In recent days, Sidney Powell emerged as the litmus test for sanity within the Republican Party—a dividing line between people who recognize reality and those who are willing to run out to the edge of the cliff, Wile E. Coyote-style, only to tumble down when even the Trump team wants to retroactively disavow this lunacy.
It should have been an easy test that (let’s be honest) was graded on a curve. Predictably, there were a lot of failures.
In case you missed it, on Thursday, Powell—then a member of Trump’s self-described “elite strike force”—joined Rudy Giuliani for a bizarre press conference at the Republican National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. There, Powell laid out what The New York Times described as “an elaborate conspiracy theory about efforts by the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, to essentially rig elections in the United States by using voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems.” Later, Ms. Powell went on Newsmax TV and accused Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, of having been bribed to go along with the scam.
Cool, cool. Totally normal, right?
Apparently, this display was too much for even the Trump campaign to stomach. On Sunday, they finally disavowed her antics, claiming that Powell does not officially work for the Trump team. But those three full days were telling, as the dead-enders among Trump’s supporters managed to humiliate themselves by lending credence to her story.
Between the time of the press conference and Trump’s throwing her under the bus, a lot transpired. Rush Limbaugh raved about Powell’s “impeccable” reputation (for what it’s worth, he’s now singing a different tune). Michael Knowles of Daily Wire tweeted, “This Sydney [sic] Powell press conference is a must-watch. She’s outlining evidence of massive, widespread voter fraud.” Fox Business’s Lou Dobbs introduced her as a “member of President Trump’s legal team,” and described her as “a great American.” Radio host Mark Levin called her a patriot. Radio host and formerly respected Christian author Eric Metaxas called Powell a “hero.” Turning Point USA’s Benny Johnson said, “Sidney Powell should be our first female President.” Glenn Beck had her on the air to spread her story unchallenged, and Newsmax gave her a forum.
Sanity started asserting itself only after Tucker Carlson refused to toe the party line. “What Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history,” Carlson (disclosure: my friend and former boss) observed on Thursday night. “Millions of votes stolen in a day. Democracy destroyed. The end of our centuries-old system of government.” Based on this, Carlson questioned why Powell wasn’t willing to come on his show and present any evidence to back her claims.
But not even Carlson has enough juice to dilute the toxic Kool-Aid Trump is peddling to the cult.
Carlson faced backlash from his fans and fellow conservatives for (the sin of) daring to question this kooky story. Raheem Kassam, co-host of Steve Bannon’s “war room” podcast, suggested that Carlson went after Powell in order to “keep his job.” Conservative comedian Steven Crowder said it was “petty and selfish” for Tucker to attack her credibility when she was saving her “evidence” for court. Social media personality Mike Cernovich tweeted, “Bow to Tucker. He can dispense holy communion,” and right-wing podcaster Wayne Dupree said Tucker “dug himself a really deep and dark hole…”
I think it’s safe to say that we have now entered into a phase where the line dividing the right is no longer between wingers and RINOS, or decency and indecency—or even liberal democracy and authoritarianism. The line today is between reality and insanity. And the people who embraced Sidney Powell embraced madness. We should remember who’s on the wrong side of that line.
It was one thing to support Trump’s behavior in office. It was another thing to support his re-election. It was yet another thing to support recounts or hold out hope that the election might be overturned. But suggesting that Hugo Chávez, dead for seven years, is behind it all (with the help of a Republican governor). Well, that takes a certain kind of person.
The good news is that there is an off-ramp for people who have supported some pretty despicable stuff. Right now, some of the same people who enabled Trump for years suddenly are being cast as straight-talking heroes (see Chris Christie, Joni Ernst, et al.) just for realizing that the jig was finally up with no magical ending this time. In some ways, they committed the perfect crime. Sort of like a deathbed confession; you might have lived your life as a sinner, but you got out in time.
On the other end of the spectrum are the many people who demonstrated complete fealty to the very end—who embraced his final crazy last-ditch effort, moving around imaginary armies from inside the bunker—only to be double-crossed by Trump when he threw Sidney Powell under the bus. Those people bet wrong and will end this charade looking like fools.
It’s probably too much to hope for a conservatism that is decent, thoughtful, or smart. For now, we might have to settle for one that simply accepts reality, that tries to distinguish between what is true and what is false. This is, indeed, where the modern Republican Party finds itself. Out of the White House. And in need of a reality check.