it is being indulged by his co-partisans. Defeat is a bitter pill for anyone to swallow. But one thing to be said for the idea of organized political parties is that they furnish a whole group of people who will stand by and watch you until the pill is washed down for good.
Until, apparently, right now.
Defeat is supposed to have consequences. Politicians step down from party leadership, or are ejected from it. If they want back in, they need to make a show of having learned something or built new alliances.
This is what Richard Nixon did between his 1960 defeat and his 1968 victory. Whether they believed it or not (usually not, one suspects), they made a show of accepting responsibility for their side’s defeat and looking ahead.
But this assumption has apparently vanished from American politics rather abruptly. Trump’s fellow Republicans, who should either be angry that he lost an apparently quite winnable race, or at least resigned to looking ahead to 2024, are either sincerely or cynically insisting that he hasn’t lost at all, that the outcome is still in doubt. Some are even peddling entirely unsubstantiated claims of widespread election irregularities that could somehow account for a margin in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan that is two and a half times the margin of his own victory in those states in 2016.
For many of these elected Republicans, this show of denial is presumably an appeal to Trump’s fandom who, we are assured, need to be gently and gradually coaxed into accepting that their champion has been defeated. With luck this ludicrous pantomime will end as a mere embarrassment to our tradition of the peaceful and orderly transfer of power, rather than as a real threat to it.
But in the best scenarios, it leaves us with the curiosity: Do Americans not actually object to losing anymore? Do defeated politicians feel no obligation to take their lumps?
This is a bipartisan problem. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw her caucus shrink by at least six votes, with more defeats still very much possible as vote tallies are completed. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer saw the Democrats’ strong bid for a majority fall well short of expectations, with the last hope of reaching a bare majority resting on the outcome of two Georgia runoffs.
These brutal Democratic disappointments happened despite successful candidate recruiting and massive fundraising. Schumer was easily re-elected to his post, and no serious opposition to Pelosi has yet emerged.
While not nearly as constitutionally risky or legally dubious as the president’s gambit to nullify the election results, the tenacity of the Democratic leaders is troubling in its own way. It suggests that neither they nor their partisans expect victory or begrudge defeat.
It is easy to analogize partisanship in America to sports fandom. But this is, in a way, unfair to sports fans. I’m a passionate and not at all objective fan of the Green Bay Packers, but even I can admit it when Aaron Rodgers throws an interception. Sports fans do not tend to say that their team in fact won if you threw out the last four innings’ runs. Sports fans get angry at the coaches and general managers and star players.
Our parties are less like sports teams than they are like brands, helmed by senescent megalomaniacs who can get away with delivering little more than catharsis to their core audiences. And this may not be a mere quirk of our current politics.
Elite impunity is a defining phenomenon of the age, from golden parachutes to slaps on the wrist for financial crimes to the declining electoral significance of public corruption.
It was fashionable in the last decade for curmudgeons to complain about “participation trophies” for child athletes. But the real danger to our public life may be less the signal that every player wins than the grim reality that no one in power ever loses.
Well or poorly, the citizens did their part. We donated and volunteered and showed up to vote in vast numbers. The only people who have taken no responsibility for the functioning of our system are the ones in charge of it.
Benjamin Dueholm is a Lutheran pastor and author of “Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance.”