Trump has left a poisonous legacy in American politics, writes Francis Fukuyama in his latest blog post. Is Trump the individual or Trump the movement the bigger danger?
The January 6 uprising took place on a Wednesday. The weekend prior to that, I emailed a small group of colleagues at Stanford asking why they weren’t worried about the possibility of violence on that date. I had been following chatter on social media about all of the right-wing groups that were planning to converge on Washington that day, and it seemed to me that things could easily get out of hand since many of them were armed. On the day of the insurrection, I sat glued to my computer for many hours watching those events unfold in total disbelief. The level of violence went way beyond anything I had anticipated. I couldn’t understand why, if I saw this coming, the police and Capitol authorities weren’t better prepared for the violence. Even so, I thought at that time that it was a rally that had gotten out of hand spontaneously.
___STEADY_PAYWALL___As a result of the work of the Congressional January 6th Committee, we now know much, much more about what happened that day and in the time leading up to it. The committee published its final report just before the holidays, and the rather lengthy executive summary is well worth reading in its entirety.
Words like “uprising” and “insurrection” and even “coup attempt” are perfectly appropriate in describing what occurred that day. This was no spontaneous demonstration gone bad; it was planned and driven from the start by one man, former President Donald Trump. Among the Committee’s findings, arising from testimony from dozens of officials in the Trump Administration, the following facts emerge:
· After the Nov. 3 election, President Trump was told repeatedly by numerous officials in his administration and campaign that he had definitively lost the election.
· Despite this, he continued to assert that he had won the vote by a huge margin and that it was stolen from him by the Democrats.
· He continued in these assertions as each of the pieces of “evidence” of fraud was serially discredited by his advisors, the Justice Department, state officials, and the courts.
· When legal channels for contesting the election were closed off, he put pressure on state officials in swing states to change the election results.
· When those officials refused to do that, he pressured state Republicans to in effect forge slates of alternative electors and submit them to Congress.
· Relying on the existence of these slates of fake electors, he cooked up a scheme with advisor John Eastman to have the Vice President reject the legitimate slates from certain key states. Eastman seems to have known that this was illegal; he admitted as much privately and sought a pre-emptive pardon from the president.
· When Vice President Pence failed to do Trump’s bidding, the latter then called on the mob at the Ellipse to march on the Capitol, evidently to intimidate Vice President Pence and disrupt the ceremonial counting of electoral votes.
· As the invasion of the Capitol was unfolding, numerous people in the White House, including members of his own family, pleaded with Trump to call off the rioters. He refused to do for several hours. When he finally told them to go home, he said he loved them.
· When the January 6 plan failed, Trump continued up to the present moment to insist that the election was stolen, and to make election denial the sine qua non of Republican identity.
No president in American history has ever tried to overturn a free and fair election as Donald Trump did. In many ways, what was even worse than the egregious behavior of this one man was the fact that the vast majority of Republicans fell in line behind his false narrative. They not only failed to hold Trump accountable for an attempted coup; rather, they drove from the party those few principled individuals like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger who did seek accountability.
I find it incredibly dismaying that to this day, I encounter conservatives who insist on downplaying the significance of January 6. After a talk last spring (in San Francisco, of all places) I went to a dinner with a small group of people who it turned out were all educated, professional conservatives. We got into a rather unpleasant and heated argument where several of them insisted alternatively that the Jan. 6 Committee was simply a partisan hatchet job, that the Democrats were guilty of worse things than Trump, or that the events were simply not that big a deal since the planning was so shambolic.
A year ago, I and many other people I know worried that the Republican normalization of January 6 constituted a grave threat to American democratic institutions and the Constitution itself going forward. MAGA-aligned Republicans all over the country were seeking to put election deniers in key roles at a state level, where they would oversee the 2024 presidential election. This made last year’s midterm elections seem less a contest over policies, than a referendum over the future of American democracy itself.
Today, a year later, I am much less worried. Last November’s midterms saw virtually all of the election deniers in swing states (including dangerous demagogues like Arizona’s Kari Lake) lose their elections. A large number of other Trump-endorsed candidates lost as well, doing much worse than the “normie” Republicans running alongside them. One of the good things to happen was inclusion of the Electoral Count Act reform as part of the omnibus spending bill passed last month, which would make a similar power grab much harder in the future.
Trump himself is a greatly diminished figure, sitting in Mar-a-Lago and continuing to stew over the stolen election. He has sunk deeper and deeper into crazy conspiracy theories and seems to be deteriorating mentally, meeting with neo-Nazis and hawking ridiculous NFTs. He is no longer a promising insurgent but old news whose schtick has gotten tiresome to many Republicans. They are not willing to acknowledge what amounts to treasonous behavior and moral turpitude on his part, but they at least see that they will not return to power with him leading the party.
Even with Trump out of the way, he has left a poisonous legacy in American politics. There has been an ongoing argument whether Trump the individual or Trump the movement and cultural meme was the bigger danger. As we speak, the House of Representatives took five days and fourteen votes to elect a new speaker because a small band of ultra-MAGA types like Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz refuse to certify Kevin McCarthy as speaker. They were spawned by Trump and adopted his style of politics, stoking outrage for its own sake and seeking attention for themselves regardless of any public consequences.
Nonetheless, I think that Trump the individual was a uniquely evil genius, the likes of whom I hope we will not see anytime soon. I spent some of the past month reading two recent chronicles of Trump and his administration, Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man and The Divider by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. It was a masochistic exercise to recall month by month the lows to which Trump and the country had sunk during his term in office. It was as if he had spent his entire life preparing to demean the presidency and the United States itself in the most extreme manner possible, and to destroy the maximum amount of trust in the broader society.
Trump could still get elected in 2024. At the moment, he still seems to be the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. But there is also a chance that the delirious fever that has gripped many Republican voters over the past six years has begun to break, and the country and its institutions will survive the onslaught.
Image: Flickr (Brett Davis)
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