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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Philip Bump: Reality-straddling Republicans are being forced to choose

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 6, 2020

By Philip Bump Washington Post

For more than four years, there have been a number of Republican elected officials who have tried to strike a balance between existing in the real world, centered on objective observations about the universe, and the world of President Donald Trump.

There’s often not much overlap between the two, by design. Seemingly without much effort, Trump has created an entire realm in which he is without flaws and his enemies are numerous. It’s the domain of much of conservative media much of the time, and it’s where the most stalwart elements of Trump’s base live. The MAGAverse, if you will, exists in a state of cold war with reality, with skirmishes breaking out frequently.

Because this domain is where so much of Trump’s base lives and because his base overlaps so heavily with Republican voters, Republicans seeking to win or keep elective office have had to figure out how deep to delve into Trump territory. Some dove in with alacrity, such as Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. Others were born in the MAGAverse and were molded by it, such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. Many seem to have tried to keep it at something of a distance in the way that they tried to keep the far-right conservative mediasphere at a remove before Trump declaring his candidacy in 2015. That’s a large part of why Trump was successful, of course: His willingness to embrace and amplify the assertions of conservative media both endeared him to many conservative voters and helped differentiate him from Republicans less willing to do so.

As the past few days have progressed and it has become increasingly clear that Trump will not win a second term in office, one can imagine the sense of relief that those Republicans who had been trying to exist in both spaces must feel. Perhaps with Trump dispatched to Palm Beach, Fla., come January, they would no longer be forced to respond to each of his incendiary tweets. Perhaps, over time, they wouldn’t have to bend the knee to Trump to appeal to his voters. Maybe they’d done it, managed to remain sufficiently separated from Trump as to avoid the most negative connotations of being his ally. Particularly for more mainstream Republicans thinking about a bid in 2024, it probably seemed like the rocky waters might have calmed.

But Trump wasn’t done with them yet. Over the past 24 hours, both Trump and key surrogates, including his children, have demanded that Republicans decide which world they want to inhabit: the real one or that of Trump.

Donald Trump Jr. was explicit.

“Losing fair and square is one thing,” he wrote on Twitter, “but in the face of all of this video evidence, lack of transparency, boarding up of windows, fighting to prevent poll watching etc etc… for GOPers to not stand up now shows your true colors. Will make the 2024 primary process a lot easier.”

The cited evidence and murky etc.s are the tacit demand: Accept these baseless allegations to show your allegiance to the Trump base. After a similar tweet from Trump Jr. a few hours earlier, several likely 2024 candidates paid the required fealty, to varying degrees of MAGAverse immersion.

Some Republicans who may have higher aspirations went further. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., committed $500,000 to Trump’s efforts to use the courts to wrench victory from the jaws of defeat. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program to insist that what was being seen in vote-counting was “outrageous,” given occurrences such as election observers being barred in Philadelphia. (They were not, as a lawyer for Trump’s campaign was forced to admit in court.)

Fox itself is an interesting example of the force being applied by Trumpworld at the moment. For the past four years, the network has been in a similar position to the Republican officials it often champions, needing to stay close to Trump’s base while maintaining a foot in the real world. Trump and his allies have increasingly demanded that Fox line up entirely with his worldview, something that hosts such as Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and Maria Bartiromo had already done.

The network’s straight-news anchors have been more visibly forced to try to find a path between the two worlds, a task made trickier by Fox News’s political editors being fully resident in the real world of likely electoral outcomes. When the network called Arizona for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, it forced the issue, making clear that Fox News institutionally recognized the likely outcome of the race even if its on-air talent refused to acknowledge it.

There may be an aspect of this that focuses on the risk-reward calculus. Trump is probably going to lose, but it’s not certain. For a more moderate Republican, it’s hard to imagine a worse scenario than speaking out against Trump only to see him somehow prevail. For people such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., there’s a more urgent need to maintain fealty to Trump. In early January, control of the Senate will be determined by two runoff elections in Georgia. McConnell needs Trump voters to weigh in robustly on that race, so he needs to spend a few more months living in his nicely appointed house near the center of the MAGAverse.

People are picking sides. Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., has rejected Trump’s claims about fraud. Likewise with Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who embraced the reality of Trump’s position on a radio interview. Others, often Republican representatives new to Washington, are immersing further in Trump’s world.

This is an inflection point for Trump’s power. He and his most hardcore supporters hope that by leveraging the power of his loyal base, they might keep open a few more paths to his retaining the presidency. Trump’s always been skeptical of those who try to keep him at a distance; now he’ll demand that they don’t.

Republicans may hope to simply wait him out. But Trump Jr.’s not wrong: Some Republican voters will likely remember that they did. They’ll remember who chose reality over the president.

Nor will this be the last time they’re forced to choose. This world of misinformation and falsehood will likely endure past Trump’s presidency just as it existed before he took office, forcing those looking for power in the party to continue to try to find a balance, if such a thing is possible.

In classic Trump form, he didn’t invent the MAGAverse, he just slapped his branding on it. With resources waning, he’s now writing down the names of those who choose not to take up residence therein. Whether that means anything over the long term remains to be seen.

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