The crackpot factor: Why the GOP is worried about turning out the vote after Trump

Future GOP candidates lack Trump's secret sauce for attracting new voters — his appeal with Crank-Americans

By Amanda Marcotte
November 18, 2020 6:06PM (UTC)
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A woman holds up a QAnon sign to the media as attendees wait for President Donald Trump to speak at a campaign rally at Atlantic Aviation on September 22, 2020 in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. Trump won Pennsylvania by less than a percentage point in 2016 and is currently in a tight race with Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's attempts to steal the election are fruitless. His legal theater is going nowhere, and it's becoming apparent that this is more about shaking down credulous supporters for cash than about actually overturning the election results. Michigan pounded another nail in Trump's coffin Tuesday, when two Republicans who were blocking the vote certification in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, relented in the face of public outrage. It's all over but the grifting, which will likely continue as long as Trump keeps getting people to give him money for his "legal defense" — money that is being funneled through a PAC and likely straight into Trump's pocket

Yet the Republican establishment is still tiptoeing around Trump, coddling his fragile ego by refusing to admit he lost the election. Some are going a step further, such as South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been exerting pressure on state officials to toss out legally-cast ballots. Why are all these Republicans so afraid of Trump, who will no longer be president in 63 days?

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The main reason appears to be that Republicans really are worried about their electoral prospects after Trump. The record Democratic turnout in the 2020 election — President-elect Joe Biden turned out 14 million more voters than Hillary Clinton in 2016 — caused many Republicans down-ballot from Trump to sweat their re-election prospects. Luckily for them, however, Trump also turned out an eye-popping 10 million new voters, which was enough to save the skins of many GOP candidates, even as Trump lost by slender margins in swing states. 

Trump is a turnout machine for Republicans, who have been desperately casting around for years now for a way to save their party despite demographic changes that make the Democrats more popular among voters. The question of whether there will be Trumpism after Trump now dogs both Republicans who want to replicate their electoral successes under the reality TV president and Democrats who dearly hope this whole disaster was an anomaly. 

"[S]ome conservative opinion leaders are already looking forward to a post-Trump future where the viable things about the 45th president can be neatly separated from his troublesome persona," Ed Kilgore writes for New York

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He cites "a representative fantasy" by right-wing writer Kristin Tate at The Hill, who longs for a "Republican with the political positions of Trump, but without decades of tabloid fodder," proposing that candidate might avoid "the bandwagon effect of suburban voters eager to show their public disapproval of his latest action."

Kilgore explores the various hopes that Republicans have for a "new Trump." Will it be Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a Bible-thumper straight out of "The Handmaid's Tale" who has some crossover appeal for his occasional swipes at corporate America (though mostly for its perceived degeneracy)? Or Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who brings the racism and militant neofascism of Trump, but without the gleeful sleaze of a shameless sexual assailant? 

These choices expose why Republicans fear that there may be no way to have Trumpism without Trump. Those guys and other contenders are all missing the secret sauce that helped Trump recruit so heavily among non-voters and infrequent voters. And no, it's not his so-called charisma.  

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What Trump really has going for him is what I call the "crackpot factor." Trump speaks to voters who share the racism and sexism of typical GOP voters, but who often don't vote because they think politics is boring and are awash in conspiracy theories about how the system is "rigged." Those voters saw a kindred spirit in Trump, a man who speaks fluent conspiracy theory and who got his start in politics by promoting claims that Barack Obama wasn't a native-born U.S. citizen. 

Before the 2020 election, the team at FiveThirtyEight took a deep dive on the views of people who vote infrequently or not at all. There's a lot of reasons for non-voting, such as a belief it doesn't matter or the obstacles that make voting difficult, but one important factor was a lack of trust in the system. For some voters, especially nonwhite voters or liberal-leaning voters, this is unfortunately a realistic assessment of the situation, where social progress often feels glacial and voting doesn't seem to make much difference.

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But for right-leaning voters, I suspect a lot of this distrust flows from a conspiratorial mindset, born from a steady diet of misinformation that has been made all too readily available by the internet. These are the types that populate the audience for Joe Rogan and Alex Jones. These are people who hate Democrats but also feel alienated by the religiosity and elitism of mainstream Republicans, and turn to "alternative" sources of information that are thick with paranoid conspiracy theories. Trump, who indulged the same "alternative facts" that they enjoy, stirred something in them that other Republicans simply couldn't. 

In 2014, Pew Research, using extensive data, developed a political typology that sorted Americans into six groups. Two of the Republican-leaning ones are incredibly familiar to political observers, the "steadfast conservatives" and "business conservatives," or, respectively, the religious right and the rich folks who are in it for the tax cuts.

But they also detected an emerging group, which they deemed "young outsiders," who "do not have a strong allegiance to the Republican Party" and, in fact, "tend to dislike both political parties." These voters registered as "socially liberal," insofar as they don't support bans on abortion or gay marriage and, importantly, aren't especially religious.

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But the "young outsiders" do share the racism of traditional conservatives. They are easily riled up by the demonization of social spending programs like Obamacare or food stamps They approve of programs, like Medicare, that are viewed as benefiting white people. They're in favor legal marijuana but oppose gun control. And they vote far less often than other conservatives. 

I personally believe that the Pew research failed to capture how sexist this group is. The usual proxy questions to measure sexism, such as attitudes towards abortion, simply aren't adequate in this context. I suspect this group, while not as opposed to abortion as other conservatives, is angry about other feminist concerns such as the #MeToo movement, where men's privilege to mistreat women are being attacked.

These are, I suspect, the Gamergaters and the alt-right types who flocked to Trump in the years after this survey. They gobble down internet conspiracy theories like QAnon, which creates engagement with right-wing politics for those who aren't religious conservatives or business elites. They like to imagine that embracing more authoritarian attitudes is an "edgy" revolt against liberalism. They are overwhelmingly white (though 14% are Hispanic), and under 50 years old. While more than half of those defined as "strong liberals" are college graduates, three-quarters of the "young outsiders" don't have college diplomas. 

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Trump got a whole lot of those people who don't usually vote to do so, turning out more non-college-educated white voters in 2016, for example, than Mitt Romney did in 2012. These voters overlooked his alliance with the religious right and were instead fixated on his playboy persona, his over-the-top sexism and racism and, of course, his sweeping embrace of nutbar conspiracy theories of all kinds.

Over the past four years, everything that Trump's opponents hate about him — his grossness, his cruelty to women and people of color, his rejection of the polite norms of D.C. politics and, of course, his conspiracy theories — likely generated even more enthusiasm from this subset of voters that other Republicans have had trouble capturing or motivating. 

That's why it's reasonable to be skeptical about the likely success of the current crop of wannabe Trumps. Hawley's religiosity and culture-war rigidity won't play well with these Trump Republicans who are just fine with premarital sex and legal weed, even if they're not fond of women having the right to file sexual harassment complaints. Cotton may roll out fascist fantasies that appeal to the QAnoners and the alt-right, but he's a stiff and, I suspect, won't appeal to those who enjoy Trump's wrestling-heel gift for insulting and degrading people. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who also wants to be the next Trump, has intense weenie energy that makes it hard for him to win these people over. 

Trump speaks to the great American crackpot, especially the younger set that was otherwise more interested in perusing conspiracy theory websites or "pick-up artist" forums than in voting. These folks won't be moved by Hawley's promise of a handmaid in every bed or Cotton's promise of stormtroopers on the streets. In the face of the growing Democratic majority, Republicans need this subset of crank voters, who don't care about old-school culture-war fights over abortion or evolution, but sure do love QAnon. Without Trump's demented tweeting and his willingness to leave empirical reality behind, it's not clear how the GOP can keep the crank vote going. 


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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