Donald Trump has spent five years turning the Republican Party into a cult of personality. During his time in office, that meant Republican lawmakers had to be ready to abandon any principle at a moment’s notice, while pretending not to have heard about any of the most indefensible things Trump tweeted, said, or did. Now their task has gotten simpler: To be a member in good standing of the Trump cult of personality, AKA the Republican Party, means embracing the Big Lie, insisting that the 2020 elections were stolen, and refusing to acknowledge President Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of that election and leader of the nation.
That’s already true of Republican lawmakers from Congress to state legislatures. But it’s looking likely to become even more true if the current crop of Republican candidates is any guide. Because fealty to Trump and embrace of the Big Lie is becoming something of a prerequisite for candidacy.
The New York Times lines it up: There’s the congressional candidate who previously went viral for her MAGA wedding dress and says it’s “highly probable” that Trump won her state of Michigan. (He lost the state by more than 150,000 votes.) There’s the Wisconsin congressional candidate who actually attended Trump’s Jan. 6 rally that turned into the attack on the U.S. Capitol. He claimed he was there to “stand for the integrity of our electoral system” and that he left, “disturbed” and “in shock,” as it turned into a mob. But make no mistake: He was there to protest the certification of a valid election based on the false and malicious claim that it was invalid.
There’s the Virginia congressional primary where Republicans can choose between a candidate who told Steve Bannon that people who commit election fraud should be sentenced “to death” and a candidate who prefers to use euphemisms like “voter confidence” and “it is right to question the electoral process.” A Nevada congressional candidate isn’t sure that President Biden won the state, which he did by more than 33,000 votes, and says “I would not have voted to certify Jan. 6, not without more questions.”
And of course there’s the fraudit in Arizona, where state Senate Republicans have a company with no elections experience but with a Trumpy conspiracy theorist leader counting all the ballots in the state’s largest county, with embarrassing mistake after embarrassing mistake, arrest threats being lobbed at Republican officials who refuse to get on board with the project, and serious security concerns about future use of the voting machines that have been pulled into the fraudit. Arizona Republicans are raising money off of this, along with the praise they soak up from sore loser Trump.
In state after state, Republicans are showing that the cult of Trump is intact, but its substance has shifted from embracing Trump’s personal insults and love of autocratic leaders around the world and governing-by-tweet to embracing the sore loser’s insistence that he didn’t really lose.
The possible upside here is that some of these people will win their primaries and then alienate the general electorate and in so doing, cost Republicans winnable seats. But what if Republican dark money and Republican voter suppression laws allow enough of them to slip through to really, really cause damage to the government? More even than Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders from Mitch McConnell to Kevin McCarthy have done? What if suddenly Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has a large amount of company in setting the tone for House Republicans, and Sen. Ted Cruz isn’t even in the running for worst person in the Senate anymore? Donald Trump may only care about Donald Trump. He may not care about policy or party-building. But the Republican cult of Trump could genuinely destroy U.S. democracy.