In the wake of President Trump’s incitement of a violent insurrectionist assault on our seat of government, a new Post-ABC News poll offers perhaps the most detailed look yet at public attitudes about the attack and the underlying questions it raises about the stability of our democratic future.
The poll contains good news and bad news. The good news is that large majorities are standing up for democracy and the legitimacy of our election, and believe Trump should be held accountable for inciting violent warfare on our political system and, indeed, on our country.
The bad news is that large majorities of Republicans are very much on board with much of what Trump has done.
First, let’s note that truly overwhelming majorities, including among Republicans, condemn the attack itself. That’s great, but deeper in the crosstabs are some pretty dispiriting findings.
On questions that probe underlying attitudes about Trump’s efforts to undermine democracy, the contrast between the broader public and Republican respondents is stark. Here’s a rundown:
By 66 percent to 30 percent, overall Americans say Trump acted irresponsibly in his statements and actions since the election. But Republicans say Trump acted responsibly by 66 percent to 29 percent.
By 62 percent to 31 percent, Americans say there’s no solid evidence of the claims of voter fraud that Trump cited to refuse to accept Joe Biden’s victory. But Republicans say there is solid evidence of fraud by 65 percent to 25 percent.
57 percent of Americans say Trump bears a great deal or good amount of responsibility for the assault on the Capitol. But 56 percent of Republicans say Trump bears no responsibility at all, and another 22 percent say he bears just some, totaling 78 percent who largely exonerate him.
52 percent of Americans say Republican leaders went too far in supporting Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. But 51 percent of Republicans say GOP leaders didn’t go far enough, while 27 percent say they got it right, a total of 78 percent who are fully on board or wanted more. Only 16 percent of Republicans say they went too far.
On these questions, independents are far more in sync with the broader public: In this poll, support for what Trump did is largely a Republican phenomenon.
Meanwhile, solid majorities of Americans believe Trump should be charged with a crime for inciting the riot (54 percent) and removed from office (56 percent). But among Republicans, opposition to both is running in the mid-80s, demonstrating extraordinary GOP unity against any form of accountability.
To sum up: Large majorities of Republicans support the effort by GOP leaders to overturn the election (which included lawsuits designed to summarily invalidate millions of votes and an extraordinary effort to scuttle Biden’s electors in Congress) and believe (or say they believe) that those GOP leaders were joining Trump’s efforts to correct a confirmed injustice done to him.
By the way, this poll also badly complicates a comforting narrative that has emerged in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol: The idea that the refusal to accept democratic outcomes is largely driven by economic dispossession.
Indeed, a small but real core of respondents who are either college-educated or come from households with incomes of $100,000 and more say there is solid evidence of Trump’s fraud claims, that Trump bears no responsibility for the attack, that he has acted responsibly, and that GOP leaders did not go too far in helping him try to nullify the election.
In our poll’s crosstabs, the percentages of those classes of educated and relatively affluent voters who support those positions vary from the low-to-mid-20s to the low 30s. As Adam Serwer suggests, there was a middle-class strain among the rioters — cops, reactionary business owner-operator types — and that pattern may be reflected more broadly in an educated and middle-class reactionary component to support for overturning hated election outcomes.
It is strange and dispiriting to watch the more ambitious Republicans try to navigate these surging sentiments inside their rank and file.
While they surely would have cheered if Trump and the party had succeeded in overturning the election (ignore the nonsense that they attempted this only because they were certain it would fail), many Republicans have treated this as something that can be easily harnessed for their own instrumental purposes.
Dan Crenshaw of Texas, for instance, appeared in an authoritarian cosplay videodepicting him as a commando in the military war against leftists (Jonathan Chait callsthis “authoritarian porn”), and Crenshaw joined the lawsuit to overturn the election. Yet he has also tried to present himself as a pious defender of the constitutional process for counting electors.
Meanwhile, Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz jockeyed for position as leader of the effort to subvert the election in Congress, and Hawley saluted the rioters before the insurrection. Now both are scrambling to find their way back to the sweet spot, in which they oppose the violence but without retracting their active enabling of the stolen-election fiction that incited it.
Bubbling underneath all this is the fact that there really is a serious anti-democratic movement afoot among the class of intellectuals who are trying to carve out a purportedly respectable version of post-Trump liberalism.
As Laura Field and Damon Linker demonstrate, this movement is getting darker, more desperate and more radical, and some strains of it appear to be contemplating a fundamental and permanent break with liberal democracy’s most basic core commitments.
How deep all this runs among the GOP electorate, and what it will mean for the future of GOP politics, is hard to say. But it’s hard to look at the above polling and feel optimistic.
The Article of Impeachment was officially “engrossed” last night. Today, I would submit, three things are clear. First, it’s clear that the events of the last days have caused a minority of the Republican Party to hive away from Trump. That’s exemplified by the ten (out of 211) Republican congresspersons who voted to impeach.
Second, in view of the fact that the Republican Party was already a minority of the population—a very large minority, but a minority nonetheless—it’s clear that the loss of a minority of its minority will make it hard will make it damn hard for the Republicans actually to win elections, going forward. See Georgia.
Third, because of the first two circumstances, supporting the Republican Party, going forward, looks like a piss poor way for the monied elite to advance its agenda.
I won’t reargue these points here. I think we may take them as given. Even so, this afternoon, the pundits are all over the place about whether the effort to expunge Trump from the Republican Party is likely to succeed, or to fail miserably.
But compare this, from Jonathan V. Last, in my inbox:
91 percentof self-identified “Trump supporters” say Trump was right to try to overturn the election. 46 percent of people who say they are only “traditional Republicans” agree.
Pollafter poll shows that three quarters of all Republicans say that the 2020 election results were fraudulent.
92 percent of “Trump supporters” say he should run in 2024.
Donald Trump owns this party because he owns its voters. What guys like McConnell and McCarthy don’t understand is that to the extent that they have any power, they serve at the pleasure of the man who commands their mob. Sorry, I mean “their voters.”
I don’t know the answer to Trump’s future hold on the Republican Party base. I don’t think the pundits know the answer. I don’t think Mitch McConnell knows the answer. And I strongly suspect Mitch McConnell knows that he doesn’t know the answer. But I think Mitch will do what he has to do, to bar Trump from seeking office again. Not because Mitch is stupid. Not because Mitch has miscalculated. But because Mitch has no other choice.
Congresswoman Cheney’s statement reads, in its entirety, as follows:
“On January 6, 2021 a violent mob attacked the United States Capitol to obstruct the process of our democracy and stop the counting of presidential electoral votes. This insurrection caused injury, death and destruction in the most sacred space in our Republic.
“Much more will become clear in coming days and weeks, but what we know now is enough. The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.
Some of the country club Republicans are getting off the Trump Train. See above. House Minority Leader, Representative Kevin McWeathervane, is twisting slowly, slowly in the wind. The online wingnuts are being forced underground. As I predicted a long time ago, American politics is being trifurcated.
Insurrection and misinformation tears the country into three Americas
The United States, torn apart by insurrection and mass misinformation, is witnessing a political and social realignment unfold in real time: We’re splitting into three Americas.
Why it matters:America, in its modern foundational components, is breaking into blue America, red America, and Trump America — all with distinct politics, social networks and media channels.
The existential question for Republicans, and perhaps for America, is whether Trump America — animated by the likes of Newsmax + Rush Limbaugh + Tucker Carlson + Parler (or whatever replaces it) — eclipses the traditional Red America in power in the coming years.
The danger:Parts of Trump America, canceled by Twitter and so many others, are severing their ties to the realities of the other Americas, and basically going underground. There will be less awareness and perhaps scrutiny of what’s being said and done.
Axios’ Sara Fischerreportsthat Apptopia shows a surge in downloads for conservative-friendly social networks — Parler, MeWe and Rumble — in the past two days, following Trump bans by mainstream social media and tech.
The big picture: The Republican Party is splitting into two, starting with the relatively small Never Trumpers breaking off in 2016 and joined four years later by a new slice of establishment Republicans repulsed by President Trump’s post-election actions.
We have no clue how big this faction will grow. But it seems clear that the Trump vs. them saga will dominate the coming months, and maybe years.
There’s no hard evidenceyet that Trump America has shrunk significantly, despite the lies about the election and mob assault on the U.S. Capitol.
There is hard evidenceTrumpers are flocking to social media groups and hard-right outlets like Newsmax to get and share news that reinforces their views.
It’ll take a whileto determine if voters share the anti-Trump views of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Twitter’sdecision to permanently suspend Trump forces this faction further underground.
Blue Americais ascendant in almost every area:
It won control of the House, Senate and White House; dominates traditional media; owns, controls and lives on the dominant social platforms; and has the employee-level power at Big Tech companies to force corporate decisions.
The bottom line: Now, more than ever, is the time to read and reflect: Our nation is rethinking politics, free speech, the definition of truth and the price of lies. This moment — and our decisions — will be studied by our kid’s grandkids.
You already know the gist of what’s in the article, but it contains many amusing anecdotes. I recommend laying in a supply of beer and popcorn before sitting down to read it.
You will, in any event, not come across the Republican Party’s soul, because the Republican Party does not have a soul to be discovered. The Republican Party of recent memory is a business enterprise. Now, as the article cited above makes plain, the business model is no longer viable.
What happens when your business model is no longer viable? This, dear readers, is not a hard question to answer. The answer is that you either find a new business model, or you go out of business.
In the case of the Republican Party’s plutocratic wing, going out of business is not an option. So they will find a new business model. They will so this as surely as God made little green apples. As surely as Augustine of Hippo and Josh Hawley have condemned Pelagius for heresy.
That would be because they’re fighting Pelagius, depicted above—and long to establish a theocracy.
The United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers do not want to establish a theocracy. Bad for business, doncha know? So, no more rubles for Josh Hawley.
If establishing a theocracy in the United States were (1) feasible and (2) in the economic interest of the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, then they would be about establishing a theocracy in a New York minute. Yea, in a nanosecond.
Frank Rich is deeply offended by the Trumpateriat, and, most definitely, will not be inviting any of them to his next backyard barbeque. Well, me neither.
But addressing the problem of the 74 million Trump voters among us is a political concern of the first water. It demands that we get the analysis right, not just that we take a proper moral and emotional stance. In other words, we have to think with our heads as well as our hearts.
Here’s the thing. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, deep in the Heart of Dixie. Lord only knows, and I surely know, there’s nothing new about virulent racism. The question in my mind is: why is virulent racism on the rise, and turning into full-throated fascism?
Well, if I knew for sure, I would be happy to tell you. But here’s a pretty good working hypothesis.
There are two kinds of people in. our country. Those of us with a goodish amount of money in the stock market are doing just fine. Those of us with no money in the stock market, trying to make ends meet on low wages, living paycheck to paycheck, are in a world of hurt.
And we know that a sense of being cheated–a sense of undeserved inequality– is one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior.
The paralysis reflects a deeper social pathology with multiple tributaries—the toxins of racial and cultural estrangement; the disintegration of communal bonds; the proliferation of mind-numbing misinformation; the accelerating gaps in wealth and opportunity; the increasingly ossified class system—which, in turn, erode faith in democracy as a means of resolving our problems. Running through this is the crabbed doctrine of shareholder capitalism which reduces human beings to disposable units of production divorced from the conditions that give life dignity: health, safety, security, opportunity.
This largely accounts for the oft-remarked “deaths of despair” among those left behind. Fearing that our widening economic inequities will breed resentment, an oligarchy of the outnumbered wealthy bankroll political parties and politicians to protect their interests and augment their power—notably Trump, who diverted the marginalized and insecure by trafficking in racism, xenophobia, and phony populism while passing tax cuts for the rich.
As we glide toward plutocracy, ever more couples struggle to sustain their families on two insufficient incomes. Increasingly, overstressed Americans are divorced from communal associations—clubs, unions, recreational sports, mainstream places of worship. Instead our fragmented society offers gated communities of the mind: the nostrums of white nationalism or religious fundamentalism rooted in hostility to the “other”; online conspiracy theories offering fantastical but simple explanations for an increasingly abstract and menacing world; broadcasters profiting by promoting discontent and loathing—Fox News, Newsmax, OAN, talk radio.
As economic power concentrates and executive power swells, the workings of globalism and government become yet more incomprehensible to ordinary citizens. This sense of disempowerment and estrangement further abets the arsonists of truth who traffic in rage and paranoia to mesmerize the credulous. …
It therefore falls to Joe Biden to revive a politics of the common good. Defeating the pandemic and reviving our economy are but the prerequisites restoring a shared sense of opportunity, equity, comity, and confidence in democratic governance as a force for bettering the lives of all.
Then, perhaps, we can begin to restore a shared sense of citizenship wherein more Americans feel welcome to re-engage in the social and political enterprise of improving their communities and their country. One can but hope for a national service program which allows Americans to know each other again, and a renewed civics education which reintroduces our democratic institutions to a citizenry which, all too often, misapprehends them.
Harder yet is to reform those institutions. But we must try. The Electoral College promotes minority rule and electoral chicanery; gerrymandering breeds extremism; our campaign finance system engenders oligarchy.
It’s from the Washington Post this morning, as the online edition shows up on my screen.
My point in pointing to the two stories, one on top of the other, is that the plutocracy always saw Trump as a useful idiot. Now, as demonstrated by the outcome in Georgia, he is no longer a useful idiot for the plutocracy. Because, with him around, spewing his nonsense, they can no longer win elections in purple states.
Even when he won, in 2016, he insisted that the election was fraudulent — that millions of false votes were cast for his opponent. In 2020, in the knowledge that he was trailing Joseph R. Biden in the polls, he spent months claiming that the presidential election would be rigged and signaling that he would not accept the results if they did not favor him. He wrongly claimed on Election Day that he had won and then steadily hardened his rhetoric: With time, his victory became a historic landslide and the various conspiracies that denied it ever more sophisticated and implausible.
People believed him, which is not at all surprising. It takes a tremendous amount of work to educate citizens to resist the powerful pull of believing what they already believe, or what others around them believe, or what would make sense of their own previous choices. Plato noted a particular risk for tyrants: that they would be surrounded in the end by yes-men and enablers. Aristotle worried that, in a democracy, a wealthy and talented demagogue could all too easily master the minds of the populace. Aware of these risks and others, the framers of the Constitution instituted a system of checks and balances. The point was not simply to ensure that no one branch of government dominated the others but also to anchor in institutions different points of view.
In this sense, the responsibility for Trump’s push to overturn an election must be shared by a very large number of Republican members of Congress. Rather than contradict Trump from the beginning, they allowed his electoral fiction to flourish. They had different reasons for doing so. One group of Republicans is concerned above all with gaming the system to maintain power, taking full advantage of constitutional obscurities, gerrymandering and dark money to win elections with a minority of motivated voters. They have no interest in the collapse of the peculiar form of representation that allows their minority party disproportionate control of government. The most important among them, Mitch McConnell, indulged Trump’s lie while making no comment on its consequences.
Yet other Republicans saw the situation differently: They might actually break the system and have power without democracy. The split between these two groups, the gamers and the breakers, became sharply visible on Dec. 30, when Senator Josh Hawley announced that he would support Trump’s challenge by questioning the validity of the electoral votes on Jan. 6. Ted Cruz then promised his own support,joined by about 10 other senators. More than a hundred Republican representatives took the same position. For many, this seemed like nothing more than a show: challenges to states’ electoral votes would force delays and floor votes but would not affect the outcome.
Yet for Congress to traduce its basic functions had a price. An elected institution that opposes elections is inviting its own overthrow. Members of Congress who sustained the president’s lie, despite the available and unambiguous evidence, betrayed their constitutional mission. Making his fictions the basis of congressional action gave them flesh. Now Trump could demand that senators and congressmen bow to his will. He could place personal responsibility upon Mike Pence, in charge of the formal proceedings, to pervert them. And on Jan. 6, he directed his followers to exert pressure on these elected representatives, which they proceeded to do: storming the Capitol building, searching for people to punish, ransacking the place.
Of course this did make a kind of sense: If the election really had been stolen, as senators and congressmen were themselves suggesting, then how could Congress be allowed to move forward? For some Republicans, the invasion of the Capitol must have been a shock, or even a lesson. For the breakers, however, it may have been a taste of the future. Afterward, eight senators and more than 100 representatives voted for the lie that had forced them to flee their chambers.
Post-truth ispre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump — like the era of Vladimir Putin in Russia — is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.
Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth. These last four years, scholars have discussed the legitimacy and value of invoking fascism in reference to Trumpian propaganda. One comfortable position has been to label any such effort as a direct comparison and then to treat such comparisons as taboo. More productively, the philosopher Jason Stanley has treated fascism as a phenomenon, as a series of patterns that can be observed not only in interwar Europe but beyond it.
My own view is that greater knowledge of the past, fascist or otherwise, allows us to notice and conceptualize elements of the present that we might otherwise disregard and to think more broadly about future possibilities. It was clear to me in October that Trump’s behavior presaged a coup, and I said so in print; this is not because the present repeats the past, but because the past enlightens the present.
Like historical fascist leaders, Trump has presented himself as the single source of truth. His use of the term “fake news” echoed the Nazi smear Lügenpresse (“lying press”); like the Nazis, he referred to reporters as “enemies of the people.” Like Adolf Hitler, he came to power at a moment when the conventional press had taken a beating; the financial crisis of 2008 did to American newspapers what the Great Depression did to German ones. The Nazis thought that they could use radio to replace the old pluralism of the newspaper; Trump tried to do the same with Twitter.
Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet. Yet so long as he was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live and die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.
Some of his lies were, admittedly, medium-size: that he was a successful businessman; that Russia did not support him in 2016; that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Such medium-size lies were the standard fare of aspiring authoritarians in the 21st century. In Poland the right-wing party built a martyrdom cult around assigning blame to political rivals for an airplane crash that killed the nation’s president. Hungary’s Viktor Orban blames a vanishingly small number of Muslim refugees for his country’s problems. But such claims were not quite big lies; they stretched but did not rend what Hannah Arendt called “the fabric of factuality.”
One historical big lie discussed by Arendt is Joseph Stalin’s explanation of starvation in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-33. The state had collectivized agriculture, then applied a series of punitive measures to Ukraine that ensured millions would die. Yet the official line was that the starving were provocateurs, agents of Western powers who hated socialism so much they were killing themselves. A still grander fiction, in Arendt’s account, is Hitlerian anti-Semitism: the claims that Jews ran the world, Jews were responsible for ideas that poisoned German minds, Jews stabbed Germany in the back during the First World War. Intriguingly, Arendt thought big lies work only in lonely minds; their coherence substitutes for experience and companionship.
In November 2020, reaching millions of lonely minds through social media, Trump told a lie that was dangerously ambitious: that he had won an election that in fact he had lost. This lie was big in every pertinent respect: not as big as “Jews run the world,” but big enough. The significance of the matter at hand was great: the right to rule the most powerful country in the world and the efficacy and trustworthiness of its succession procedures. The level of mendacity was profound. The claim was not only wrong, but it was also made in bad faith, amid unreliable sources. It challenged not just evidence but logic: Just how could (and why would) an election have been rigged against a Republican president but not against Republican senators and representatives? Trump had to speak, absurdly, of a “Rigged (for President) Election.”
The force of a big lie resides in its demand that many other things must be believed or disbelieved. To make sense of a world in which the 2020 presidential election was stolen requires distrust not only of reporters and of experts but also of local, state and federal government institutions, from poll workers to elected officials, Homeland Security and all the way to the Supreme Court. It brings with it, of necessity, a conspiracy theory: Imagine all the people who must have been in on such a plot and all the people who would have had to work on the cover-up.
Trump’s electoral fiction floats free of verifiable reality. It is defended not so much by facts as by claims that someone else has made some claims. The sensibility is that something must be wrong because I feel it to be wrong, and I know others feel the same way. When political leaders such as Ted Cruz or Jim Jordan spoke like this, what they meant was: You believe my lies, which compels me to repeat them. Social media provides an infinity of apparent evidence for any conviction, especially one seemingly held by a president.
On the surface, a conspiracy theory makes its victim look strong: It sees Trump as resisting the Democrats, the Republicans, the Deep State, the pedophiles, the Satanists. More profoundly, however, it inverts the position of the strong and the weak. Trump’s focus on alleged “irregularities” and “contested states” comes down to cities where Black people live and vote. At bottom, the fantasy of fraud is that of a crime committed by Black people against white people.
It’s not just that electoral fraud by African-Americans against Donald Trump never happened. It is that it is the very opposite of what happened, in 2020 and in every American election. As always, Black people waited longer than others to vote and were more likely to have their votes challenged. They were more likely to be suffering or dying from Covid-19, and less likely to be able to take time away from work. The historical protection of their right to vote has been removed by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, and states have rushed to pass measures of a kind that historically reduce voting by the poor and communities of color.
The claim that Trump was denied a win by fraud is a big lie not just because it mauls logic, misdescribes the present and demands belief in a conspiracy. It is a big lie, fundamentally, because it reverses the moral field of American politics and the basic structure of American history.
When Senator Ted Cruz announced his intention to challenge the Electoral College vote, he invoked the Compromise of 1877, which resolved the presidential election of 1876. Commentators pointed out that this was no relevant precedent, since back then there really were serious voter irregularities and there really was a stalemate in Congress. For African-Americans, however, the seemingly gratuitous reference led somewhere else. The Compromise of 1877 — in which Rutherford B. Hayes would have the presidency, provided that he withdrew federal power from the South — was the very arrangement whereby African-Americans were driven from voting booths for the better part of a century. It was effectively the end of Reconstruction, the beginning of segregation, legal discrimination and Jim Crow. It is the original sin of American history in the post-slavery era, our closest brush with fascism so far.
If the reference seemed distant when Ted Cruz and 10 senatorial colleagues released their statement on Jan. 2, it was brought very close four days later, when Confederate flags were paraded through the Capitol.
Some things have changed since 1877, of course. Back then, it was the Republicans, or many of them, who supported racial equality; it was the Democrats, the party of the South, who wanted apartheid. It was the Democrats, back then, who called African-Americans’ votes fraudulent, and the Republicans who wanted them counted. This is now reversed. In the past half century, since the Civil Rights Act, Republicans have become a predominantly white party interested — as Trump openly declared — in keeping the number of voters, and particularly the number of Black voters, as low as possible. Yet the common thread remains. Watching white supremacists among the people storming the Capitol, it was easy to yield to the feeling that something pure had been violated. It might be better to see the episode as part of a long American argument about who deserves representation.
The Democrats, today, have become a coalition, one that does better than Republicans with female and nonwhite voters and collects votes from both labor unions and the college-educated. Yet it’s not quite right to contrast this coalition with a monolithic Republican Party. Right now, the Republican Party is a coalition of two types of people: those who would game the system (most of the politicians, some of the voters) and those who dream of breaking it (a few of the politicians, many of the voters). In January 2021, this was visible as the difference between those Republicans who defended the present system on the grounds that it favored them and those who tried to upend it.
In the four decades since the election of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have overcome the tension between the gamers and the breakers by governing in opposition to government, or by calling elections a revolution (the Tea Party), or by claiming to oppose elites. The breakers, in this arrangement, provide cover for the gamers, putting forth an ideology that distracts from the basic reality that government under Republicans is not made smaller but simply diverted to serve a handful of interests.
At first, Trump seemed like a threat to this balance. His lack of experience in politics and his open racism made him a very uncomfortable figure for the party; his habit of continually telling lies was initially found by prominent Republicans to be uncouth. Yet after he won the presidency, his particular skills as a breaker seemed to create a tremendous opportunity for the gamers. Led by the gamer in chief, McConnell, they secured hundreds of federal judges and tax cuts for the rich.
Trump was unlike other breakers in that he seemed to have no ideology. His objection to institutions was that they might constrain him personally. He intended to break the system to serve himself — and this is partly why he has failed. Trump is a charismatic politician and inspires devotion not only among voters but among a surprising number of lawmakers, but he has no vision that is greater than himself or what his admirers project upon him. In this respect his pre-fascism fell short of fascism: His vision never went further than a mirror. He arrived at a truly big lie not from any view of the world but from the reality that he might lose something.
Yet Trump never prepared a decisive blow. He lacked the support of the military, some of whose leaders he had alienated. (No true fascist would have made the mistake he did there, which was to openly love foreign dictators; supporters convinced that the enemy was at home might not mind, but those sworn to protect from enemies abroad did.) Trump’s secret police force, the men carrying out snatch operations in Portland,was violent but also small and ludicrous. Social media proved to be a blunt weapon: Trump could announce his intentions on Twitter, and white supremacists could plan their invasion of the Capitol on Facebook or Gab. But the president, for all his lawsuits and entreaties and threats to public officials, could not engineer a situation that ended with the right people doing the wrong thing. Trump could make some voters believe that he had won the 2020 election, but he was unable to bring institutions along with his big lie. And he could bring his supporters to Washington and send them on a rampage in the Capitol, but none appeared to have any very clear idea of how this was to work or what their presence would accomplish. It is hard to think of a comparable insurrectionary moment, when a building of great significance was seized, that involved so much milling around.
The lie outlaststhe liar. The idea that Germany lost the First World War in 1918 because of a Jewish “stab in the back” was 15 years old when Hitler came to power. How will Trump’s myth of victimhood function in American life 15 years from now? And to whose benefit?
On Jan. 7, Trump called for a peaceful transition of power, implicitly conceding that his putsch had failed. Even then, though, he repeated and even amplified his electoral fiction: It was now a sacred cause for which people had sacrificed. Trump’s imagined stab in the back will live on chiefly thanks to its endorsement by members of Congress. In November and December 2020, Republicans repeated it, giving it a life it would not otherwise have had. In retrospect, it now seems as though the last shaky compromise between the gamers and the breakers was the idea that Trump should have every chance to prove that wrong had been done to him. That position implicitly endorsed the big lie for Trump supporters who were inclined to believe it. It failed to restrain Trump, whose big lie only grew bigger.
The breakers and the gamers then saw a different world ahead, where the big lie was either a treasure to be had or a danger to be avoided. The breakers had no choice but to rush to be first to claim to believe in it. Because the breakers Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz must compete to claim the brimstone and bile, the gamers were forced to reveal their own hand, and the division within the Republican coalition became visible on Jan. 6. The invasion of the Capitol only reinforced this division. To be sure, a few senators withdrew their objections, but Cruz and Hawley moved forward anyway, along with six other senators. More than 100 representatives doubled down on the big lie. Some, like Matt Gaetz, even added their own flourishes, such as the claim that the mob was led not by Trump’s supporters but by his opponents.
Trump is, for now, the martyr in chief, the high priest of the big lie. He is the leader of the breakers, at least in the minds of his supporters. By now, the gamers do not want Trump around. Discredited in his last weeks, he is useless; shorn of the obligations of the presidency, he will become embarrassing again, much as he was in 2015. Unable to provide cover for their gamesmanship, he will be irrelevant to their daily purposes. But the breakers have an even stronger reason to see Trump disappear: It is impossible to inherit from someone who is still around. Seizing Trump’s big lie might appear to be a gesture of support. In fact it expresses a wish for his political death. Transforming the myth from one about Trump to one about the nation will be easier when he is out of the way.
As Cruz and Hawley may learn, to tell the big lie is to be owned by it. Just because you have sold your soul does not mean that you have driven a hard bargain. Hawley shies from no level of hypocrisy; the son of a banker, educated at Stanford University and Yale Law School, he denounces elites. Insofar as Cruz was thought to have a principle, it was that of states’ rights, which Trump’s calls to action brazenly violated. A joint statement Cruz issued about the senators’ challenge to the vote nicely captured the post-truth aspect of the whole: It never alleged that there was fraud, only that there were allegations of fraud. Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way down.
The big lie requires commitment. When Republican gamers do not exhibit enough of that, Republican breakers call them “RINOs”: Republicans in name only. This term once suggested a lack of ideological commitment. It now means an unwillingness to throw away an election. The gamers, in response, close ranks around the Constitution and speak of principles and traditions. The breakers must all know (with the possible exception of the Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville) that they are participating in a sham, but they will have an audience of tens of millions who do not.
If Trump remains present in American political life, he will surely repeat his big lie incessantly. Hawley and Cruz and the other breakers share responsibility for where this leads. Cruz and Hawley seem to be running for president. Yet what does it mean to be a candidate for office and denounce voting? If you claim that the other side has cheated, and your supporters believe you, they will expect you to cheat yourself. By defending Trump’s big lie on Jan. 6, they set a precedent: A Republican presidential candidate who loses an election should be appointed anyway by Congress. Republicans in the future, at least breaker candidates for president, will presumably have a Plan A, to win and win, and a Plan B, to lose and win. No fraud is necessary; only allegations that there are allegations of fraud. Truth is to be replaced by spectacle, facts by faith.
Trump’s coup attempt of 2020-21, like other failed coup attempts, is a warning for those who care about the rule of law and a lesson for those who do not. His pre-fascism revealed a possibility for American politics. For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.
Informed observers inside and outside government agree that right-wing white supremacism is the greatest terrorist threat to the United States. Gun sales in 2020 hit an astonishing high. History shows that political violence follows when prominent leaders of major political parties openly embrace paranoia.
Our big lie is typically American, wrapped in our odd electoral system, depending upon our particular traditions of racism. Yet our big lie is also structurally fascist, with its extreme mendacity, its conspiratorial thinking, its reversal of perpetrators and victims and its implication that the world is divided into us and them. To keep it going for four years courts terrorism and assassination.
When that violence comes, the breakers will have to react. If they embrace it, they become the fascist faction. The Republican Party will be divided, at least for a time. One can of course imagine a dismal reunification: A breaker candidate loses a narrow presidential election in November 2024 and cries fraud, the Republicans win both houses of Congress and rioters in the street, educated by four years of the big lie, demand what they see as justice. Would the gamers stand on principle if those were the circumstances of Jan. 6, 2025?
To be sure, this moment is also a chance. It is possible that a divided Republican Party might better serve American democracy; that the gamers, separated from the breakers, might start to think of policy as a way to win elections. It is very likely that the Biden-Harris administration will have an easier first few months than expected; perhaps obstructionism will give way, at least among a few Republicans and for a short time, to a moment of self-questioning. Politicians who want Trumpism to end have a simple way forward: Tell the truth about the election.
America will not survive the big lie just because a liar is separated from power. It will need a thoughtful repluralization of media and a commitment to facts as a public good. The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history. Serious attention to the past helps us to see risks but also suggests future possibility. We cannot be a democratic republic if we tell lies about race, big or small. Democracy is not about minimizing the vote nor ignoring it, neither a matter of gaming nor of breaking a system, but of accepting the equality of others, heeding their voices and counting their votes.
Not every Republican voter has taken leave of her senses.
Not every plutocratic businessman has had it up to his eyeballs with Trumpism.
But most of them have.
In both factions.
The Picture from 30,000 Feet
Reflect on the actions of Twitter and Facebook in banning Trump.
The picture from 30,000 feet is that the right-of-center establishment woke up, smelled the coffee, and decided that, for their own self-preservation, this is the time to come down on Trumpism with hobnailed boots.
The Trump cultists will scream censorship, repression, and oppression.
Tonight, on the PBS Evening News, we learned that Jonathan Capehart will be replacing the retiring Mark Shields as David Brooks’ foil. In their first disagreement, Brooks took issue with Capehart’s prediction that the Republican Party will not be viable, going forward. Brooks’ specific point was that there are lots of rightists and center-rightists left. Witness Trump’s 74 million votes in 2020.
There are lots and lots of those folks, and there are a damn sight more of them than we thought there were in October.
But here’s the point that Capehart should have made. The current Republican Party is a stool with three legs. Leg One are the Trump cultists. Leg Two are the country club folks. Leg Three are the plutocrats who finance the thing.
If the first part can no longer cooperate with the second and third parts, then what used to be a three-legged stool now has only two legs. And the cultists now have a stool with only one leg.
Each of those stools is unstable. If you sit on the one-legged stool or on the two-legged stool, you will fall off.
There are some politicians who will now refuse to lead a mob of Trump cultists. There are some politicians who may try to keep on marching at the front of the peasants with the pitchforks, but who will no longer be accepted as leaders by the raving mob. The mob will primary them.
For a lot of the politicians, the logical option is to declare themselves Independents. For still others, the most attractive option is to join the Democrats.
The Democrats will shortly control the Senate. They may be prepared to offer some choice committee assignments to folks who see the light.
And this, dear ladies and germs, is why the Republican Party “as we know it” is at risk of extinction.
This blog is subtitled “living in an implausible, poorly written dystopian novel.”
On January 6, we reached the apogee of the dystopian, as the deluded mob ran through the Capitol.
And then, as January 6 turned into January 7, the world turned into a place that is no longer dystopian but still not rational.
A strange place. A liminal place. A place full of anomalies and contradictions. A place that has not sorted itself out.
Because we are, as of this week, no longer living in a dystopian novel, my blog will soon come to an end. But in the meantime, let us take note of three contradictions, three anomalies, three rents in the fabric of space-time.
The First Contradiction: Extreme Rhetoric and Extreme Views Versus Extreme Actions
Today, my European correspondent has been looking for American fascists. I told him his task was like unto one who goes shooting fish in a barrel.
The Third Contradiction: The Republican Base Versus the Republican Political Establishment
Much has been made, and rightly so, of the polls showing widespread approval of the insurrection.
Much has been made, and will be made, of polls showing that “the Republican base still loves Trump.”
But the monied Establishment has realized that Trumpism has no future, and they are no longer going to subsidize politicians who appeal to the dumbest and most irrational part of the base.
And then there is Georgia: Trumpism no longer wins elections in close states.
And then there is the matter of the sedition.
And so, whatever they might want to do, and whatever they might be tempted to do, the mass of the Republican Political Establishment has no choice but to ditch Trump. Otherwise, no money from the National Association of Manufacturers. Otherwise, no more winning contested elections. Otherwise, no more dodging the treason bullet.
Congressmen and congresswomen representing 138 of the poorest and most backward of the 435 congressional districts voted to overturn the election. Something calling itself the Republican Party will still be a viable force in those 138 districts, and in a handful of states like Alabama and Arkansas.
Elsewhere, the current Republican Establishment will be between a rock and a hard place. Some may cross the aisle and declare themselves Democrats.
Others will try to retain political viability and relevance by calling themselves Independents.
Yet others may decide that public service is no longer their calling.