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Why Republican politicians are sticking with Trump

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
Greg Nash

Republican politicians continue to scramble to justify the removal of Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as the GOP’s U.S. House of Representatives Conference Chair for denouncing Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged, his role in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, and his ongoing “effort to unravel our democracy.”

Each day Cheney has spent “relitigating the past is one day less we have to seize the future,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has explained. McCarthy assured critics of the purge that the GOP is “a big tent party. We represent Americans of all backgrounds and continue to grow our movement by the day. And unlike the left, we embrace free thought and debate.”

“Can the Republican Party move forward without President Trump?” Sen. Lindsay Graham has asked himself. His answer is — “No … I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”

These claims are specious. Votes by state Republican Party officials to censure, among others, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Cindy McCain (the widow of Senator John McCain), Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, and Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, constitute compelling evidence that Republicans do not embrace free thought and debate.

Donald Trump, not Liz Cheney, is, of course, the backward-looking litigator and disinformation disseminator-in-chief. In the last seven weeks alone, Trump has issued more than 20 false statements about the 2020 election. On May 15, Trump claimed that “ballots are missing” in Maricopa County, Ariz., and the “entire Database has been deleted.” Not true. Stephen Richer, the Republican official who leads the county’s election department responded in a tweet that the former president is “unhinged.” Richer said, “We can’t indulge these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country. They are as falsifiable as 2 + 2 = 5.”

Nor has the Trump-led Republican Party shown any signs of growth in 2021.

One hundred days into his ex-presidency, 32 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Trump, 55 percent unfavorable (down from 40 percent favorable, 53 percent unfavorable among registered voters in January and 43 percent favorable, 52 percent unfavorable in November 2020). Only 21 percent have a “very positive” assessment of Trump. For the first time since July 2019, 50 percent of Republicans say they support their party more than Trump.

Moreover, only 26 percent of voters say they are affiliated with the Republican Party, down from 30 percent in November (31 percent are Democrats and 40 percent are independents).

Why, then, are Republican politicians sticking with Trump? Last week, Lindsay Graham provided a plausible reason. “If you tried to run Trump out of the party,” Graham predicted, “he’d take half the party with him.”

These Republicans are playing defense. Understanding that, on average, the party of the president loses about 30 Congressional seats in midterm elections (and has gained seats only three times since the 1930s), they have apparently concluded that incurring Trump’s wrath carries a greater risk of preventing the GOP from regaining control of the House and Senate than placating or praising him.

Betting that 18 months from now the vast majority of voters will not remember or care what they said about the 2020 election, Republican leaders have settled on a strategy of dissimulation and double-talk.

“We’re gonna do both things at once, it looks like,” Sen. Graham observed, “complain and look at the future.”

McCarthy recently told Fox News, “I was the first person to contact him [President Trump] when the riot was going on.” He then made the dubious claim that Trump did not know the Capitol was under attack, refused to comment on previous reports that the conversation between them was tense, and asserted, misleadingly, that the president ended the call by “telling me he’ll put something out to make sure to stop this. And that’s what he did.”

McCarthy also contended, preposterously, that he does not “think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with.”

And on May 18, although Democrats had agreed to all of his demands about the composition and operating procedures of an independent commission, McCarthy announced he opposed the bi-partisan deal to investigate the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

Many Republicans in the House and Senate share McCarthy’s concern that an investigation will undercut the GOP’s 2022 campaign messaging.

Like most of their peers, Republican politicians rarely play a long game. As Liz Cheney has learned, they are not often constrained by loyalty.

Well aware of the uncertainties — age, legal jeopardy, financial challenges, limited access to social media — surrounding Donald Trump’s future, it is entirely possible that they will stick with Donald Trump, until they don’t.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections Anthony Gonzalez Bill Cassidy claims of 2020 election fraud control of the House control of the senate Donald Trump Doug Ducey Fred Upton Jeff Flake John McCain Kevin McCarthy Liz Cheney Republican hypocrisy Republican Party Richard Burr trumpism

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