THE MOST important book of the Trump era was not Bob Woodward’s “Fear” or Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” or any of the other bestselling exposes of the White House circus. Arguably it was a wonkish tome by two Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, published a year into Donald Trump’s presidency and entitled “How Democracies Die”.
After many years researching democratic slippage in Eastern Europe and Latin America, the duo admitted to experiencing double-take as they turned to their own country: “We feel dread…even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here.” An invasion of the Capitol Building on January 6th by thousands of Mr Trump’s supporters brandishing baseball bats and Confederate battle flags suggested they really are.
Summoned to Washington, DC, by the defeated president to protest against a congressional vote to approve the results of the electoral college, they occupied the building for over four hours, sent Vice-President Mike Pence and other lawmakers fleeing for safety and vandalised the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Four people died during the rampage, including a woman shot by police. Journalists were manhandled and had their cameras smashed by MAGA thugs in camouflage gear. Mr Trump meanwhile tweeted out his “love” for the insurrectionists. “Very special people”, he called them in a video recorded from the White House. His Twitter and Facebook accounts were both later suspended. Pipe-bombs were placed outside the nearby headquarters of the Republican and Democratic parties.
It might be argued that the Senate session that the insurrectionists interrupted was more troubling still. Over two-thirds of Republican members of the House of Representatives and over a quarter of Republican senators were on the verge of voting to magic Mr Trump’s defeat into victory by rejecting the electoral-college votes of a handful of states that he lost.
Naturally, in a familiar refrain of the golpista, the congressmen concerned claimed to be trying to protect democracy, not overthrow it. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who led the Senate effort, declared that “millions of voters’ concerns about election integrity deserve to be heard”. A 41-year-old graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law, who has rebranded himself a scourge of the elite under Mr Trump, Mr Hawley was photographed raising a fist of defiance to the MAGA mob shortly before it broke through the barricades.
The large majority of Republican voters who claim to believe that Mr Trump won re-election in November are not responding to rational concerns. If they were, they must have been reassured by the unprecedented number of court rulings, safety-checks and recounts that Mr Trump’s two-month effort to overturn the results has given rise to. His legal team’s 60-odd challenges were laughed out of court; including the US Supreme Court. His administration’s election security team adjudged the poll “the most secure in American history”. The justice department and its Trump-loyal former boss, Bill Barr, concluded there had been no significant fraud. Yet the belief that Mr Trump was robbed has hardened among the Republican electorate. A poll for The Economist by YouGov this week suggested 64% wanted Congress to overturn the election result for Mr Trump.
To illustrate the depths of that deception, consider the sentiment among Republicans in Wisconsin, a state Mr Biden won by 20,608 votes. The president’s lawyers have filed six failed legal challenges to the result, including in the US Supreme Court. They also instigated a recount in Wisconsin’s most populous counties, Milwaukee and Dane, adding 87 votes to Mr Biden’s tally. Wisconsin’s Republican senator, Ron Johnson, held a Senate committee inquiry into Mr Trump’s allegations; he subsequently told The Economist that he saw no reason to question the results in his home state. Yet Terry Dittrich, chairman of the Waukesha County Republican Party, Wisconsin’s biggest, maintains that Mr Trump won it, in an election riddled with fraud, and he claims to know no Republican who thinks otherwise.
For evidence the 59-year-old real-estate professional offered a list of concerns about the vote that Wisconsin’s conservative chief justice dismissed—including a big increase in postal voting that Mr Dittrich considered “absolutely fraudulent”. He also raised the simple fact that Mr Biden performed creditably in leafy Waukesha County, on the outskirts of Milwaukee, just as the Democrat in fact did in affluent white suburbs across the country. “There is absolutely no way Biden outperformed Barack Obama in Waukesha County by the numbers they are proclaiming,” Mr Dittrich said. “We’re not giving up on this. It’s not about being a bunch of Cry Babies or sore losers. We are law-abiding citizens who just want a clean election.”
William F. Buckley junior, one of the architects of the modern conservative movement, called conservatism “the politics of reality”. To the contrary, it now seems. A majority of Republican voters have in effect accepted Mr Trump’s claim that Democrats cannot win legitimately and that a lack of proof of their machinations is proof of a cover-up.
“It is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act,” was the verdict of the generally reticent Paul Ryan, the former Republican leader in the House, on the decision of so many Republican congressmen to support that fiction. The final congressional vote, held after the insurgents had been cleared from the Capitol Building and its hallways swept for explosives, certified the electoral college results, with objections from 130 Republican House members and half a dozen senators. For his part, Mr Ziblatt said he viewed this stunt as a “dress rehearsal” for the more serious Republican effort to overthrow an election he now considers probable.
There are reasons to hope that will turn out to be too pessimistic. The Republicans who voted to overturn the results did so recklessly and cynically, but in the knowledge that they would not succeed. Those Republican officials who actually could have changed the election’s outcome mostly hewed to the constitution. They included Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, the subject of a campaign of intimidation and abuse by the president and his cronies. This week Mr Raffensperger released a recording of the president inveigling him to “find 11,780 votes”, shortly before Georgia’s two Senate run-off elections were held on January 5th. Mr Trump’s additional attacks on Mr Raffensperger and other principled Georgian officials appear to have done his party no favours. The Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, won both races, giving their party its first Senate seats in the state for 20 years, control of the Senate and a unified government.
The following day, Mitch McConnell, thus denuded of his Senate majority, issued a stinging denunciation of Mr Hawley and the rest. Overthrowing the electoral college votes “would damage our republic for ever,” said Mr McConnell, who is rarely accused of acting on principle. Minutes later Mr Trump’s special people launched their invasion of the Capitol—which in turn emboldened senior Republicans to criticise the president more directly than they have previously dared to.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an erstwhile defender of Mr Trump, said it was “past time” he “quit misleading the American people”. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, said there was “no question” Mr Trump had “incited the mob”. Even a few hardcore Trumpkins joined the chorus. A remarkable statement put out by the previously pro-Trump National Association of Manufacturers called on Mr Pence to consider invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office.
This is still some way short of a wholesale repudiation of Mr Trump by the Republican establishment. And without that, it is hard to imagine him relinquishing his grip on the party, affording it an opportunity to recommit itself to democratic norms. Yet that repudiation is now more imaginable. The president’s cheerleaders in the conservative media, all law-and-order obsessives, may find it hard to dismiss images of the Capitol Building overrun by MAGA thugs. They might even struggle to blame them on the Democratic left (though some have tried). Middle America, however polarised, dislikes mob violence and cherishes the symbols of its democracy. One commentator recalled the shift in public support from the Republicans in 1995, after Timothy McVeigh, a member of the sort of freedom-loving militia previously championed on the right, blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The parallel is inexact, but points to how far Mr Trump and his MAGA shocktroops appear to have overstepped.
Even before this week’s events, the firm view of most senior Republicans that Mr Trump would retain his lock on the party seemed too strong—a case of Stockholm syndrome, perhaps. “The base thinks Trump is a martyr,” says one Republican senator. “For the next two years, maybe four, he’ll be able to screw you in a primary without lifting a finger.” That might turn out to be right. Yet voters want a winner, which is why Grover Cleveland, in 1892, is the only one-term president to have been re-nominated. And after Mr Trump leaves office, and fades from daily view, more and more Republicans may start to recognise what the stolen-election myth is designed to conceal: his electoral weakness.
The myth’s proponents cite the many new voters he attracted in November to explain why Mr Trump could not have lost. Yet that rests on wishing away (as Mr Dittrich does) the fact that Mr Biden turned out many more. In an election that saw record-breaking turnout for both main parties, the Democrat won the 6m voters who had previously voted for a third-party candidate by a ratio of 2:1. He won first-time voters at the same rate.
Mr Trump also ran behind most Republican congressional candidates. His party made a net gain of ten in the House and almost kept its majority in the Senate, even as he lost the presidential race by a lot. That suggests the Republicans’ post-Trump future could be strong. Notwithstanding their losses this week in Georgia—a state whose young and diverse electorate has long been trending Democratic—the Republican brand has not been too damaged by the Trump years. The party also has a big advantage in the toxicity of the Democratic left, which its candidates talked up endlessly during the campaign, and which appears to have been especially effective in winning over Latinos. Carlos Curbelo, a former congressman from southern Florida, where new Latino supporters helped the party flip two House seats, describes that advance as “a huge development, the thing Republicans are most excited about”. He considers it a pointer to the party’s ideal possible future—as a multi-ethnic coalition dedicated to providing market-orientated solutions to big problems, such as climate change, that left-wingers would throw the government at.
These are reasonable conjectures. They underline the fact that the party’s future course is not set. No one predicted Mr Trump back in 2012. And the disruptive effect of his disregard for conservative verities has probably increased the ideological possibilities on the right. Most of his 16 primary opponents in 2016 spouted similar Reaganite bromides. An equivalent contest today might showcase the pragmatic conservatism of Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, the feverish Sinophobia of Mr Cotton, and the big-government populism of Senator Marco Rubio, all of which have to some degree been shaped or promoted in response to Mr Trump. Yet this happier post-Trump future for the president’s party is so far only a theoretical possibility.
The reality of Trump populism is not heterodox conservative thinking—which has yielded few policies worth mentioning in the past four years—but the grassroots furies unleashed on Capitol Hill this week. And quelling them will not be easy even if Mr Trump goes. Indeed they predate him.
Grassroots populist movements have emerged on the right every couple of decades, for different reasons, but with a characteristic commitment to purging the conservative establishment, and a tendency towards conspiracy theories and paranoia. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare in the 1950s was succeeded by Barry Goldwater’s movement in the 1960s, the more presentable Reaganites in the 1970s and the Gingrichites in the 1990s. The usual pattern, notes Geoffrey Kabaservice, a political historian, was for the insurgents to arise, win power and knuckle down to governing; whereupon they become the new establishment, and so in turn are challenged and displaced. Yet over the past decade, as economic insecurity has intersected with political polarisation and accelerating cultural and demographic change, the insurgent waves on the right have become more frequent and more radical.
The Tea Party that erupted in 2010, in response to a tough economy and Barack Obama, sent 87 radical conservatives to Congress. But there they showed no interest in knuckling down. They propagated the racist “birtherism” conspiracy against Mr Obama. They attacked bipartisanship, governing generally, and their party leaders (driving out the former Gingrichite House Speaker, John Boehner). The 2013 government shutdown and campaign to “repeal and replace” Obamacare with thin air were their signatures. Instead of being displaced, they morphed into the MAGA crowd, which has since propagated more radical versions of itself, such as the Trump ultras of QAnon, a movement committed to sniffing out socialist paedophile rings in Washington. “Conservatism’s familiar pattern of advance, consolidation, retrenchment and renewal has vanished,” writes Mr Kabaservice. “In its place is something that looks like #MAGA Forever.”
This development can also be seen up close in Wisconsin, where the Tea Party wave helped bring to power, under Scott Walker, what at first looked like a bold new experiment in conservative governing. Yet the state’s Republican base, whipped up by the conservative media, turned out to be less moved by Mr Walker’s school-voucher system than a racially infused hostility to the other side. In a purple state, formerly known for bipartisan comity, an extreme Republican gerrymander in 2011 gave the party a supermajority in the state legislature. This liberated Wisconsin Republicans from having to appeal to swing voters, the usual force for moderation. They passed voter-identification measures which depressed non-white turnout in diverse Milwaukee, helping Mr Trump win the state in 2016. When Mr Walker and the state’s attorney-general lost elections in 2018, the legislature passed laws to strip away the powers of their offices before their Democratic replacements could take over. This was a case study in Republicans’ abandonment of two norms Messrs Levitsky and Ziblatt consider essential to a secure democracy: forbearance and mutual respect.
The Republican base was meanwhile growing more radical. The Waukesha Republicans, once a bastion of well-heeled Reaganism, have been transformed by an influx of Trump super-fans. Many are working-class whites, with no prior attachment to the party, who consider Mr Trump to be at war with the corrupt Washington establishment. Mr Dittrich says such voters now account for 70% of his membership. “They are OK with being called a Republican because they support President Trump,” he says. “But if they feel the party is not supporting President Trump then they are not likely to be as loyal as Republicans were in the past.” In September the mother of Kyle Rittenhouse—a 17-year-old vigilante who had been charged with killing two people at a Black Lives Matter Protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the previous month—attended a dinner of a sister organisation, the Republican Women of Waukesha County. She was given a standing ovation.
This illustrates why Republican voters could indeed stay unusually loyal to their defeated leader—and how hard it will be to wean them back to moderation even if they do not. They are a new base, dominated by white, working-class males, who hear the president’s raging against the liberal and conservative establishments as an expression of their own frustrations in a changing country. They make the Tea Party look constructive. Mr Trump has ushered into the conservative mainstream a politics of emotion and mindless opposition, as far from the governing philosophy of Reaganism as it is from communism. “If Reagan was around today it would be very hard to convince the Republican Party that he was a staunch conservative,” concedes Mr Dittrich, of his former hero. For his part, the genial party chairman claims to have “moved a little bit more conservative”, a development he finds hard to explain, though he contrasts it with his former enthusiasm for bipartisanship.
It is fairly hard to imagine the right reverting from this frenzied state to the moderate Reaganism of Mr Hogan, Maryland’s governor. Mr Rubio’s idea, which is essentially to keep working-class voters on board with populist economic policies, while dialling down the cultural messaging sufficiently to woo back some suburbanites, may be more promising. It is not clear that this more serious populism’s industrial and other policies differ much from those of the centre-left, stripped of their environmental concerns. It has also generated almost no enthusiasm among the party’s pro-business establishment. But it has a compelling political logic. It should also be clear that almost any course that can move the Republican Party back to governing, from cultural grievance and resistance, should be welcomed.
Mr McConnell and his Republican caucus should view the looming possibility of co-operation with the Biden administration as an opportunity to that end. The president-elect is a veteran Senate deal-maker, keen to govern from the centre. And the slimness of the Democrats’ Senate majority will give his party no other option but to try to. The conventional wisdom is that Mr McConnell, an old hand at disloyal opposition, will want no part in that—just as he obstructed the Obama administration. But, in retrospect, he might consider that that didn’t work out so well for his party.
It pushed Mr Obama to the left, and helped fuel the growing partisan rage on the right. That in turn helped lead to the Tea Party, to Mr Trump and to this week’s disgraceful anti-democratic lurch among Senate Republicans—that Mr McConnell, to his credit, stood firmly against. Surely he and his Trump-bruised Republican colleagues don’t want to go through that again. Working with Mr Biden, to fix some of the country’s most aggravating problems, would be a sign that they do not.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “After the insurrection”