The capital was consumed by talk of “insurrection,” a tense standoff with police guns drawn at the doors of the national legislature, a fatality, a curfew enforced by soldiers in the streets. What country are we talking about?
This one, of course, and if it had happened elsewhere it might well have merited citation from President Donald Trump himself the next time he updates his notorious anthology of “shithole countries.”
But it didn’t happen elsewhere. It happened in the world’s oldest democracy, and in that sense was powerfully illuminating of what happens when one takes Trump Era politics to its logical destination.
The evacuation of the Senate chamber when the Capitol’s security was breached was hectic, but not so much that Sen. Mitt Romney didn’t have time for commentary for his fellow Republicans who had joined Trump in challenging his loss to President-elect Joe Biden with bogus assertions of pervasive fraud: “This is what you’ve gotten guys,” Romney scolded. Later, he told The New York Times, “This is what the president caused today, this insurrection.”
The day, just two weeks before the transfer of power on Jan. 20, was historic in multiple ways. But one milestone was especially noteworthy: It turns out even Trump can find himself rudely splattered by the muck of Trumpism.
Even he can be burned by the essential bargain of the Republican Party in the Trump Era: Just play along with the spectacle, and enjoy the material and psychic rewards of power.
“This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people,” Trump pleaded in a video released as the Capitol was under siege by Trump-backing insurrectionists trying to halt the attempted certification of the presidential election. “So go home. We love you. You’re very special.”
It was as if Trump himself was taken aback by the revelation that at least some his backers don’t realize his presidency is the political equivalent of pro wrestling — lots of puffing and bluster and body slams designed as entertainment. It’s like those guys took him seriously a few hours earlier at a “Stop the Steal” rally to repeat his claims that “our election victory” was “stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats” and the news media, and taunting everyone in his own party from his vice president on down who does not agree with him.
It came on the day when Republicans, who lost the House in 2018 in large part because of Trump’s polarizing presidency, also lost the Senate when two Republicans were evicted from their seats in Georgia, in a special election shadowed by Trump’s spurious claims of election fraud. In combination with the mayhem at the Capitol, it underlined the transactionalism at the heart of the Trump years. Lots of people have made bargains, and the light is better than ever to assess how these have paid off.
At the individual level this bargain — I don’t much like what Trump does or says, but I’ve got good reasons for setting misgivings aside — was what a long parade of people did in going to work as one of his chiefs of staff or national security advisers or cabinet secretaries. It is hard to name any who emerged from the bargain unscathed, with neither public reputation nor personal dignity undiminished.
At the national level, that is what the Republican Party did once most of its members accurately perceived the question of the age is “What side are you on?” and concluded that the only safe place for someone with ambition is, “On the side of Trump.”
Trump famously boasted that his supporters would still back him if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. What happened Wednesday was something different — a damaging wound to him or those sympathetic to his cause delivered in the name of supporting him.
In that sense, it highlighted the broader predicament of the Republican Party. The GOP is a coalition of people who like Trump, people who don’t like Trump but pretend to for expedient reasons, with a small sliver of people who don’t like him and don’t pretend to and whom are left to wonder about their own future in the party.
Even before the violence, it was a day when Republican leaders faced recriminations about how the strategy of Trump accommodation paid off. In his reelection bid, Trump proved himself to be the greatest mobilizer of Republican turnout ever, winning the second-highest number of votes in American history. He also turned out to be greatest mobilizer of Democratic turnout ever, helping President-elect Joe Biden win the first-highest number of votes in American history.
Until this week, one could have made the case that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was a nearly singular figure: Someone who came out ahead in the bargain to work with Trump and muzzle any negative sentiments he might have harbored about the president’s behavior. After all, McConnell got what he wanted most: four years of conservative judges. After the November elections, it looked like McConnell might keep his power as majority leader and even could lay down terms to a Democratic president whom he’s known longer and probably likes more than Trump.
McConnell is soon to be minority leader. His speech deploring the attempt at challenging the certification of Biden’s victory — “Our democracy would enter a death spiral” if the attempt was successful — might have been the day’s big news were it not for the confrontation.
How does McConnell view his bargain now?
Or how about Vice President Mike Pence? Four years in which he surrendered independent identity to show obsequiousness to Trump in public, and evidently also in private, were repaid with a Trump tweet on Wednesday saying, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution” by trying to block certification of Biden’s election. Is Pence still supposing that he will be the natural inheritor of the Trump movement in 2024?
How about Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, also likely 2024 aspirants. Are they feeling as good about their decision to contest the election certification after the Capitol insurrection as they were before?
Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican, was quoted calling the day’s events “banana republic crap” and said they highlighted “the cost” of efforts to try to deny election certification.
That sounded clear enough. But Gallagher himself has been navigating Trump’s claims gingerly. Earlier this week, he joined a statement with other Republicans saying they wouldn’t attempt to block certification of Biden’s victory but also asserting that they are “outraged at the significant abuses in our election system resulting from the reckless adoption of mail-in ballots and the lack of safeguards maintained to guarantee that only legitimate votes are cast and counted.”
It seemed like an attempt at artful difference-splitting, aimed at separating themselves from Trump’s maneuvers without alienating his supporters. But these are not congenial times for difference-splitters.
Which side are you on is indeed the question of the age, but the sides aren’t Republicans and Democrats. The choice is democracy and rule of law on one side, and a brand of politics unhinged from principle or self-restraint on the other.
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