President Donald Trump’s continuing attempts to overturn an election he lost decisively more than a month ago is, like so much of what he’s done in office, shocking but not surprising. Who imagined that he would go quietly?
What some people may not have been fully prepared for is the way Trump’s party as a whole has backed his dangerous delusions. According to a survey by The Washington Post, only 27 Republican members of Congress are willing to say that Joe Biden won. Despite the complete lack of evidence of significant fraud, two-thirds of self-identified Republicans said in a Reuters/Ipsos poll that the election was rigged.
But you really shouldn’t be surprised by this willingness to indulge malicious, democracy-endangering lies. After all, when was the last time Republicans accepted a politically inconvenient fact? It has been clear for years that the modern GOP is a party that can’t handle the truth.
Most obviously, Republican refusal to accept the election results follows months of refusal to acknowledge the dangers of the coronavirus, even as COVID-19 has become the nation’s leading cause of death, and even as a startling number of people in Trump’s orbit have been infected.
Sure enough, virus denial and vote denial converged almost perfectly Saturday, when Trump addressed a large, mostly unmasked crowd in Georgia — creating a potential superspreader event — and demanded that the governor overturn the state’s election results. The next day Rudy Giuliani, who has been directing Trump’s efforts to cling to office, was hospitalized with the virus.
The thing is, Republican rejection of reality didn’t start in 2020, or even with the Trump era. Climate change denial — including claims that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by an international cabal of scientists — has been a badge of partisan identity for many years. Crazy conspiracy theories about the Clintons were mainstream on the right through much of the 1990s.
And one half-forgotten episode in particular seems to me to have foreshadowed much of what we’re seeing right now: Republican reactions to the mostly successful introduction of Obamacare.
The Affordable Care Act went into full effect in 2014, amid dire predictions by Republicans. The act, they claimed, would drive insurance premiums sky-high, fail to reduce the number of uninsured, and have a devastating effect on employment.
None of that happened. Instead, millions of Americans gained health insurance coverage. Job creation continued, with 3 million jobs added in the year following the ACA’s implementation. Obamacare may have fallen somewhat short of its sponsors’ hopes (although nobody expected it to yield universal coverage), but from the beginning it helped many Americans, and was nothing like the disaster opponents predicted.
As far as I can tell, however, no prominent Republican was willing to admit that the party’s apocalyptic warnings had been proved false, let alone talk about why they were wrong. Nor, of course, did Republicans make any effort to come up with a better health plan. (It has been almost 11 years since Obamacare was signed into law, and we’re still waiting.) Instead, party leaders simply pretended that the promised catastrophe had, in fact, materialized.
For example, John Boehner, the speaker of the House at the time, insisted that there had been a “net loss” of people with health insurance. After that 3 million-job gain, Jeb Bush (remember him?) insisted that Obamacare was “the greatest job suppressor in the so-called recovery.”
And in a move that prefigured the Trump team’s desperate attempts to find evidence for election fraud, right-wing groups went in search of health care horror stories, tales of ordinary Americans devastated by Obamacare.
To be fair, while there is no evidence of significant electoral fraud, some people really were hurt by health reform — mainly young, healthy individuals who previously had cheap policies and made too much money to be eligible for subsidies. But these weren’t the victims Republicans were looking for. Instead, they peddled tales of older, working-class Americans who supposedly had lost access to affordable insurance.
None of these tales stood up to scrutiny. But that didn’t matter to the GOP. As I wrote at the time, Republicans had already — pre-Trump — entered the era of post-truth politics.
Now, there’s obviously a big difference in immediate impact between refusing to accept evidence that contradicts your policy preconceptions and refusing to accept the results of an election. But the mindset is the same.
The point is that once a party gets into the habit of rejecting facts it doesn’t want to hear, one fact it’s bound to reject sooner or later is the fact that it lost an election. In that sense there’s a straight line from, say, the Republican embrace of climate denial to the party’s willingness to go along with Trump’s attempts to retain power.
And the Republican Party’s previous history of dealing with inconvenient reality gives us a pretty good idea about when it will accept Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election — namely, never.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.