The day after the secretary of defense was fired is not a great time for the secretary of state to joke about a transition to a "second Trump administration." If he was, in fact, joking.
I've had conversations in the past few days with people who disliked Trump enough to pull the lever for Biden but still believe that the Republican Party is sound and will snap back to normal now that Trump is defeated.
I'd like to believe that, but the auguries are not good so far. The party's leaders have closed ranks around Trump, repeating the lies and conspiracies he's spinning about a stolen election. They are laying the predicate for the next four years — the stab in the back. Trump didn't lose; he was robbed. Biden is not the president; he's the usurper.
You really couldn't have asked for a more open-handed Democrat than Joe Biden. He has made every effort to soothe the bitterness of our politics and attempted to unify the country. Someone on CNN said he had "slammed" Trump for failing to concede, but that's wrong. He said it was "embarrassing" and wouldn't burnish Trump's legacy — which is about the mildest way to describe what Trump is doing.
But major figures in the Republican Party — from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to the head of the Republican National Committee to the attorney general and the aforementioned secretary of state — are playing along with the charade of distinguishing between "legal" and "illegal votes." Republican attorneys general from 10 states have petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene and stop the vote counting in Pennsylvania.
Some Republicans, recognizing that Trump's attempt to discredit the election is his most severe assault on democratic norms yet, are attempting to right the ship, and God bless them. Sen. Mitt Romney was among the first to congratulate President-elect Biden. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and Ben Sasse have also extended best wishes to the winner. George W. Bush issued a gracious statement, as did a number of governors — Larry Hogan, Phil Scott, Governor-elect Spencer Cox and Charlie Baker.
But McConnell, one of the most influential men in the party, is saying that "President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options" as if this is just a speeding ticket. And McCarthy told Fox News: "President Trump won this election. So everyone who is listening, do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes."
Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh has laid down the marker for the next four years: "There's simply no way Joe Biden was legitimately elected president." Funny, Rush didn't explain why, if the Democrats were successful in stealing the election from Donald Trump, they didn't also steal it from Sens. Thom Tillis, Joni Ernst, Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham?
The Trump Republicans have gone wading in the fever swamps and invited the creatures to the inner circle. We've always had conspiracy theories, but we've never before elected a conspiracy monger, and we've never before had the minority leader of the House of Representatives as well as a U.S. senator welcoming a fringe conspiracist (Representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene).
In recent months, we've learned that 37% of Trump supporters believe that all or parts of the QAnon conspiracy are true, and that 34% of Republicans and Republican learners think the COVID-19 pandemic was intentionally started by powerful people (the figure for Democrats and Democratic leaners was 18%).
Into that warm petri dish for incubating crazy thinking, insert one defeated Trump claiming voter fraud and you get yesterday's new polling showing that 70% of Republicans do not believe the 2020 election was "free and fair."
The difference between 37% and 70% is the difference between a disturbing tendency and a potential crisis of legitimacy.
About 72 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. If the vast majority of them believe — falsely — that the election was stolen from them and that their votes didn't count, what does that do to any opportunity for national healing? How do they respond if the sitting president goes beyond filing frivolous lawsuits and urges state legislatures to submit alternative slates of electors (as Mark Levin has urged)? Or if he asks the military to take to the streets by invoking the Insurrection Act?
Some object that Republicans who are indulging the president's tantrum are merely playing for time and waiting for him to come to terms with reality. That makes no sense. By helping him to stoke the base's paranoia, they are making it less, not more, likely that he climbs down off the crazy tree.
No, the branch of Republicans that brought Trump to power is now attempting to poison the well for sane Republicans in the future. Instead of being able to focus on policy or (gasp) possible cooperation with the Democratic president on urgent matters like the pandemic, the narrative will be set by the grievance machine. The Trump crowds were still chanting, "Lock her up!" in 2020. Is there any doubt that they'll be chanting, "Trump won!" in 2024?
Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her new book is "Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense." To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.