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In Georgia, a President’s Grudge and the Balance of Power in the Senate Collide — With Disastrous Prospects for Republicans

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F. Scott Fitzgerald would never be mistaken for a Southern author. But these days, I can’t help but wonder if The Great Gatsby scribe weren’t an unwitting prophet about what is confronting Georgia Republicans at this very moment. His observation from a 1936 Esquire piece about his own midlife crisis is the most accurate diagnosis I’ve come across for the Republican Party during the waning days of President Donald Trump’s time at the helm: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

One only need to look southward from Washington to Atlanta to see a Fitzgeraldian reality facing Republicans there. President-elect Joe Biden carried the state for Democrats for the first time in a presidential race since 1992. Trump is still demanding the election was rigged; on Thursday, he was once again on Twitter taunting the Republican Governor of Georgia for not throwing out the results and tossing the win his way. His continuing quest to sow doubt over the validity of the elections is running face-first into the pressing political needs of fellow Republicans who are scrambling to get Trump’s Make-America-Great-Again tribe to show up for the state’s Senate runoff races in January.

Institutional Republicans are begging their ilk to vote again, while MAGA-esque supplicants are saying the system is rigged, all is lost, so why should they? In the Fitzgerald construct, Republicans — to keep up a united front with their leader and retain their Senate majority — must assert that the Nov. 3 election was corrupt, that the runoff will be different, and the aggrieved are right in both.

Republicans are already set to have 50 votes in the 100-member Senate when Congress is seated in January. Democrats have 48. In the balance are two seats that are in overtime races in Georgia, a state that is a de facto capital of the South. While Georgia has given the United States its share of deeply conservative politicians, it also yielded masterclasses in liberal leadership from the likes of Andrew Young, Jimmy Carter and Stacey Abrams. Atlanta’s Civil Rights-era slogan as a place “too busy to hate” finally came into relief in November when it gave Biden the win and suggested Democrats might have a shot to capture both Senate races and, with it, majority power, thanks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.

Which is why Republicans are having something of a meltdown over the state. For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to retain his power, he needs either incumbent Senator to eek out a win — and Trump’s theatrics aren’t helping. The President and his diehard supporters are insisting the state race is rigged, potentially depressing turnout among Republicans who typically deliver run-off wins. It’s gotten so bad that the head of the Republican National Committee faced a brutal and hostile crowd at a GOP event last weekend. Days later, the state election-systems administrator took to a podium and begged Trump to knock-off peddling conspiracy theories to the electorate. “Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed,” he said.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Trump is demanding that the outgoing Republican-controlled Senate bow to his whim to insert a punitive provision against social media companies into a defense spending bill. Even his most conservative allies have been warning Trump against trying to shoehorn an unrelated repeal of Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act or his secondary — and less explicit — concern about removing Confederate-era tributes from military bases as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Trump is not yielding, if his tweets are statements of administration policy. He is adamant about stripping legal protections against libel away from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, who under current law are not held responsible for lies posted on their platforms. Trump’s drive is dividing the Republicans into two camps at precisely the time they need unity now or face impotence in January.

Republicans need the party to jell in Georgia. Trump is doing his level best to keep that from happening. Even as he seems to be retreating from the White House — but never from the public eye — he is hurling chaos into the world. He may become the first President in decades to flub the defense bill, to see a Democrat elected to the Senate from Georgia since 2000 and to surrender two very winnable Senate races in service to his own ego.

But there are realities that cannot be ignored. Congress has ample votes to override Trump’s veto on the defense bill. The only question is if McConnell will bring the measure to the Senate floor, knowing Trump will veto it in pursuit of unreasonable wishes and his members will deliver Trump his first veto-override of this presidency. The Georgia runoff will take place on Jan. 5, with or without Trump’s endorsement of its validity. Republicans surrounding Trump are trying to get him to back off his wild and unfounded theories that he was cheated of a second term.

Trump, for his part, is just trying to get himself to Georgia to have crowds baste him in praise. He is due to arrive on Saturday and face Fitzgerald’s intelligence-test of trying to hold two disparate truths at the same time: that he was robbed, but the runoff will be fair. Republicans have been trying to balance this two-for-one challenge for some time. At the least, it will test Trump’s self-proclaimed standing as a “very stable genius.”

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com