The evening before before Senate Republicans filibustered a commission to investigate the Capitol insurrection, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, displaying his impeccable sense of timing, delivered a speech urging his party, in the most elliptical fashion possible, to break free from Donald Trump. Ryan’s prepared remarks include a call for Republican leaders to show “independence and mettle,” and gentle suggestions that Trump’s personality may have turned off some voters. Ryan’s speech reportedly does not even name Trump, except in one passage praising his economic policies.
Voters want independence and mettle, Ryan believes — just from somebody else, not him!
In the aftermath of the insurrection, Republican Party elites were openly broadcasting their disgust with Trump. Mitch McConnell gave his members permission to vote to impeach Trump, and even briefly entertained the possibility of joining them. By now, whatever defiant impulse the party’s establishment harbored has died down to the point where a former officeholder merely hinting that Trump is politically suboptimal rates as a news story.
Having once briefly supported impeachment, McConnell currently is not only unwilling to impeach Trump for the insurrection, he won’t even permit a toothless commission of inquiry on the matter. The Senate Minority Leader actively lobbied his caucus to oppose the commission, asking them to filibuster it “as a personal favor,” his highest level of pressure.
The logic of the party’s about-face on the January 6 commission is ultimately pretty simple. When they first conceived the idea, they imagined that they would be moving into a post-Trump era, and an exploration of the former president’s culpability would not impair their political message. It might have even aided it — after all, a key element to the right-wing backlash against President Obama was the pretense that Republicans had learned from George W. Bush’s errors and could no longer be blamed for them.
But once they realized they couldn’t repudiate Trump, at least not without a cost, the political math of the commission no longer penciled out. Now such a spectacle threatened to indict a man still very much the party’s face. The vote has become another symbolic demonstration of the party’s continued fealty to its self-styled president in exile.
And so they have set out to convince themselves of Trump’s innocence. To this obfuscatory end, The Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger has produced one of the most remarkable sentences ever put to paper. After arguing against a January 6 commission, he concedes the issue will still hurt the party even if it withholds all cooperation: “Eventually, Republicans in contested elections will have to say something publicly about the Trump-related Jan. 6 realities — it did happen on his watch — because their opponents will shove it in their faces in every debate.”
What a masterpiece of euphemism! The president’s effort to overturn the election and secure an unelected second term by goading a violent mob to storm the Capitol and threaten legislators to support the coup has been rendered as “Trump-related Jan. 6 realities.”
And, Henninger concedes, Trump’s own involvement in the brief aside, “it did happen on his watch,” as though his only culpability had been failing to act quickly enough to stop the violence. Happened on his watch would be a fair description of, say, George W. Bush’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. If Bush had spent months before the attack calling for holy war, and then met with the hijackers right before the attack and instructed them to martyr themselves, his culpability would have been substantially greater. (Though Henninger still probably, in the end, would have opposed impeaching him.)
Having reduced the unpleasant Trump-related activities to the vaguest euphemism, Henninger, just two sentences later, uses the bloodiest and most specific possible imagery to describe a commission into it: “But amid the political toxicities that have festered for six years, it takes a lot of political cheek to expect that Republicans would now erect a scaffold for their own hanging by voting for Mrs. Pelosi’s Jan. 6 commission.”
An actual violent insurrection was just “Trump-related Jan. 6 realities,” but bringing a bunch of elected officials into a room to discuss it peacefully is a metaphorical hanging.
The imagery of choice oddly echoed a recent statement by Representative Greg Pence, brother of the former vice-president: “Hanging Judge Nancy Pelosi is hell-bent on pushing her version of partisan justice, complete with a handpicked jury that will carry out her predetermined political execution of Donald Trump before law-enforcement officials have completed their investigation.”
On January 6, Greg Pence was with his brother, who was hiding from mobs roaming the Capitol and chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” while frantically begging his boss to call them off, to little avail. Their intention had enough advance planning that they erected a gallows outside the Capitol to enhance the menace. I am no psychiatrist. But it seems to me that this fixation with describing the peaceful, legal investigation of people who sought to hang elected officials as itself a hanging is their subconscious at work.
The Republican Party’s approach toward Trump since 2015 has been marked by a consistent belief that he either will or should be stopped from doing terrible things by somebody else, eventually. Meanwhile, his control over the party has tightened; nearly every contested primary is a humiliating competition to grovel for his approval; and he is picking off dissenters one by one. Now, even the symbolic step of denouncing the violent portion of his sincere effort to destroy American democracy is no longer possible.