Last year Peter Meijer, the Michigan representative who voted to impeach Donald Trump and just lost his re-election primary over it, shared a nightmare hypothetical that illustrates a central tension in American politics.
“China invades Taiwan,” he said in a podcast interview. “We send the Seventh Fleet to intimidate them, and it’s the summertime, and all of a sudden, the power goes out in Phoenix and people are baking to death in their house, and the Chinese say we can turn the power back on if you turn that fleet around.” This would suddenly make cybersecurity the most resonant issue in America. But putting this scenario in perspective, he said, “if you were to poll the public, cybersecurity wouldn’t even register in the top 50 issues.”
The same is true, he argued, about the politics of political violence: It is a vital concern that you can’t run a winning campaign on. “I think Jan. 6 should have been a warning sign,” Mr. Meijer said. “It should have been, ‘This is a taste of what could come if we keep going down this path.’ Instead, it becomes something that you can justify, that you can reconcile.” But, he pointed out, voters did not see Jan. 6 and political violence as a top concern for their everyday lives.
The political liabilities of certain issues — climate change, some national security problems, public health and, more topically, protections for the democratic process — lie low and fade into the everyday, but when they become acute, they turn all-encompassing. The peaceful transition of power is not a problem unless it actually is a problem, and then it’s the only problem.
The political incentives for elected officials and candidates to deal with existential problems are totally busted. Many people came together this week to ensure Mr. Meijer would not return to Congress in 2023 and would instead be replaced on the ticket and possibly in Congress by John Gibbs, who has said the 2020 election results are “mathematically impossible.”
Across the primaries on Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s reworking of political priorities dominated the night even as his hold on Republican voters appears to have faded somewhat. The central policy connection publicly shared by many Republicans who prevailed is some level of rejection of the 2020 election results, ranging from tacit and careful dodging to blasting conspiracy theories. The differentiator between a Republican candidate winning or losing tended to be the level of Mr. Trump’s support; the winners themselves ranged widely in terms of their own political brands, from hard-core MAGA to business-backed establishment.
This state of affairs produced the surreality where Mr. Trump simultaneously endorsed two Missouri Senate candidates named Eric: Schmitt, who won, and Greitens, who has been accused of domestic abuse, which he has denied. You can see how a Republican official would, on some cynical level, eyeing the landscape, dodge spending on the 2020 election in service of keeping a true conspiracist off the ballot.
Meanwhile, Democrats spent about $400,000 to help Mr. Meijer’s Republican challenger in the Michigan primary. Figuring out how much the ad purchased with that money mattered is hard to discern in a universe of other factors: The margin of defeat was narrow but not razor-thin; Mr. Meijer and groups supporting him spent way more on the race; and people want what they want, which, for a lot of voters in a Republican primary, is what Mr. Trump wants. In this, it’s Mr. Gibbs, previously known for airing conspiracy theories. Regardless of its effectiveness, the nature of the strategy remains grim.
The short-term incentives for Democrats to shorten the time horizon of dealing with existential problems are poor: The approval ratings for President Biden keep drifting lower, inflation won’t let up, and history suggests no matter what’s going on, the party in power loses power. The incentive structure goes that if they can elevate a weak opponent here and there, then they can flip a seat here, hold a statewide position there, and salvage parts of power. You can see how a Democratic official would, on some cynical level, justify the risk of helping to elect a conspiracist who might win anyway, especially if nobody can really know how a candidate who carefully dodges the question about the 2020 election would act in office.
But nothing required Democrats to spend money to help Mr. Gibbs; nothing is requiring Republicans to spend in every race this fall; the overall political incentive toward winning does not require participation in each race where trouble can be seen on the horizon. And this ended up being the incentive structure for Mr. Meijer: A public official did what people say they want (to take the tough vote) on a central existential problem (Mr. Trump denying the results of the 2020 election), and he was honest about it but didn’t discuss it much (because, he said, voters weren’t that focused on it), and he lost in the end anyway. On Wednesday night, according to local media, he introduced Mr. Gibbs at a G.O.P. unity event in western Michigan. Mr. Meijer told The Atlantic last year that another lawmaker, who explained why he was voting against certifying the 2020 election, told him, “This is the last thing Donald Trump will ever ask you to do.”
With the terms of the deal such as they are in Republican primaries, there’s an ever-elevated risk of replacing this or that official with someone whose next move you truly can’t predict. It’s like finding yourself suddenly in the middle of a barely frozen lake with someone who keeps jumping.
Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.
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