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Editorial: Millions refuse to accept Biden's legitimacy. This is a crisis for democracy.

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Donald Trump supporters gather in Eureka

Gary Ridenhour, left, and his twin Terry Ridenhour, right, hold a Trump banner out to passing cars on a highway overpass in Eureka on Jan. 6. Participants said they have gathered since the week following the election to show their continued support for President Donald Trump. Photo by Christine Tannous, ctannous@post-dispatch.com

The refusal by congressional Republicans to forcefully push back on former President Donald Trump’s big lie that he won the Nov. 3 election is distressing enough, but there’s a greater danger: Polls continue to show that majorities of rank-and-file Republican voters still reject the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election. As trends in public opinion go, this is about as ominous as it gets. American democracy cannot survive if a major piece of America’s population adopts a strategy of simply refusing to accept any election outcome it doesn’t like.

The debate here is entirely about perception, not facts. The facts are undisputed: Biden won on Nov. 3 by roughly 7 million ballots and a clear majority of the Electoral College in the most closely monitored election in U.S. history. Trump’s continuing claims of widespread voter fraud were always based on nothing, as dozens of courts and state election officials, including top Republicans, have since confirmed. Each time Trump claims — as he does to this day — that he actually won the election, he undermines the legitimacy of America’s democracy in a way that no sitting or former president ever has before.

Given the severity of that threat, congressional Republicans should be loudly condemning Trump’s ongoing president-in-exile act. Instead, most of them either back Trump’s baseless claims (tacitly or otherwise) or dodge the issue entirely. It’s why they refuse to support a full investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol that Trump incited: They know he’s wrong, but they’re too terrified of him and his base to say it. They just want to move on.

The reason moving on isn’t an option is that Trump’s continuing lie has infected his party’s rank-and-file voters to the point that it threatens public acceptance of future election outcomes. Some polls in recent months have shown as many as 70% of self-identified Republican voters believe Biden’s election wasn’t legitimate — again, an utterly baseless belief, but one that could have a corrosive effect on other elections going forward.

Even more disturbing is a recent Morning Consult poll showing almost 30% of GOP voters believe Trump will be “reinstated” as president in the coming months. That notion is beyond delusional, bordering on deranged, since the Constitution contains no mechanism for that (and it shouldn’t). Yet almost a third of Republican voters apparently believe that this thing that couldn’t happen without a literal coup is destined to happen.

On a positive note, that 1-in-3 is a slice of a much smaller pie these days, as Trump has single-handedly shrunk the party significantly. Still, something is dangerously wrong when significant numbers of Americans even flirt with such deeply anti-democratic notions. Those who want to “move on” don’t understand that the danger now isn’t a defeated president — it’s the millions who won’t accept his defeat.

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