When you lie down with dogs, the saying goes, you get covered in fleas. This is grossly unfair to canine companions, but it contains an unsaid truth, which is that you can’t control the fleas. You can tell yourself, certainly, that with you it’s different; that even though that person got covered in fleas, surely you won’t. But they will end up on you all the same.
This is a lesson that Republican officials and politicians, and particularly those in Georgia, are learning now. Both of Georgia’s Senate elections have gone to a run-off, which will take place on 5 January. Which party controls the Senate will depend on the outcome.
One would imagine that Donald Trump, who sat atop the Republican ticket, would be campaigning for Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. But instead, Trump’s allies – namely, attorneys Sidney Powell and Lin Wood – have told Georgians to sit out the election if Loeffler and Perdue do not “earn” their votes by joining in Trump’s fight against widespread voter fraud (something that, according to tens of court decisions and Trump’s own attorney general, does not exist).
Georgian election officials have called on Trump to stop pushing the narrative of voter fraud and alleging that America’s electoral system is corrupt. “It has all gone too far,” Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system implementation manager, said earlier this week (1 December), noting that Trump’s claims of fraud have led to violent threats against election workers.
But it won’t stop. Trump, undeterred by Sterling’s words, published a 46-minute video of himself giving a speech that consisted of falsehoods about the election, including that his loss was “statistically impossible”.
It is possible, of course, that Georgian voters will ignore Trump’s allies and will still go out and vote Loeffler and Perdue to re-election. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that Republicans will learn nothing from this experience, and just use it as an excuse to make it more difficult for people to vote, despite the fact that voter suppression is a far greater issue than voter fraud in Georgia. But what the rest of us can learn is that politicians who align themselves with would-be demagogues may think they can retain control – but they cannot.
Establishment Republican politicians and officials might tell themselves that they are using the opportunity that is Trump to get what they want and need. Yet they are not in control; conspiracy theories are in control, lies are in control. Trump’s own self-interest is in control.
Nor is this kind of alliance between the right and the populist right unique to the United States. Those beyond America’s borders should pay close attention. Opportunistic politicians tempted to shake hands with aspiring authoritarians may think like they, unlike Trump’s former allies, are different; that they can stay a step ahead of the lies. But you can’t tell fleas where and when to jump.