Anyone who has gone through the journey of loss and grief – which means most living, breathing, sentient adults – knows something of moving through those intense and difficult feelings.
Dating back a full half-century, the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five distinct stages to this grieving process in her landmark book, “On Death and Dying.” Based largely on her work with terminally ill patients at the University of Chicago hospital, Kübler-Ross diagnosed these phases, in order, as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
More recent studies have modified this progression. Even Kübler-Ross recognized that the course is not linear and is far from the same in every instance. Her specific stages may be more applicable to the ill patient than to the grief of those left to mourn. Still, her 1969 book remains a seminal work in the field.
Now, some will ask, “What in the world does this have to do with the political scene?” Patience, please. We are getting there.
Republicans suffered a loss last November when their savior Donald Trump lost the electoral college by virtually the same count as he had won it four years prior. But, this time, he came up more than seven million short in the popular vote compared to his deficit in 2016 of less than three million.
Here we are a full half-year past the election (and after all major news organizations, including Fox News and other conservative outlets, declared a Biden victory), and Trump’s party, led by the impresario himself, are firmly, defiantly, unmovably stuck between the grieving stages of denial and anger.
Stripped of access to most social media (a topic for another time), Trump continues to put out a barrage of press statements contesting the election and calling it “rigged” or “stolen” or “the big lie” or some other daily catchphrase.
For further provocation, he ruthlessly lambasts those few Republicans who had the nerve to certify the election results or, perish the thought, hold Trump accountable for the repeated incitement that led to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
This past week, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney was ousted from her leadership post by the House Republican Caucus. She has been public enemy No. 1 to Donald Trump over the past many months. For her House colleagues who kept her in place back in February after her vote to impeach, the more recent, terminal complaint was that she remained focused on Trump and refused to move on.
How entirely ironic for a party still bent on disputing and rejecting a not-that-close election and still in thrall to an ousted President unable to get over himself or the verdict of his countrymen. Indeed, let’s move on, Messrs. McCarthy, Scalise, Hawley, Graham, Cotton, Cruz, et al. You, too, Madame Boebert.
Here is how a mature, responsible political party, with leadership embodying those traits, might have moved through this grief process.
Denial: “It looks bad. This can’t be happening. If something is amiss in some state, we can pursue legal recourse.”
Anger: “Our own Dick Tuck had it right years ago. ‘The people have spoken, the bastards.’ We deserved better than this. Someone is to blame. COVID cost us the election.”
Bargaining: “Lessons are learned. Republicans are now a working-class party instead of a Wall Street one. Look at how we beat all expectations in the House and Senate. Let the Democrats overreach. Similar message, better messenger, and we will do better next time.”
Depression: “We got nowhere in the courts. Our evidence did not amount to much. We came so, so close in states we had to win - Arizona, Georgia. Against any other Democrat, we would have won handily. It is hard to walk away from the White House.”
Acceptance: “What an honor to have been President for four years. Who could have imagined it? We’ll see whether Joe is up to it. But the job of President is to take the baton, run hard with it and handle it with care, and then hand it off to the next person. That is now our task. We wish him well.”
Or something along those lines, now almost unimaginable.
Per recent polls, nearly two-thirds of Republicans do not believe Biden won the election and do not regard him as a legitimate President. This is almost entirely the result of a dangerous narrative Trump has pounded mercilessly and even previewed without shame or subtlety well before the election. In what has become a toxic feedback loop, far too many other leading Republicans living in fear of Trump’s zealous base have acquiesced. Or worse.
Some Trump partisans will point to the aftermath of the 2016 election and the lack of grace and acceptance on the part of many Democrats. That Republican talking point is not without foundation. However, Hillary Clinton conceded the morning after the election; refrained from attacking election officials and vote counters around the country; and did nothing to rally her most zealous followers to overturn the results in some congressional maneuver.
In what had to be a difficult moment, Clinton even joined her husband, the former President, in attending Trump’s inaugural.
Unlike life itself and associated issues of mortality, politics need not be existential in nature. But that is what it has increasingly become. Partisans on both sides regarded the possibility of loss last November in nothing short of apocalyptic terms.
The ability to lose is a core part of the political process. We used to recognize that elections go in cycles; you win some and you lose some; and there is always another one around the corner. If political parties and incumbent presidents cease to be able to countenance defeat, our country risks a death spiral into an authoritarian abyss.
It is well past time for Republicans to move past stage-one denial. In that immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, perhaps they would have been better served by picking up Kübler-Ross’s book and enlisting a few hospice volunteers.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for ColoradoPolitics and the Denver Gazette. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann on Twitter. Read his other columns here.