Conservative insiders say Republican politicians aren’t scared of Trump now — they’re scared of his supporters

Andrew Feinberg
·7-min read
 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Days before her unceremonious Sunday evening defenestration from Donald Trump’s “elite strike force” legal team, attorney Sidney Powell vowed to “release the Kraken” by filing a massive lawsuit alleging that news organizations, social media companies, and other “Silicon Valley” people had somehow conspired to perpetrate a massive amount of fraud during the election.

Powell invoked the silly catchphrase from the 1981 film The Clash of the Titans during an appearance on Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs’ nightly program to describe the sheer scale of the unfounded conspiracy theory she was then (and is still) promoting.

Watch: Biden transition gets green light from GSA

Two days after Powell became too much for even Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani to stomach, her erstwhile teammates’ legal efforts have been for naught. Michigan’s Board of Canvassers has handed President-elect Joe Biden their state’s 16 electoral votes by certifying his 154,188-vote winning margin, a Pennsylvania judge has thrown out the Trump team’s attempt to prevent Biden’s win there from being certified, and while the 45th President maintains that he “CONCEDE[S] NOTHING,” the formal transition process which will end with Biden supplanting him in the Oval Office has officially begun.

Yet even as Powell’s television histrionics have become the stuff of Twitter legend and fodder for endless ridicule in elite legal circles, veterans of the Republican Party are sounding alarms about a different kraken being unleashed by Trump’s continuous refusal to acknowledge the results of the 2020 election. A large chunk of the Republican base that could turn against any Republicans who acknowledge reality is becoming larger by the day.

The President himself alluded to it during a spree of defiant tweets and retweets on Tuesday by sharing a bizarre tweet from actor Randy Quaid, in which the Oscar nominee wrote that it was “time to make [One America News] and Newsmax rich”.

In an accompanying video, the actor claimed that the only difference between the 2016 election (which Trump won) and the 2020 election (which he lost) was how the reliably conservative Fox News channel conducted itself. The Murdoch-owned network has earned Trump’s ire for booking prominent Democrats as guests and for occasionally debunking some of his pet conspiracy theories or confirming negative stories reported by other outlets. But since the network’s decision desk (correctly) projected that Biden would win Arizona’s electoral votes on the night of November 3rd, Trump has pushed his fans to abandon the top-ranked channel for the two more sycophantic, far less fact-based upstarts, both of which frequently promote unfounded conspiracy theories and have declined to acknowledge Biden’s win.

Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative activist who helped found the anti-media website Newsbusters, said Trump’s push for his followers to abandon Fox and the refusal of many Republicans to acknowledge Biden’s win (or acknowledge that the win was accomplished without fraud) are both leading indicators of how detached from reality and addicted to misinformation the GOP base has become.

Trump’s hold on the GOP is so strong “because he knows how to stoke the fires of rage that have been lit by talk radio better than anyone else,” Sheffield said.

Sheffield explained that unlike previous Republican presidents who largely ignored the fringe figures who populate conservative opinion programming, Trump not only took his cues from such personalities — including Fox hosts Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and others — but actively promoted them and brought them into mainstream GOP discourse.

“People like Alex Jones had always had millions of listeners and followers, but Trump brought them into the big tent, and [his supporters] started listening to them,” he said, adding that Trump tapped into a Republican conspiratorial underbelly that had been present since the mid-20th century, but had always been kept at arm’s length by previous GOP presidents.

This embrace of the fringe, he said, has created a truly dangerous situation for American democracy no matter what happens to Trump himself. That’s because it has turned the Republican base into addicts who will seek out a disinformation fix anywhere they can find it if they can’t have their own beliefs confirmed by mainstream sources.

“The inmates have gradually taken over the asylum, and now they're running the place and the guy who opened the last cell door lock — Trump — can’t do anything about them,” he said. “It's hard for them to put this back in the bottle — it’s like they have fully opened Pandora's box.”

Another conservative media veteran, Illinois Tea Party Congressman-turned-radio host Joe Walsh, said the rush by Trump supporters to abandon Fox and his former colleagues’ reluctance to acknowledge the reality of Trump’s democratic loss shows something important: Republican politicians’ silence in the face of Trump’s abuses of power was less about fear of mean tweets than fear of the electorate.

“It's been that way from the beginning — I had Republican House members tell me three years ago: ‘I don't give a flying f**k about Trump, I just don't want to cross his voters’ — they have never been afraid of Trump or his tweets,” he said. In his opinion, Trump’s base will continue to believe whatever lie he settles on to explain his loss, and that lie will become Republican dogma because any GOP hopeful will not be able to risk crossing him by acknowledging reality.

And the same goes for his ex-colleagues in the conservative media space, Walsh explained.

“Sean Hannity is like any United States Senator — Ron Johnson does what he does because he doesn’t want to lose Trump’s voters, and Hannity does the same thing because he doesn’t want to lose Trump’s listeners — it’s the same pool of people,” he said.

Another Republican ex-congressman, Carlos Curbelo of Florida, said many of his former colleagues have tried treating the Trump presidency the way Floridians treat a hurricane: “We put up our shutters and shelter in place until the storm passes.”

Most Republicans, he said, are hoping that the “storm” of Trump’s defeat and his exit from Washington passes as quickly as possible. They will at least privately acknowledge what is happening; publicly, however, it may be a different matter.

“There is a base of voters out there that are very responsive to and very protective of the President, and that base is part of the Republican coalition, so it's a careful — sometimes impossible — balancing act,” he said.

Still, Curbelo posited that just like members of a doomsday cult after its predicted end-of-the-world date has come and gone, reality will catch up to Trump supporters eventually if their leaders do their job.

“Sometimes people talk about our leaders as if they're helpless, because they're just having to deal with a society that is, in many ways, intoxicated. But that's precisely what leaders are for: to level with people and share the truth in a sincere way,” he said. “But in many ways, this has been driven by demagogues… who have led each side to believe that the other side is the enemy and if the other side comes to power, all is lost. That's a very intoxicating approach to politics, and we're reaping the results where a lot of people actually believe Donald Trump has won the election, even though he clearly didn’t.”

Sheffield — who cut his teeth in the conservative movement and its accompanying ecosystem before abandoning it for mainstream journalism — said it’s not just political leaders who need to bring the right back to reality. It’s also the donors and media moguls who fund the entire disinformation ecosystem that Trump harnessed and later unshackled — such as Charles Koch and Rupert Murdoch — who need to “pull the plug on the old fanaticism machine” before an unhinged GOP base takes the country down a dark path.

“The conservative billionaire elites, they built a golem for themselves,” he said, referring to the anthropomorphic monster of Jewish mythology. “And now the golem is turning on them because Trump removed the last shackles that had held it down, and it's coming to destroy everything,” he said. “Not just them, but the whole country.”

Watch: Trump campaign drops lawyer Sidney Powell