Former President Trump's charge that the election was stolen has rattled the core of the GOP, sparking a nasty clash over who commands the soul of the party.
The claims have launched a splinter group of disgruntled Republican officials and toppled a conservative icon, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who was ejected this week from the leadership ranks.
Cheney and party unity are unlikely to be the only casualties of Trump’s assault on last year’s election, however, according to a growing chorus of historians, political scientists, legal experts, pundits, and state and federal lawmakers.
They say Trump's continuous attacks on election integrity — and the distrust they've sown among a broad swath of GOP voters — pose a much vaster danger, threatening the very quintessence of the country by undermining the institutions that sustain its democratic traditions.
“The widespread Republican belief, contrary to fact, that the 2020 election was ‘stolen’ is a threat to democracy and the stability of the Republic,” said Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian who has also served as an informal adviser to President Biden.
“Even in our most tumultuous hours in the 20th century — 1932, 1968 — there was a basic confidence in elections,” added Meacham, who has launched a new podcast, "Fate of Fact," which explores the unique power of misinformation over voters. “Trump’s lie about 2020 — echoed and promulgated by so many Republicans — could endure and even grow, undermining the currency of democracy: that elections are the arbiters of competing ideas and, if lost, must be respected.”
For millions of Americans, that respect has evaporated following the 2020 elections, not because of any widespread fraud — in fact, dozens of cases alleging outcome-altering corruption were shot down in state and federal courts around the country — but because Trump has repeatedly asserted that such fraud occurred. He has not provided any evidence for those claims, but the message is resonating nonetheless.
A recent CNN poll found that almost a third of all voters think Biden’s victory was illegitimate, a number that jumps to 70 percent among Republicans. Those figures are consistent with other national surveys revealing that only about a third of GOP voters trust U.S. elections more generally — a figure that was much higher before Trump's defeat.
Fueled by the former president, those levels of distrust have alarmed some party strategists who fear the trend could dampen GOP turnout in 2022, much like Trump’s attacks on mail-in balloting were thought to help Democrats pick up two Senate seats in Georgia earlier this year.
“What Donald Trump is saying is actually telling people it's not worth it to vote,” Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster, said last week on The New York Times podcast “Sway.”
“And he may be the greatest tool in the Democrats' arsenal to keep control of the House and Senate in 2022,” he added.
Yet others fear the threat transcends a single party since distrust in elections invites broader doubts about the legitimacy of the other public institutions that make a democracy run. Not least: its public leaders.
“Democracy is viable only if the losers believe the process was fair and the result reflects the actual preference of the people,” said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “The more people who don't believe that, the more endangered democracy is.”
Olsen, who's also a Washington Post contributor, warned in a recent column that “Trump’s lies” are dangerous for subverting that belief, thereby “dramatically weakening faith in our system of government.”
This week, he cautioned that Democrats have also cultivated suspicions about election integrity, particularly in accusing certain states of voter suppression — charges he characterized as “scurrilous and unfounded.”
“Both sides need to denounce the lies extreme elements in each party, often backed by reputable figures like Trump or Stacey Abrams, are making,” Olsen said, referring to the 2018 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and voting rights activist.
While Abrams has come under some criticism for not conceding her loss to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, Trump is almost solely responsible for the doubts about last year’s presidential election, which lack any basis in facts but led to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Trump's doggedness — combined with threats to go after any Republican who doubts his narrative — led directly to Cheney's downfall this week, when House Republicans voted to oust her from the conference chair position for her insistence that Republicans distance themselves from Trump and his election falsehoods. Cheney framed her campaign as a battle not only for the future of the GOP but also for the country at large.
“There is clearly an attempt to unravel the democracy, if you will, by focusing on challenging the legitimacy of the election ... abandoning the rule of law,” she told Fox News on Thursday.
“What the former president is doing is dangerous,” she added.
On Friday, House Republicans voted to replace Cheney with a Trump loyalist, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who has advanced Trump's false account of a stolen election.
Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, cited two dangers surrounding the “big lie” and the GOP's decision to embrace it — or at least tolerate it. The first relates to the loss of election confidence, largely among GOP voters. The second is the concern that states will lean on Trump’s narrative to justify new voting restrictions, which would affect voters of all stripes. Those laws are already going into place in states such as Florida and Texas, prompting howls from voting rights activists who fear the effects on low-income and minority voters.
“As a a whole — it’s a terrible development,” Zelizer said in an email. “Democracy revolves around robust voting, and all of this moves us in the wrong direction.”
In Arizona, Trump's election claims have reverberated with a particular flair. There, state GOP leaders have launched an audit into the election results surrounding Phoenix, prompting an extensive operation aiming to hand-count millions of ballots, despite there being no evidence of wrongdoing.
Trump this week, pointing to Arizona, accused the “Lamestream Media” of ignoring a crucial story surrounding “our corrupt, third world election.” But some Republican officials who oversaw the disputed vote tally say the real threat is those claiming fraud where there is none.
“If people lose faith in the electoral system, then I mean, where we go from there is very scary, right?” Bill Gates, an election supervisor in Maricopa County, told The New York Times this week. “Either people just disengage, they stop voting, or they cannot redress the government any further. They pursue what — armed rebellion?”
Not everyone has such a grim view.
Karlyn Bowman, an elections expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, noted that the faith of partisan voters in elections tends to shift based on whether their party won or lost in the latest round. With that in mind, she expects the GOP distrust to fade if Republicans win back the House, the Senate or both in 2022.
Bowman has also led research finding that many voters who question the validity of elections don't necessarily apply the same doubt to their own ballots.
"I would be much more worried if people thought their own votes weren’t accurately counted," Bowman said in an email.
"Yes, I worry about Trump’s obsession with this," she added. "But I think the system is still resilient."
Amid the debate, Trump's critics have won an unusual ally in Garry Kasparov, the Russian-born chess grandmaster, now a political activist, who's warning that Republicans' decision to rally around Trump rather than Cheney is the mark of an "undemocratic" party — one with a dim future.
"It's long past time to stop being nostalgic for a Republican party of conservatives because a few principled outliers like [Sen. Mitt] Romney [R-Utah] and Cheney haven't been eliminated yet," Kasparov tweeted this week.