Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Spare a thought for Republicans at this difficult time. Much of the party leadership has backed Donald Trump’s legal bids because they have to: They can’t turn their back on their President or his supporters. At the same time, it’s obviously doing damage to their own reputation – and they know that.

Timothy Stanley

The stakes were raised Wednesday with magnificent madness by Hollywood actor Jon Voight who released a video calling Trump’s legal effort “the greatest fight since the Civil War, the battle of righteousness vs Satan.” To be clear, there is no evidence of vote rigging or that Satan is a registered Democrat (I have him down as a Libertarian), but some version of this narrative is taking hold on the right and the Republican leadership can’t do much about it. They are, as ever, reacting to events, not shaping them.

Never forget that Trump was as much a revolt against the GOP leadership as he was against Hillary Clinton. Hardly any establishment Republicans backed him in the 2016 primaries; many opposed him outright; some walked away from the party as a result of his nomination.

When he entered the White House, Hill Republicans got a lot done, including an impressive tax reform package and the at times nail-biting confirmation of three conservative judges. But Trump frequently disagreed with his own party and many Beltway conservatives were not sold on his program. A trade war with China? Winding down America’s overseas mission? These are not classic Republican talking points.

Believing that Trump was going to lose in 2020, some Republicans must have privately hoped for a complete repudiation on Nov. 3. If that had happened, they could say, “Trump was an experiment, he was a mistake, we need to move back to the center.”

Well, almost the opposite happened. Not only did Trump do much better than expected but he may have actually brought new voters into the conservative coalition, including significant numbers of Latinos – a group that Republicans courted for years, assuming the only way to succeed was by being pro-immigration. But Trump railed against illegal immigration and picked up support, and some of it will have contributed to strong Republican performances in congressional races. The GOP owes Trump respect.

Now, the Senate is on a knife edge: Two run-offs are due in Georgia in January. “We need his voters,” said John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. Winning is critical to Republican self-esteem and to opposing Joe Biden’s agenda. If the Republicans dump Trump now, he will sulk, turnout will drop and they might lose. If they back Trump – give a little oxygen to the stolen election theory – it could galvanize his base and win them two seats, but at the cost of wider sympathy among moderates.

What would you do?

All of this points us to the philosophical debate that the Republicans must have in the next few years. How do they integrate Trumpism, post-Trump? Admittedly, a Trump of some shape or size might be on the ticket in 2024, be it Ivanka, Donald Jr. or the President himself. Melania, as a foreign-born, is disqualified. Tiffany, one suspects, has better things to do.

Even if a Trump doesn’t go for it, the nomination will probably pass to someone endorsed by the President and signed up to his agenda. Already conservatives are talking about who will be the next Donald Trump, the conversations draped in the assumption that if the movement has a more emollient leader, it will do better. Don’t be so sure about that: A large part of Trumpism’s appeal is the man himself, because his uncompromising style is a classic case of medium evoking message. He is the human embodiment of a way of life and thought.

The point is that the Republican leadership knows full well that even if America only has Trump as its president for another few weeks, they are stuck with him and his followers for four years at least. They have to humor him. The question is, how far?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s position is essentially “let’s follow procedure,” which sounds almost objective: exhaust the legal checks, let only legitimate votes be counted and whoever won, they’ll be sworn in. But the administration isn’t cooperating with the Biden team for a handover and Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, talks of a “smooth transition” to Trump’s second term. Team Trump, in other words, is saying, “We won.”

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    And are the Republicans willing, perhaps, to twist arms at a state level to mess with the electoral vote delegations? That’s not just toleration of the President’s actions but collusion against democracy and, again, could do the Republicans long-term reputational harm. Yes, one poll found that 70% of Republican voters don’t think the election was fair; another poll, however, found that only 3% of all voters think Trump won.

    It’s frankly frustrating that Trump can’t just bag what he accomplished last week, which was historic, leave office and plot his comeback. Instead, he is frittering away political capital on a fight that looks unwinnable.

    Some will say that it’s time for the Republicans to make a moral choice and turn on him. That’s not only naïve, it assumes they have more agency than they perhaps do. They are a prisoner of Trump’s decision making, much like the rest of the country – and have been for four wild years.