Don't dismiss Trump's "Stop the Steal" tantrum: The GOP is trolling our democracy to death

Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley know their objections to Biden's win will fail, but that doesn't make their stunt harmless

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 6, 2021 12:55PM (EST)

Josh Hawley, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Josh Hawley, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Republican efforts to stop the certification of the electoral college votes, cementing Joe Biden's win against Donald Trump, will fail. That is the most important thing to remember as this GOP circus kicks off. 

The events scheduled for January 6, when Congress officially counts the Electoral College vote, are typically a routine ceremonial process to affirm the results of the presidential election two months prior. This time around, however, Trump is denying he lost the race, and is spewing all manner of preposterous conspiracy theories to justify his narcissistic temper tantrum. And so a group of Republicans in Congress — at least 140 in the House and 13 in the Senate, and led by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri — plans to object to the Electoral College vote in Congress Wednesday, dragging out the proceedings and making a big, dramatic show of support for Trump's lies. 

Why are they doing this? Not because they think it will work, at least not in the way that Trump hopes, which is to illegally install him in a second term. No, it's clearly meant as a political stunt, though, even as a stunt, it seems ill-advised. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been actively discouraging Republicans from making these objections. His concern, which is well-founded, is that it's unwise to force Republicans in Congress to choose between appeasing Trump's base and doing their legal duty. It's one of those no-win situations that caucus leaders and competent politicians usually try to avoid — but Cruz, Hawley and the rest of the "sedition caucus" are forging ahead anyway. 

The likely reason is that they're following the principle that increasingly guides all Republican actions: Always be trolling. 

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While objecting to the electoral college and bolstering false accusations of "voter fraud" cannot achieve any of the traditional political goals, it does a smash-bang job of "triggering the liberals." The one thing guaranteed is that this stunt will freak out a lot of Democratic voters.

For hours on Wednesday, there will be headlines and cable news chyrons and other such media coverage that will create the impression that something very dramatic is happening and Biden's electoral win is imperiled. And while there will be reassurances from some talking heads that this is all noise and nonsense, a lot of Democratic voters — burned after watching Trump slip the noose time and again — will understandably react with anxiety. Fear will be amplified by the crowds of violence-eager fascists who have been causing trouble in the D.C. streets. 

Indeed, it's arguable that the very fact that this will fail is why they're pulling this stunt. 

Cruz's public comments suggest he sees this as a cost-free way to troll Democrats. Responding to critics on Fox News, Cruz said "everyone needs to calm down" and said it was "hyperbole" to accuse him of undermining democracy. He clearly wants to have it both ways, where he can pull this stunt while also insisting that he's not really undermining democracy. Cruz wants to play this off as a lark, a political stunt to pander to rubes that vote for him, and not a serious effort. 

If so, then this is a classic case of hubris, because the reality is that there will absolutely be profound, long-term costs that follow from these trolling games. After all, it's not just Democratic voters who will take this as an earnest assault on democracy. Republican voters — strong majorities of whom support Trump's attempted coup — are very likely going to be buoyed by hope that this time Trump's attempts to overturn the election will actually work. And when it inevitably fails, they're going to get angrier, more embittered, and more determined than ever to gut the democratic systems that fail to give them the power they believe they're entitled to. 

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That this assault on democracy is more than just a game to the Republican masses was demonstrated Tuesday in Pennsylvania, when the Republican-controlled state senate refused to seat a newly elected Democrat Jim Brewster, all because the Republican who lost the race refuses to concede. To make it worse, when Lt. Gov. John Fetterman tried to follow the law and seat the Democrat anyway, Republicans removed Fetterman from his legal role in overseeing the proceedings. Brewster's win has been certified by state election officials and their counting methods have been upheld by the state Supreme Court. But Republicans are pulling out all stops, turning to the federal courts in a desperate bid to get this legal election thrown out and a Republican installed in the seat. 

"We're at a dangerous time in this country," Fetterman told Greg Sargent at the Washington Post. "One party is ignoring court rulings and election results. If the results don't match what they like, they do their level best to subvert them."

Clearly, the elected Republicans in Pennsylvania are inspired by Trump's coup efforts. They're deadly serious about this, and don't see this as just a fun bit of political theater to pander to the cheap seats. 

No matter how much Cruz and Hawley might want the D.C. media elite to see their behavior as meaningless political theater, the audience for said theater, both Republican voters and lower-level elected officials, are taking this in earnest. These stunts only encourage an already growing sense among the larger world of Republican voters and politicians that democracy itself is the problem, and that any election Republicans lose is inherently illegitimate. Biden's election is secure, but there can be no doubt there will be a dramatic increase in Republican efforts to void legitimate elections won by Democrats. And there's a real danger that a lot of these efforts are going to start working. 

By 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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