Who let Trump happen?
President Trump’s misbegotten presidency crashed and burned yesterday with a treacherous assault on American democracy. It failed, as most of Trump’s half-baked schemes do. But now the country needs a reckoning with a Republican Party that let it happen.
Senator and soon-to-be Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) got it right last night: For Americans, January 6, 2021 is another day that will live in infamy. Our country was attacked not by a foreign power, but from within. The assailant was a lame-duck president the American people wisely fired last November.
I watched Trump harangue the mob he had summoned to Washington for his last-ditch effort to bully Congress into nullifying the 2020 election results. It was a performance worthy of a dictator: A farrago of big lies about his imagined “landslide” victory, paranoid attacks on his usual stock villains – the media, even Hillary Clinton – and threats to destroy the careers of “weak Republicans” who balked at his blatantly unconstitutional demand that Congress overrule the voters and award him a second term.
It was also an undisguised incitement to mob violence, with Trump promising to lead his supporters in a march up Capitol Hill. Actually, he retired to the White House to watch his handiwork on television. Waving Trump and Confederate flags, Trump supporters stormed America’s citadel of democracy, disrupting the certification vote, sending lawmakers into hiding, trashing the Capitol and raining obscenities and abuse on the police.
Trump lit the match, but he had plenty of accomplices. The shambolic MAGA insurrection would not have happened had not leading Republican politicians played along with Trump’s claims of having been cheated of reelection.
Let’s not forget them. In the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) led the effort to turn what is usually a formality – congressional certification of the Electoral College vote for president – into a legally dubious opportunity to challenge the legitimacy of those votes. Topping the dishonor roll in the Senate were Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who called for a commission to address voters’ “concerns” about the integrity of the election. These abettors of the Trump effort to overturn the election are unfit to serve in public office.
For the past four years, observers have been wondering what it would take for a critical mass of Republicans to work up the courage to say “no more” to Trump’s abuse of his presidential powers. The Trump-Hawley-Cruz-McCarthy riot apparently is the answer.
After police finally restored order in the Capitol, outraged lawmakers returned to their task vowing not to be intimidated by Trump’s fanatical followers. Many Republicans seemed chastened, with Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), a fulsome Trump apologist, declaring he had finally had enough. In the Senate, the challenge to state electors’ votes fizzled, with only four senators joining the Hawley-Cruz cabal. In the House, however, 138 Members, Republicans – a majority of the Republican caucus — voted to challenge Pennsylvania’s votes.
Nonetheless, Trump’s gambit backfired and Congress confirmed Biden’s victory at 3:20 a.m. Thursday. Republicans may not be ready to fully repudiate Trumpism, but the spell he’s cast on their party has been broken at last.
The riot overshadowed the Democrats’ dramatic Senate victories in Georgia, in a close vote that mirrored Biden’s narrow victory in the state. Many Republicans blamed Trump for the loss, since while stumping in Georgia he stirred up anger at GOP state officials who have resisted his pleas to “find” him enough votes to cancel Biden’s victory.
It’s finally dawning on party leaders that their mesalliance with a populist demagogue has been an electoral disaster. Over the past four years, Republicans have lost control of the House, the White House and now the Senate.
Finally, and most disturbing of all, there are the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump last November, despite his record of governing incompetence – crystallized by the COVID-19 debacle – and toxic, divide-and-conquer political tactics.
Weaning them from Trumpean populism begins by arresting “truth decay” in U.S. political discourse. That means Republican leaders should challenge the reality-distorting narratives spewing from the vast ecosystem of right-wing websites, journals, radio and cable TV channels that see politics as a kind of vicious form of public entertainment, like bear-baiting. It means rededicating themselves to rational, evidence-based debate and rejecting propaganda aimed at triggering contrived outrage and hatred toward political competitors.
The relentless assault on facts and objective reality is Donald Trump’s most baleful legacy. Confronting it is where the Republican reckoning should begin.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).