March 2021

Essays

Richard Cooke

Red alert

Washington, DC, January 6, 2021 © Shay Horse / NurPhoto via Getty Images

After the chaos of Trump’s loss and the Capitol Hill riot, the Republican Party is at war with itself, and the warning signs for America are loud and clear

For a day or two in January, Jake Angeli, also known as Jacob Anthony Chansley, might have had the most famous face in the world. Many of the rioters who breached the Capitol Hill government buildings in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election loss were readily identifiable, but even among the proud and conspicuous, Chansley stood out. In a press release issued after his arrest, the Department of Justice itemised his iconic livery as coolly as it could. He was “dressed in horns, a bearskin headdress, red, white and blue face paint, shirtless, and tan pants” and carried a spear “approximately 6 feet in length, with an American flag tied just below the blade”. 

After breaching the rotunda, beneath the United States Capitol dome, this self-styled shaman led a group prayer, and was photographed standing at the Senate dais, an image that guaranteed itself to posterity in an instant. The American Conservative editor Rod Dreher tweeted it with the obvious caption – “Barbarians overrunning Rome” – and the comparison resonated beyond the cliché. The first time Ancient Rome was sacked, by the Gauls in 387 BC, Livy said the invaders were “almost dumb with astonishment at so sudden and extraordinary a victory”. Chansley, when later speaking with NBC, denied wrongdoing, and, after comparing his actions to the “civil disobedience” of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, reported a similar surprise: “I walked through an open door, dude”, he told the interviewer.

Others who breached the Capitol buildings (the FBI described these structures as “clearly desecrated” in its Statement of Facts) radiated the same energy. Many looked unsure what to do once past the police lines – they milled or took photos, often of themselves. These self-broadcast crimes were legion: Jenna Ryan, a Texas real estate agent and life coach who had flown to the protests on a private jet, video-streamed her role in the insurrection, and before breaching the Capitol’s doors issued a promo to camera: “Y’all know who to hire for your realtor. Jenna Ryan for your realtor!” Later she tweeted: “We just stormed the Capital [sic]. It was one of the best days of my life.”

Other, more purposeful infiltrators made a beeline for lawmakers, with lethal intention. Vice President Mike Pence was a notable target: rioters erected a gallows outside and chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” Many believed he could overturn the election result and reinstall Trump. They missed him, but left a note on his desk reading: “ITS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME / JUSTICE IS COMING!” Eleven minutes after Pence was evacuated from the Senate floor, President Trump tweeted that the vice president lacked “courage”. (It was one of the last tweets the president would ever send, as his account was banned soon after.) According to The Washington Post, Trump was being briefed immediately on Pence’s movements, and at least one witness said the president was watching live television coverage of the events as he tweeted. 

As members of congress barricaded themselves in or took shelter for hours, some Republican House members refused to wear surgical masks in the enclosed space; afterwards, three lawmakers tested positive to COVID-19. Staffers in the office of Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, barricaded the doors with furniture and water jugs, and found that panic buttons installed in the suite had been inexplicably removed. Another representative forced into hiding, Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, had buried his son the day prior. At 2.30am, he returned to the floor to oppose Republican objections to vote certification.

A man named Richard “Bigo” Barnett bragged that he put his feet up on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, “scratched my balls” and purloined a personalised envelope as a memento (he told The New York Times he left a 25-cent piece as payment). Another rioter grinned as he hauled an embossed lectern away from Pelosi’s office. He was later identified as Adam Johnson, a Florida resident, who had posted photos of himself inside the Capitol on his personal Facebook page. “I’m not a magician,’’ his lawyer said later. “We’ve got a photograph of our client in what appears to be inside a federal building, or inside the Capitol, with government property.’’

He was not the only criminal defence lawyer lamenting these acts of defiance and self-promotion. Al Watkins, Jacob Chansley’s attorney, described his client as “a lover of nature, [who] routinely practices meditation, is an active practicer [sic] of yoga and eats only organic food”. (When held in a federal facility, Chansley reportedly refused to eat the non-organic food provided.) He was someone whose “attire was consistent with his long-held Shaman beliefs”. In the face of such comprehensive evidence of guilt, Watkins tried an unorthodox approach: he openly invited Trump to use his pardon powers. Such a course of action would be “appropriate and honorable”, he said, because “Mr. Chansley and other like-minded, peaceful individuals” had “accepted the president’s invitation with honorable intentions”.

Jenna Ryan made the same gambit. “I just want people to know I’m a normal person,” Ryan told CBS in a post-arrest interview. She was facing a possible federal prison term. “I listen to my president who told me to go to the Capitol.” She deserved a pardon. Everyone deserved a pardon. Trump was, it turned out, in the mood for clemency – he granted 116 pardons in January 2021, including 73 on his last day in office – but this “orgy of pardons”, as Politico put it, were retained for “politically connected business moguls, real estate barons and disgraced former members of Congress”. Watkins and his ilk had to change tactics. They stopped appealing to the president of the United States and starting blaming him.

 The president had misled and radicalised otherwise reasonable and law-abiding people. Trump had used a “relentless” stream of falsehoods on social media and at rallies. Then, he had abandoned his most ardent supporters in their hour of need. Watkins enjoys an eccentric turn-of-phrase, and he indulged himself: the accused were “compelled to be introspective and evaluate how they got where they are, the role of their former leader in that tragic course, and the vulnerabilities they share such as to be led down a primrose path by a man whose back is now squarely fading into the Mar-a-Lago sunset”. One piece of the lurid prose cut through: Trump had led his followers into an “abyss”.

Even in the mouth of a hack lawyer, this term’s primeval undertones held. In old cosmologies, the abyss was the infernal pit beneath the Earth, a hellish void that preceded time. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its figurative meaning as “a condition from which recovery is impossible or unlikely”. Perhaps the United States will recover, after a mob sacked its capital for the first time since the War of 1812. That recovery hinges on accountability, and it is the first priority of Joe Biden’s young presidency. Its processes, including an unprecedented second impeachment, centre on just that question: does Donald Trump bear responsibility for this abyss or not?

The Senate, which decides impeachment, decided the answer to the question was some combination of “no” and “not our problem”. In formal impeachment trial proceedings, the former president was comfortably acquitted on the charge of incitement of insurrection. In a vote requiring a two-thirds majority, senators voted 57 to 43 in favour of conviction, with seven Republican senators voting with the Democrats. In the House, Wyoming representative Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, has become the face of Republican opposition to Trump. To date she has faced more severe consequences than the former president. She was censured by the home-state branch of the party, had a Trumpist congressman fly to Wyoming and address an anti-Cheney rally, and faced a vote aimed at removing her from a party leadership position.

But Cheney is not alone among her colleagues in believing Trump culpable. Minutes after he voted to acquit the former president, the Senate minority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, said Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day”. The rioters had been fed “wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth”. His “disgraceful dereliction of duty” had been driven by the basest motive, which was personal anger at losing the election. The vote to acquit was merely procedural: McConnell suggested that a verdict before Biden took office was impossible because of timing, and an impeachment verdict afterwards was unconstitutional. The punishment was removal, and Trump was no longer in office.

In his address, McConnell did advocate other legal measures against the former commander-in-chief. “We have a criminal justice system in this country,” he said. “We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being accountable by either one.” Trump loses his immunity from prosecution once out of office, and attorneys-general are already exploring prospective charges. In Georgia, the secretary of state has a special interest in a notorious January 2 phone call, where Trump pressured officials to “find 11,780 votes”. He already faces a panoply of other lawsuits, including a defamation case where an alleged rape victim is seeking DNA evidence. 

In the Republican Party there is another tranche of lukewarm Trump loyalists. They believe that the president is guilty, but that he shouldn’t be punished. These figures emphasise healing, as though a lack of consequences for a failed coup would create a moment of across-the-aisle kumbaya. The Utah senator Mike Lee told Fox News that, “Everyone makes mistakes, everyone is entitled to a mulligan once in a while”, using the golfing term for re-taking a muffed shot (he later claimed he had been referring to the inflammatory comments of Democratic politicians, not Trump’s actions). Tim Scott of South Carolina opposed impeachment because it would lead to “more hate and a deeply fractured nation”. They stayed clear of addressing culpability. 

Impeachments are divisive by nature, and if this one did attract special rancour, it was only because Trump has retained so much support. Among Republican voters, his role in the Capitol Hill riots did see his job approval rating decline – from 89 per cent to 87 per cent. Among his support base, he is still considered the greatest president in American history, held in an esteem that outstrips Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. According to a CNBC report on the network’s own polling, “Two-thirds of Trump supporters said the president’s comments and actions since the Jan. 6 attack did not shift their views, while nearly a third – 28% – said that the events had reinforced their thinking. Only 5% said they now regretted their vote.” A YouGov poll, much disputed, showed that almost half of GOP supporters were even willing to support the rioters themselves.

What to do about this massive, flagrantly authoritarian cohort is a bipartisan problem. Within the Republican Party, it has expressed itself as a civil war, with voter de-registrations and coming primary challenges. Former House speaker John Boehner’s 2018 pronouncement that there was “no Republican Party, there’s a Trump Party” and that the Republican Party was “taking a nap somewhere” has proved true, and the nap is producing nightmares. The fresh class of Republican congressional representatives includes a new model of politician, which has more in common with YouTubers than legislators.

There is Madison Cawthorn, a North Carolina representative who in a leaked email said, “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.” There is Lauren Boebert, a congresswoman who insists she will continue carrying a firearm on the House floor – on January 6 she tweeted Speaker Pelosi’s whereabouts and compared the day to the revolutionary moment of 1776. When metal detectors were installed subsequent to the attack, Boebert arrived at work, set one off and refused a bag check. And there is Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Greene, a House representative from Georgia, is an embodiment of the most repellent pathologies of American politics. She is an adherent of the QAnon conspiracy theory, has endorsed the execution of Democratic political leaders, and suggested several school shootings were faked. She also harassed David Hogg, a Florida school-shooting survivor turned gun control advocate. Republicans decided this track record was worthy of appointment to the House education committee. Hogg suggested she apologise to the families of school-shooting victims; instead, she apologised in private to Republican House members, who gave her a standing ovation.

More powerful and more cunning than the “QAnon caucus” are those veterans of the Senate who have dedicated themselves to the Trumpian Lost Cause. They are styled as anti-elitists, though their credentials belie the posture. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has recently affected the kind of mullet haircut seen in prison exercise yards, attended Princeton and Harvard Law School. Josh Hawley, the Missouri senator who raised a fist in solidarity with Capitol Hill protesters, is an alumnus of Yale Law School and Stanford, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. Hawley has positioned himself as Trump’s populist heir apparent, which entails being an understudy to his media stunts as well. As the impeachment trial proceeded, the senator, who is supposed to be acting as a juror, sat in the Senate gallery instead of on the floor, reading papers with his feet up. Hawley defended his conduct, claiming he found the chamber “claustrophobic”, and said he preferred to view the House impeachment managers from upon high. Cruz, alongside Trump lickspittle Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee, met with the former president’s defence lawyers on the eve of their presentation. Trump lawyer David Schoen described them as “very friendly guys”.


Unlike the seasoned senators trying to capitalise on Trump’s unrepentant base, David Schoen was at the bleeding edge where populism becomes amateurism. He quit the team mid trial, after a disagreement over how to present video evidence, before Trump cajoled him into rejoining. During proceedings, his colleagues sometimes appeared uncertain if they should be speaking, and unsure on what to say. Bruce Castor, who opened the defence, gave a performance so meandering it was criticised even by Fox News host Sean Hannity, perhaps the firmest of the Trumpist diehards. One piece of “evidence” was a lengthy video montage of Democrats saying the word fight, an exhibit so confused that several senators met it with unsuppressed laughter. 

The defence’s imprecision and media-heavy arguments acted as an expression of contempt: no matter the evidence, the core of Republican senators were guaranteed to acquit. The lawyers’ real purpose was to create soundbites suitable for online and cable news content, and Schoen sandwiched his lawyerly duties with media appearances. On television he told Hannity that Democrats had incited violence, but lacked the loyal supporters needed to carry it out. “They are using rhetoric that is just as inflammatory, or more so – the problem is they don’t have followers, dedicated followers, when they give speeches.” On CBS, his colleague Michael van der Veen claimed that what happened in the trial was not dissimilar to what happened in the riots.

It was inevitable that as “owning the libs” has become the dominant media strategy and policy platform of the Republican Party, it would infect its legal strategy as well. It may already be its organising moral principle: when Adam Kinzinger became one of only three House Republicans to vote to both impeach Trump and censure Marjorie Taylor Greene, 11 members of his own family disowned him in a handwritten letter, which accused him, among other things, of joining with “the devil’s army”. Afterwards, he spoke about how difficult it was to persuade those who believed he was in league with satanic paedophiles, and said his experience as a combat veteran was useful experience in standing up to Trump.

That fissure in the Kinzinger family displays the American dilemma in miniature. How can Democrats, and the few Trump-sceptical Republicans, deal with opponents who occupy an opposing reality, not merely an opposing position? “We just fear,” Kinzinger told The New York Times, summing up the past decade of GOP politics. “Fear the Democrats. Fear the future. Fear everything. And it works for an election cycle or two. The problem is it does real damage to this democracy.” 

One species of fear was well founded: the Republican politicians who feared their own constituents. Kinzinger said a secret ballot would vote overwhelmingly to convict Trump, and that the threat these representatives anticipated went beyond primary challenges. They feared for their physical safety. They feared for their families. Pandering to this constituency is a far easier path than opposing it. It requires no slow policy work, no legislative negotiation, no wonkish study. It almost guarantees fundraising largesse – Trump himself raised US$250 million post-election, to fight a rearguard action on voter-fraud claims that proved baseless.

It also firms chances of re-election in Republican districts. Trump remains the overwhelming force in GOP politics, and those who pledge ongoing fealty will receive his endorsement in return. Whether the former president himself will seek re-election in 2024 is a live question: part of the impetus behind impeaching him was to expunge him from the seat of power forever, as a conviction would set up a Senate vote to bar him from holding public office for life. He has been dissuaded by both former and current Republican allies, though their hold over him is doubtful. According to a number of Republicans close to Trump, he fears running again would mean exposing material that could be used against him in litigation.

Instead, the ex-president may go on a vindictive road tour, holding rallies against Republicans who didn’t support his bid to overturn the election. He may operate a kind of shadow presidency from Mar-a-Lago, powerbroking his family into Senate seats, and anointing successors in between rounds of golf. He may succumb to the strain of irrelevance that undid Sarah Palin, or George H.W. Bush. But he has already changed the Republican Party forever. The natural home of cultural revanchism and racial resentment since the Nixon presidency, Trump proved that the other economic or moralistic components of the organisation were a veneer, and then he peeled that veneer away.

The idea that Trump’s “white base” is size-limited and dwindling offers comfort on false pretences. When The Wall Street Journal editorialised in February that Trump could not win another presidential election, a Republican strategist told Reuters that “the party is facing a real catch-22: it can’t win with Trump but it’s obvious it can’t win without him either”. Trump still attracted a record Republican vote in US presidential elections (despite being readily beaten by Biden), and was able to make significant inroads with Hispanic voters and African-American men.

In the meantime, President Joe Biden’s almost biblical commitment to bipartisan compromise will likely be spurned, just as president Barack Obama’s was. At a local level, GOP governors and mayors have offered tacit support to Biden’s proposed US$1.9 trillion stimulus package, tailored to counteract the effects of COVID-19. Yet even in the most dire circumstances, congressional Republicans in Washington are doing what they always do: rejecting a bill from a Democratic president. They say the sum is too large, and have particular resistance to offering US$350 billion to cities. They have applied the pejorative “Blue State Bailouts” to the package.

Behind this absurdity is a hypocrisy – “red states” are a net drain on federal funds – and also a tell. Republicans have steadily defined a “real” America that excludes cities, liberals, coasts and many, perhaps most, non-whites. With this image cemented, logic dictates they must govern for the real America exclusively. It also means they should govern against the “unreal” America, or make it ungovernable when they are in opposition. The unreal America should be disenfranchised, where possible, through voter suppression, gerrymandering or false accusations of fraud. It should be starved of funds and have its legislative agenda, no matter how anodyne, impeded. The president it elects will also be unreal, and therefore illegitimate, and its uncitizens are mendicants or thugs.

A CNN poll in January found that 75 per cent of Republican voters did not believe Biden won the 2020 election legitimately, and at first this seems like a feature of conservative messaging, especially conservative media messaging. Yet beyond this unceasing drumbeat, there are more subtle and lasting incentives to believe this way. In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis was criticised for starting a vaccination schedule in partnership with Publix grocery stores. The company had donated $100,000 to a political action committee called “Friends of Ron DeSantis”, and the counties where it rolled out the program were nearly all Republican majority. DeSantis said this was a coincidence – urban counties have more health infrastructure, and the program was targeted at the elderly. It seemed an especially happy coincidence for the governor.


In the last year of his presidency, Trump had offered a preview of what partisan emergency assistance might look like. The threat was acute enough that Biden instructed state governors to not endorse his presidential bid, lest Trump retaliate by withholding COVID-related medical supplies and personal protective equipment. In a letter to the vice president sent last April, a Connecticut Democrat wrote that “there remains a serious and damaging perception” they were being distributed “based on political or personal motives”. In September, with COVID deaths climbing to their peak, Trump said that, “If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at”, as though the most populous areas of the country could be treated as caveats or carve-outs.

The claim was false, one of 30,573 false claims he made during his presidency, according to The Washington Post. But this presidential attitude to a pandemic, seeing it solely through the lens of the Dow Jones and re-election chances, had severe real-world consequences. According to the Lancet Commission on “Public policy and health in the Trump era”, around 40 per cent of COVID deaths in the United States could have been prevented. “President Trump publicly dismissed its threat (despite privately acknowledging it), discouraged action as infection spread, and eschewed international cooperation,” the report found. Politicisation of mask-wearing was singled out as an unforced error.

There are so many COVID deaths in the US that tracking them to single-digit accuracy is a challenge. The most respected counts hit 400,000 on the final day of the Trump presidency, making the nation the worst afflicted – it was almost obligatory for news services to call the milestone “grim”. It was incomprehensible; so too was the ongoing dedication of millions of Americans willing to die, or have others die, for their president. Against this cult-like dedication, the arid particulars of infrastructure spending or stimulus cheques feel close to irrelevant. The character flaws that once precluded taking political office have become a qualification.

More anti-Democrat than Republican, these conditions make bipartisan agreement almost a contradiction in terms: if Democrats endorse something, it behoves Republicans to reject it, beginning with the presidency itself. Speaking after the vote certification debate that followed the riots, the Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly was blunt. “The fact they voted the way they did after the horror fundamentally forces you to recalibrate the relationship,” Connolly told a Vox correspondent. “You’re no longer just my political adversary or colleague of the other side, you actually aligned yourself with the people who want to kill me. So I now see you differently, I kind of see you as a threat to my personal well-being, and my family and my staff.”

The fate of most presidencies is decided in their first hundred days, and Biden has already expended a portion of these on a fruitless impeachment. His opponents want him weak for the 2022 midterm elections, where, on historical trend, Republicans are favoured to retake the Senate and House. They want him to fail. Their recent experience makes them well-qualified to achieve that.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

Cover of The Monthly, March 2021
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