With two weeks left in Donald Trump’s presidency, Mick Mulvaney has resigned from the administration. “I can’t do it. I can’t stay,” he told CNBC. That’s newsworthy in the most banal sense; Mulvaney is the rare Trump official to last four years in a chaotic administration. But at this late stage, his departure merits only one reaction: So what? What can anyone say about Mulvaney or about Stephanie Grisham, another Trump loyalist, who on Tuesday resigned, finally, as Melania Trump’s press secretary? Charlottesville, caged migrants, and over 350,000 COVID dead couldn’t dislodge them from power’s orbit; it took a white-nationalist riot in the U.S. Capitol and four dead people to convince them to leave.
And what should we say about Kelly Loeffler? Or any of the other Republican senators who reversed their objection to the Electoral College certification at the last possible moment? What can we say about Lindsey Graham, who took to the floor of the Senate and begged his comrades to count him out of a fiasco he helped create? Or Mitt Romney, who blamed Trump’s “injured pride” and a campaign of deliberate misinformation for inciting “an insurrection”? Some, certainly, lavished Romney with praise for his bravery. Even Graham, the more cynical actor, earned the occasional kudos.
But something is absent from these gestures and from the praise they generate: a moral reckoning, or some admission of guilt or complicity, or any sign, really, that Mulvaney and Graham and even Romney are ready to call their political project a failure. What happened in the Capitol is the natural conclusion to four years of Trump and more. It is an inevitable by-product of the conservative movement. The road to Tuesday’s riot runs through the reactionary presidency of George W. Bush and that of his father and that of Reagan and that of Nixon. Consultants like Roger Stone and Lee Atwater, who marshaled the poisonous political potential of America’s vilest instincts, drew the map. Right-wing think tanks incubated a new generation of cartographers. Fox News, finally, pointed the way with help from a thriving far-right media ecosystem. The conservative movement brought us here, and nobody in it knows how to help us leave.
To admit this is to confess that our democracy is far less robust than our mythmaking asserts. America can hardly be a beacon of light if one of our two major parties threatens democracy itself. But that’s the situation in which we find ourselves, and pretense helps no one but the far right. For the entirety of our national history, conservatives have defined themselves against each new expansion of rights to the vulnerable. Every time we examine ourselves as a nation and find ourselves lacking, they deflect and demur, and eventually they resist. They tolerate nothing that would substantively reform the order of things or weaken the power they believe they deserve. We don’t need labor unions, they insist, and we don’t need the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We must not recognize a right to abortion or a right to welfare or a right to marry or even a right to use the bathroom in peace while trans.
So all-consuming is their worship of power that conservatives were largely unwilling to reject or even criticize Trump once he became the party’s nominee. This wasn’t mere cowardice; Trump shares a few fundamental convictions with even the most skeptical members of his party. His commitment to free-market capitalism cannot be questioned. His rudimentary nationalism mirrors decades of conservative fearmongering; he did not invent a hatred for immigrants or a taste for deportations. With his tax cuts for the wealthy and the administration’s war on food stamps and Medicaid and welfare in general, Trump made explicit a thing conservatives already believed: that poverty is a sign of weakness or sloth and that the rich are to be rewarded for their hard work and genius. Nor was he the first Republican politician to bait the movement’s looniest fringe. Before there was Q and the deplorables, there was the tea party, and before them the Moral Majority and the Birchers and the Conservative Citizens’ Councils.
With Trump, the GOP simply became the truest version of itself. It’s a child’s impulse to locate courage or principle somewhere within its ranks. Not quite willing to surrender their belief in Santa Claus, or, in this case, a Republican with the nation’s interests at heart, commentators, consultants, and flacks spin up a fantasy: The two-party system still works, democracy still functions, the week’s horrors will soon fade. And so, by necessity, the bar to be considered a great statesman sinks lower each week of the Trump presidency. In the hours after the attack on the Capitol, it can perhaps sink no lower. A politician like Romney merely has to tell the truth in public for hacks and partisans to make him the king of the hour.
Spare no praise for any of them — not for Mulvaney, who had years to rediscover his conscience; or for Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who followed him out the door on Wednesday; or for senators like Romney, who says, still, that he would not vote to impeach Trump. You can’t save democracy by pretending the situation is anything but totally dire. Nor is it enough to simply pull the reverse Romney and speak the truth and leave it lying there. Democracy is in trouble, the Republican Party is hopeless — so what, then, are we supposed to do? As feckless as the Democratic Party so often demonstrates itself to be, its congressional delegation does occupy an impossible position. They can vote to impeach Trump, and they can try to expel the most seditious members of his party; beyond that, it will be difficult to govern. Nobody, not the clearest-eyed members of the Squad, can prop up a two-party system on their own power.
But there’s still hope, and it lies in the very institution the Republican Party has abandoned. The only reasonable response to an assault on democracy is to strengthen it against future attacks. Rather than obsess over civility or pine for an era of bipartisanship that will not arrive, Democrats must do precisely what conservatives have always opposed: Restore and then expand voting rights; enfranchise felons and incarcerated people; grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and the people of Puerto Rico, if that’s what they choose. Beyond this, Democrats must finally reckon with poverty, an effort that is linked to the project of rebuilding a multiracial democracy. Poverty is tyranny and a disenfranchising force in the lives of its victims. Poor Americans are the least likely to vote. Constrained by unpredictable work schedules, child-care demands, unreliable transportation, and the deeper sense of alienation that poverty typically inflicts, the Americans who need democracy the most are effectively barred from it.
Democrats have their own reactionaries to control if they’re going to accomplish anything the country needs from them. But they — and the press — will have to start by admitting the stakes. There’s no courage on the other side of the aisle. Only ambition, greed, and an old anti-democratic movement.