Construction of the stage for the inauguration. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
At about 6:00 on Monday, Emily Murphy, the Trump appointee at the head of General Services Administration who has been holding up the transition to a Biden administration, notified President-Elect Joe Biden that she recognizes his status and will release the money set aside for the transition. This should launch the formal transition process between administrations, as Biden’s people meet with Trump’s people to learn about the issues over which they will be assuming control on January 20, 2021.
Murphy’s decision appears to have been prompted by Michigan’s certification of its election results. Biden won the state by 150,000 votes, fourteen times Trump’s margin there in 2016, and can now officially claim the state’s 16 electoral votes. This makes it almost impossible for Trump to somehow eke out a win. The Trump campaign vowed to fight on.
Murphy went out of her way to say that she was not pressured by the White House. But Trump promptly contradicted her, saying that the call had been his. For all his bluster, the Trump campaign has bowed to reality, and this might indicate a new era in politics.
Trump is unique, but he is also the product of a distinctive era of the GOP’s history. Beginning in 1968, the party began to win power through the Southern Strategy, picking up racist southern Democrats who opposed the Democratic Party’s embrace of Black rights. After Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, those voters supported Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for president thanks to his insistence that federal protection of racial equality was unconstitutional. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, signed by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, put their loyalty up for grabs. Richard Nixon claimed it by promising he would not use the federal government to enforce racial justice.
This strategy worked, but it changed the trajectory of the post-WWII Republican Party. It had been Republican Supreme Court justices nominated by President Dwight Eisenhower who advanced civil rights by insisting that states were bound by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, but the Republican Party now needed to court voters motivated by white supremacy. That ideology promoted an image of white men as the hardworking producers in the country, taking care of their wives and children, while people of color and independent women who wanted equal rights were demanding government programs that sucked tax dollars.
That formula became the driving narrative of the modern GOP, embraced by business leaders who needed to marshal voters behind policies that increasingly benefited not ordinary Americans but those at the very top of the economic ladder. Over time, this new breed of Republicans bled out of the party traditional Republicans who objected to the extremist turn the party was taking. And extremist it was: aided by talk radio and the Fox News Channel, party leaders increasingly demonized their opponents, until, by 2016, the leader of the party opened his presidential campaign by alleging that immigrants were criminals, boasting of sexual assault, and welcoming the support of white supremacists.
And yet, despite a clear pattern of voter suppression, a majority of voters rejected Trump in 2020, suggesting that demographics and reality have finally caught up with the Southern Strategy.
In the wake of the election, Trump’s followers have embraced his distrust of our electoral system and are flocking to the conspiracy theories put forward by QAnon. They are flocking to Parler, a social media website that permits conspiracy theories to spread unchecked, although, interestingly, their leaders remain on more mainstream platforms like Twitter.
While defeated incumbents tend to lose power in their party, Trump has tried to assert continued control. He has attacked loyal Republicans like Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine who have refused to support his attempt to steal the election; is hoping to keep his handpicked Republican National Committee chair, Ronna McDaniel, in office; has packed state-level party positions with loyalists, and is trying to keep control over the voter data he has compiled over the past four years. Trump is primed to control the direction of the party for 2024. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) have signaled their support for this plan by endorsing McDaniel for another term in office.
But while followers marinate in fantasies about secret servers and hidden ballots, and congressional leaders endorse Trump, other Republican Party leaders recognize that his refusal to accept the results of the election is unprecedented and dangerous.
On Sunday, leaders began to pressure Trump to concede. Trump’s former National Security Advisers John Bolton and H. R. McMaster agreed that Trump’s disdain for the election was eroding democracy, which plays into the hands of our adversaries. The Republican former governor of New Jersey, Thomas H. Kean, and a former Democratic lawmaker from New Jersey, Tim Roemer, both of whom were on the 9/11 Commission, were more explicit. They warned that the transition delay from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush contributed to the 9/11 terrorist attack.
At about 6:00 Sunday, the Trump campaign abruptly jettisoned the attorney who has been making even crazier claims than those made by Trump’s longtime lawyer Rudy Giuliani. A statement from the Trump campaign, signed by Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to the Trump team, said “Sidney Powell is practicing law on her own. She is not a member of the Trump Legal Team. She is also not a lawyer for the President in his personal capacity.” Powell, who is openly a QAnon believer, has been out in front of the Trump recount effort, making simply outrageous claims. It seems her craziness finally went too far.
On Monday, more than 100 former national security officials from the Republican Party issued a statement saying that Trump’s refusal to concede “constitutes a serious threat to America’s democratic process and to our national security.” They called “on Republican leaders—especially those in Congress—to publicly demand that President Trump cease his anti-democratic assault on the integrity of the presidential election…. By encouraging President Trump’s delaying tactics or remaining silent, Republican leaders put American democracy and national security at risk.”
On Monday, Emily Murphy put s top to at least one part of this chaos by finally admitting that Joe Biden won the 2020 election.
It’s hard to imagine this long-delayed announcement will bring the extremist Trump supporters back into the fold. At the same time, it’s hard to see how establishment Republicans horrified by the excesses of Trump’s regime will be willing to move toward the extremists. If this is indeed a split, establishment Republicans will have to move back toward the center to pick up the voters the party has lost at the fringes. Its extremist adherents will regroup outside the mainstream, and the power of the Southern Strategy to win elections will be broken.
While Republican leaders have struggled, Biden has stayed above the Trumpian fray, emphasizing the need for coordination to distribute the coronavirus vaccine but focusing on jump-starting his administration rather than challenging Trump in the public forum. Last night, word began to leak of the president-elect’s Cabinet picks. They are a very clear sign of his determination to rebuild the nation by putting experts back into power.
Biden’s nominees are people who have spent long careers inside the government, making them good candidates to rebuild what Trump gutted, beginning with the State Department, which manages our foreign policy. Biden began by naming a secretary of state, a sign to the world that America is back and wants again to be a reliable partner. His pick is Antony Blinken, who served as Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor under President Barack Obama. Blinken also worked with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden chaired it, and served as Biden’s National Security advisor when he was vice president. He will be an informed, strong voice at State.
The rest of Biden’s candidates show similar credentials, but they also reflect the longstanding Democratic principle that the government should reflect the American people. Biden is proposing Cuban-born Alejandro Mayorkas, a former deputy secretary, to head the Department of Homeland Security. He has proposed Avril Haines, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, for Director of National Intelligence, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year veteran of the foreign service, who is Black, for ambassador the United Nations.
Thomas-Greenfield went to college with David Duke, who would go on to become the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and who endorsed Trump for president in both 2016 and 2020. It is a new era in politics in at least some very important ways.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter, Letters from an American: subscribe for free here.