To win a Republican primary in 2022, you’ll probably need to support a coup attempt.
It’s not sufficient — David Perdue, a former senator, looks like he’s going to lose to the incumbent governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, in next week’s primary, despite his support for the “big lie” — but it makes a difference.
The Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, won his race on the strength of his enthusiastic support for Donald Trump’s effort to subvert and overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. As a state senator, Mastriano demanded that lawmakers invalidate Joe Biden’s electoral votes. He attended the “stop the steal” rally on Jan. 6 and has continued to accuse Democrats of fraud. Mastriano has not commented on the 2024 election, but he has let it be known that he supports the view that state legislatures can assign electoral votes against the will of the voting public.
The Republican nominee for the Senate in North Carolina, Ted Budd, was similarly committed to Trump’s effort to keep himself in office. He was among the 139 House members who objected to certifying the presidential election in Biden’s favor.
J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Ohio, has not endorsed the claim that Biden stole the election from Trump, but he did play footsie with the idea during his campaign. “I think we’ve got to investigate as much as possible,” Vance said of the 2020 election results. “I believe sunshine is the best disinfectant. And we’re going to learn a lot about what happened. But, you know, I think at a basic level we already know mostly what happened.”
Overall, there are hundreds of Republican candidates in races across the country who have embraced Trump’s false claims about his defeat. Many, like Budd, voted against Biden’s Electoral College victory. Some, like Mastriano, attended the “stop the steal” protest in Washington on Jan. 6. And others signed legal briefs or resolutions challenging Biden’s victory.
The extent to which election denialism and pro-insurrectionism are now litmus tests for Republican politicians is clearly attributable to Trump’s huge influence over the Republican Party. Despite his defeat, he is still the leader. But even if that were not true — if, instead of the boss, Trump was only one influential figure among many — there would still be reason for Republicans to embrace this view.
That’s because Republican election denialism is simply the strongest form of a belief that has defined the Republican Party since at least the Newt Gingrich era in the 1990s. For many Republicans, theirs is the only legitimate political party and their voters, irrespective of their actual numbers, are the only legitimate voters — and the only legitimate majority. Democrats, from this vantage point, are presumptively illegitimate, their victories suspect, their policies un-American, even when they have the support of most people in the country.
You see this in the years of voter fraud hysteria that preceded Trump’s claim, after the 2016 election, that he had been cheated of millions of votes. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide,” he said, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
In 2001, for example, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a crackdown on voter fraud, accusing unnamed actors (presumably Democrats) of manipulating elections. “Votes have been bought, voters intimidated and ballot boxes stuffed,” he said at a news conference that year. “The polling process has been disrupted or not completed. Voters have been duped into signing absentee ballots believing they were applications for public relief. And the residents of cemeteries have infamously shown up at the polls on Election Day.”
After the 2008 election, Republicans went into a frenzy over the group ACORN, accusing it of perpetrating fraud on a national scale. How else, after all, could you explain Barack Obama’s unexpected victories in traditionally Republican states like Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina?
The obsession with nonexistent voter fraud is hard to ignore. But there were other ways that Republicans expressed their belief that they were the only legitimate members of the political community.
Sarah Palin’s rhetoric about the “real America,” very much in evidence during the 2008 presidential campaign — “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America” — was one of these ways. So was the tea party movement, whose members understood themselves as a disenfranchised majority, under siege by a Democratic Party of burdensome immigrants in the country illegally, ungrateful minorities and entitled young people. Fox News commentator Glenn Beck captured some of this feeling during a 2010 broadcast. “This is the Tea Party. This is you and me,” he said. “You are not alone, America. You are the majority.”
Mitt Romney’s infamous claim that there are “47% of the people” who are “dependent upon government,” “believe they are victims” and are unable to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” was condemned as classist and prejudiced during the 2012 presidential election, but you can also read it as an expression of the belief that there are some Americans who count — the “makers,” in the language of his vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan — and some Americans who don’t.
Yes, the Republican Party’s present-day election denialism is much more extreme than the rhetoric surrounding voter fraud or the idea that there is a “real America.” But the difference is ultimately one of degree, not kind: Republicans have been trying to write Democrats out of the political community in one way or another for decades. It was only a matter of time before this escalated to denying that Democrats and Democratic voters can win elections at all.
Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.