With its cultish devotion to Donald Trump, the majority of the Republican Party is choosing a wannabe-autocrat over the political system that made the United States the world's most powerful nation and its dominant democracy.
The ex-President is showing that he doesn't have to be in the Oval Office to damage faith in US elections and to trash truth, as his movement based on lies and personal homage takes an increasingly firm grip of the Republican Party. The widespread mistrust he continues to foster in the fairness of the US political system among millions of voters poses grave risks to democracy itself.
Trump, using his bond with the conservative grassroots, has effectively made fealty to his false claims of a fraudulent election last year the price of entry for any Republican candidate in any race. Under his influence, one of America's two great political parties has effectively shed its belief in democracy -- a dereliction that is massively significant for the country's future.
As he seeks personal revenge, Trump is also mobilizing to try to destroy the political viability of any GOP office holders who tell the truth about the Capitol insurrection he inspired like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
He is celebrating the boos that Sen. Mitt Romney, a former Republican presidential nominee, received from activists in Utah over the weekend, after voting to convict Trump over his abuses of power in two separate impeachment trials.
The former President retains an extraordinary ability to dictate the beliefs of his followers and the orthodoxy of the GOP on a daily basis.
"The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!" Trump decreed in a statement Monday, literally reversing the facts about last November's free and fair election that he lost.
Cheney may well be sacrificing her own political career as one of the few GOP lawmakers with the guts to speak truth about Trump's anti-democratic attacks. A new effort is underway among the ex-President's acolytes in Congress to strip her of her No. 3 position in the House only three months after she comfortably retained it in a secret ballot election. Cheney's ability to fight off a pro-Trump primary opponent in her home state of Wyoming is questionable. Her transgression is to simply keep pointing out the truth: that last year's election wasn't stolen by President Joe Biden.
CNN reported Monday that Cheney said at a behind-closed-doors conference in Georgia that Trump's behavior was a "poison in the bloodstream of our democracy." She added: "We can't whitewash what happened on January 6 or perpetuate Trump's big lie. It is a threat to democracy. What he did on January 6 is a line that cannot be crossed."
Trump's power grows out of office
Trump is answering one question that was often asked in his dark last days in office -- would he be as powerful in private life as he was with the trappings of presidential office? If anything the former President wields even more control of his party now than he did over the last five years , a fact made more remarkable by the social media silence enforced by bans from major social media platforms.
And there are very clear signs that Trump's assault on American democracy is working. In a CNN poll released last week, only 23% of Republican voters believed that Biden legitimately won sufficient votes to win the election last year. This follows a Quinnipiac poll in February that showed that 76% of Republicans believe that there was widespread fraud in the election.
Court after court threw out Trump's spurious claims of election fraud after his defeat to Biden. There is no evidence that he was unfairly deprived of office. In fact, the only person who tried to steal the election was Trump, with his bid to disrupt Congress certifying the results by inciting a crowd of supporters that mobbed the Capitol, sending lawmakers fleeing.
Trump's manufactured crisis of legitimacy will effectively taint the midterm polls in 2022, which the former President is trying to use to tighten his stamp on the party. And even if Trump doesn't try to reclaim the White House in 2024, his pernicious influence will mean that the idea that the last election was stolen will remain a false article of faith for Republicans going forward.
A flurry of recent developments prove Trump's power in the GOP and his undiminished threat to trust in the electoral system, and show that the fight for American democracy merely entered a new phase when he left office.
A slew of Republican state legislatures have passed laws making it more difficult for Democrats, and especially Black voters, to cast ballots. They often cite voter mistrust in the electoral system as a rationale for those changes. But the chief cause of that mistrust is the relentless campaign by Trump to discredit the election he lost, both before and after voters went to the polls.
In another sign of Trump's malign influence, the state Senate in Arizona is conducting a sham recount of votes in crucial Maricopa County that helped Biden win the state, despite repeated statements and rulings by electoral officials and courts that the President's narrow victory was genuine.
Republican officials who once had the courage to condemn Trump's insurrectionist rhetoric are now seeking to ingratiate themselves with his supporters -- especially those who may run for President in future, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who at first said Trump bore responsibility for the January 6 riot, quickly visited the former President at his Mar-a-Lago resort and is anchoring his effort to win back the House for Republicans next year on the former President and his movement.
Any idea that the GOP will shed its fealty to Trump was exposed as a pipe dream by the poor showing of Marine veteran Michael Wood, who ran in a special election for a House seat in Texas at the weekend on an anti-Trump platform and lost badly in a jungle primary with only 3% or the vote.
"There is a sickness in our party that must be acknowledged and addressed," Wood wrote in a message to voters after his defeat.
"We are too much a cult of personality and a vehicle for the grievances of Donald Trump. We are too comfortable with conspiracy theories."
The former President sent out a statement claiming credit for the showing of Susan Wright, the wife of Rep. Ron Wright who died from Covid-19, after she moved into a run-off for the seat following the ex-President's endorsement.
Trump sketches a new alternate reality for his followers
The secret of Trump's appeal from the start of his presidential campaign in 2015 was that he channeled the distrust many conservatives felt towards the Washington establishment and the political system itself. He gave people a kind of permission to believe in what they felt viscerally rather than facts and truth. His attempt to destroy trust in the electoral system is creating another false reality with a built-in belief system that is deeply attractive to his voters. The fact that none of it is true does not detract from the power of his appeal.
But it is still extraordinary that the Republican Party, which in recent memory styled itself as the guardian of democracy and boasted about winning the Cold War against tyranny, could transform in this manner.
"It is just mind boggling to me that Republicans could be this way," said Dave Millage, who was forced to resign his post as chair of the Scott County, Iowa, Republican Party after backing Trump's impeachment over the Capitol insurrection. Millage slammed his fellow Republicans for "worshipping at the altar of Trump" during an appearance on CNN's "Newsroom" on Monday.
"He was attacking American democracy itself. Yet they are standing by him. It just astounds me."
The electoral impact of Trump's dominance over his party will be tested next year as Republicans have a historically good chance of overhauling the thin Democratic majority in the House, since new Presidents often get a rebuke. Since most mid-terms, especially House races, are heavily influenced by base turnout, the GOP may profit from Trump's continuing ability to inspire the party's most loyal voters.
But it is less clear that a slate of pro-Trump, Capitol insurrection denialists will help Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's bid to reclaim control of the Senate -- or that this message carried by Trump or anyone else is a winning one in 2024.
After all, the former President managed to lose control of the House, the Senate and the White House with an approach that electrified the GOP base but alienated many suburban voters and those horrified with his handling of the pandemic.
Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who paid with his political career for being an early critic of Trump's presidency, warned that his party was making a huge mistake by not shaping a more compelling appeal to a wider group of voters.
"With the Democratic Party moving more progressive, there is plenty of room there," Flake told CNN's Jim Sciutto on Monday. "And we could do well in the midterms but not if we continue this craziness of questioning the last election and going after those who aren't completely devoted to the former President."