I have been working on a television project about the Lincoln presidency, and the first thing that struck me about Lincoln’s time was how similar it was to ours: a country bitterly divided, everybody yelling, nobody listening, the air polluted with acrimony, suspicion, and rage. On the night of Lincoln’s election, there were riots throughout the South and effigies of him were burned or hanged. Assassination threats arrived at his Springfield home in letters that were crudely misspelled.
When the Electoral College votes were to be counted at the Capitol in early January to confirm Lincoln’s victory, Southern sympathizers plotted to break into Vice President Breckinridge’s office, where the ballots were kept, and burn them. To protect the legislators charged with completing what had previously been this routine duty, the Capitol was ringed by police and military guards.
Visiting privileges for the public were suspended. No one was admitted without credentials. Crowds were rioting and fighting outside. Inside, the mood was so rancorous that a Virginia congressman with an almost comically clichéd Southern name, Muscoe Garnett, stomped out in fury during the chaplain’s prayer. The only way you can tell it wasn’t the Washington, D.C., of January 6, 2021, is that Josh Hawley wasn’t there to give the traitors a supportive fist bump.
As contemptible as the southerners were, their rage was based on real events: they were infuriated that Lincoln had won the election, not only because he defeated the two Southern candidates (there were four major candidates that year) but because they feared that Lincoln was a secret abolitionist. He had professed repeatedly that he was not. He said his only goal was to stop the spread of slavery and that he would leave it untouched where it already existed. The South didn’t buy that, no matter how many times he said it, and he said it a lot. As it happened, and as we know, these Southern suspicions, and their ensuing rage, were not misplaced: Lincoln eventually freed the slaves.
The rage in America today, this nouveau rage which poisons so much of what we read, see, and hear, is of a more confounding quality. While the Confederate South was outraged over something Lincoln did, today’s G.O.P. is furious over something no one did: steal the election from Trump. Seventy percent of what used to be a party of adults believe that the election was hijacked by some cabal of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, George Soros, and the Clintons, operating out of that pizza place where they’ve had such success running their child-sex ring.
One obvious question—though it’s based on common sense, which automatically discredits it from Republican consideration—is: If the Democrats did steal the election, why didn’t they steal more Senate seats so they don’t have to curry favor all the time with Joe Manchin? One hates to pin the hopes of a progressive revolution on a 73-year-old white man from West Virginia.
How on earth did so many people, who presumably can dress themselves and order food online, come to believe something that is patently untrue, something that didn’t happen in any way at all, something that both the press and the judicial system have looked into, examined, and rejected as false?
Today’s G.O.P. is furious over something no one did: steal the election from Trump.
Naturally, Trump, who has the fragile ego and volcanic temperament of an opera singer without any of the compensating talent, started the lie. Every consideration was given to his accusations—the legal challenges twice made their way to the Supreme Court, a third of whose members he’d appointed, who nevertheless rejected these appeals. Yet, in the unadmirable version of steadfastness, Trump kept repeating the lie. It does not serve his brand to acknowledge defeat, and for him everything is about his brand, which, despite a graveyard bulging with the coffins of his personal and professional failures, he defines as “winning.” You have to go back to the cigarette companies’ use of doctors to endorse their product to find another brand so tightly disconnected from its grimy truth.
If Trump’s being a delusional poor loser were all that was at stake here, it would be no more worth our attention than the homeless man whom I see on Fifth Avenue proclaiming, “Get the vaccine! Become a government robot!” Of greater concern for the nation is the commitment of a once legitimate party to the promotion of a known lie. That is the first part of what the digital world calls a two-part authentication process. After a brief period of holding Trump accountable for the January 6 insurrection, the G.O.P. went from giving Trump the boot to their more familiar position of licking his boots.
In the Trump era, it never takes Republicans long to come to their lack of senses. Not only are they resisting the formation of a congressional commission to look into the cause of the insurrection—they know the cause; it is the lie they keep repeating about the election having been stolen—but they have enacted a series of voting restrictions in Georgia and Florida, with Texas next. They describe these restrictions, with their usual lack of irony, as a form of “election integrity.”
In other words, they ignore the problem we do have to solve a problem we don’t. For years people called the G.O.P. “the party of Lincoln.” Given the party’s constant denial of reality and its acrobatic reversals of logic, it seems more apt to call it “the party of Lewis Carroll.” When Trump first took office and for four years ran a disturbingly pro-Russian policy, “G.O.P.” could have stood for “Giddy Over Putin.” Now, with its embrace of the big lie and its efforts to make voting as difficult as possible, “G.O.P.” could mean “Gone Off Patriotism.”
Imagine if Nixon’s G.O.P. had behaved this way: denying the facts, doubling down on the lie, and isolating any member of the party who dared to seek the truth? Howard Baker would have been booed the way Mitt Romney was earlier this month by his fellow Republicans, and instead of asking, “What did the president know and when did he know it?,” Baker might have asked, as Romney asked his ugly disrupters, “Aren’t you embarrassed?”
The second part of the authentication process is that we now have, and have had for some time, not just liberal and conservative media but fact-based and non-fact-based media. OAN did not broadcast live coverage of Biden’s swearing-in or of his inauguration. Something that presents itself as a news organization did not cover the inauguration of a new president. Since then, at OAN they avoid calling Biden “President Biden” but call Trump “President Trump.” Millions of people get their news from such outlets. No wonder they are in a rage: they genuinely believe that their votes were stolen.
How might our national life be different if these people had been told the truth? I think it’s safe to say that had the conservative media joined the liberal media in reporting the actual outcome of the election, and had the Republicans joined the Democrats in recognizing the legitimate winner of that election, the insurrection of January 6 would not have happened. The blood from that day is on not only Trump’s hands but on the hands of his Republican enablers and the members of the far-right media who seek to mollify him by not reporting the reality. Sadly, there is enough blood to stain all the guilty hands.
The G.O.P. follows this man still, even though he lost the election by more than seven million votes, and the party, under what might charitably be called his leadership, lost control of the House and Senate. Why on earth do they still curry favor with this squalid, needy, grasping loser? Obviously it’s a personality cult. The unsolvable mystery is: How did someone with that personality get a cult?
Douglas McGrath is a filmmaker and playwright, and a columnist for AIR MAIL