The January 6 hearings are about the events of a single day, but they implicate a much broader phenomenon: the Republican Party’s faltering commitment to democracy. The mob attack on Congress a year and a half ago was merely the most grotesque manifestation of Donald Trump’s rejection of democracy, and Trump himself merely the most grotesque manifestation of his party’s authoritarian impulses.
“Parties that are committed to democracy must, at minimum, do two things: accept defeat and reject violence,” wrote the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way earlier this year. Trump has built a movement that does neither. And while he is justifiably known for his petty egocentrism, he has finally and genuinely infused this movement with beliefs that are greater than his self-interest and whose power will outlast him.
The hearings, hoping to gain the widest possible approval, have devoted respectful attention to the perspective of the Republican Party’s mainstream. That perspective was expressed by Trump’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien, who testified, “There were two groups. We called them kind of my team and Rudy’s team,” referring to Trump’s onetime personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. “I didn’t mind being characterized as being part of Team Normal.” During his deposition, former attorney general William Barr, another member of Team Normal, colorfully heaped scorn on Trump’s claims to have been the victim of systemic voter fraud.
Nobody should dismiss the importance of Team Normal’s refusal to follow Trump’s conspiracy theories to the barricades, which might have averted a constitutional crisis. But the Republican mainstream has used the existence of Team Normal to dismiss Trump’s effort to overturn the election as little more than a prank gone wrong. The Wall Street Journal protested that the committee “makes it seem as if there was a chance of success. There wasn’t. It was an impossible plan hatched by screwballs, and it would have gone down as such if the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers hadn’t breached the Capitol.” Sure, Trump might have gone off the deep end along with a handful of advisers, but Team Normal always had it under control.
One flaw in the Team Normal theory is that it’s not always easy to detect who is on the team. Giuliani’s colleagues remembered him from his days as America’s Mayor and might not have grasped how quickly he had radicalized. John Eastman, who spearheaded Trump’s various legal strategies to steal the presidency, and Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a fervent foot soldier in the attack on the 2020 results, operated within respectable Republican circles for years. A Justice Department lawyer named Jeffrey Clark had plotted with Trump to seize control of the DOJ and declare the election void, only to be narrowly thwarted by Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and other officials who had assumed their colleague was an ordinary, non-fascist Republican lawyer. “Rosen was stunned,” reported the Washington Post. “He had known Clark for years and once had worked with him at Kirkland & Ellis. Rosen told the Senate committee that he wondered ‘what’s going on with Jeff Clark. That this is inconsistent with how I perceived him in the past.’ ”
Another flaw is that Team Normal was willing to engage in a great deal of abnormality. Trump was planting the seeds to challenge the election outcome for months in advance, depicting mail ballots as a source of uncontrollable fraud. Barr echoed these lies, nonsensically claiming that people in foreign countries could easily mail in fake ballots. Trump’s plan was to encourage his supporters to vote in person and use the fact that those ballots were counted first to claim victory. Jonathan Swan of Axios reported that Trump was telling confidants about this scheme before the election.
And while they now pronounce themselves shocked, shocked, to have discovered gambling in the establishment, the response by Team Normal to a sitting president’s attempt to steal an election was neither deep nor sustained. Barr resigned quietly, publishing a sycophantic letter depicting Trump as a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of partisan hardball and political conspiracies. Stepien said nothing and is now working for a primary challenger to Liz Cheney, who has been ostracized for criticizing Trump’s coup attempt.
The deepest flaw in the Team Normal worldview, and the point at which its belief system turns from merely naïve to dangerous, is its assumption that it is safe to give power back to Trump’s party even if Trump is leading it. Barr made this plain when he admitted that while he strongly prefers a different nominee, he would support Trump again should he win the 2024 primary. It is the underlying premise of the non-Trump Republican Establishment.
This complacency fails to account for the party’s rapid transformation since Trump left Washington on Air Force One to the sounds of the Village People. Trump’s intraparty critics have portrayed his relentless focus on litigating the election as the self-defeating tactic of a loser. “Trump is acting on an entirely personal and selfish priority,” complains National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry. “There’s no principle at stake in embracing the Jan. 6 mob or advancing 2020 conspiracy theories.” In truth, it is actually an effective organizing tool built around the unifying idea that Democratic election victories are inherently illegitimate. He has inspired millions of followers and harnessed their energy to reshape the party into a vehicle to advance his vision.
Well over 100 Republican nominees for national or statewide office explicitly endorse Trump’s fantasy that the election was plagued by large-scale fraud. A much greater number of Republicans simply refuse to say one way or another if Joe Biden won the election fairly. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, asked recently about Barr’s confession that Trump had no grounds to dispute the election results, first asserted that something fishy did occur (“You saw some states not follow their state-passed legislation”) before pivoting to his desire not to “keep relitigating 2020.”
The party is split between those Republicans who refuse to take a stance on Trump’s coup and those who actively endorse it, with the latter faction rapidly gaining ground. The Republican nominee for Nevada secretary of state, a job that would oversee elections, has asserted, “Your vote hasn’t counted for decades. You haven’t elected anybody. The people that are in office have been selected.” Pennsylvania’s Republican candidate for governor not only supports Trump’s election-fraud lie but was present at the storming of the Capitol on January 6.
Recently, the New York Times reported that members of the Proud Boys, a paramilitary sect that planned an operation to infiltrate the Capitol on January 6, are joining the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee. The group’s chairman feebly protested, “Yes, we have different points of view in our party. That’s how we are. And my job as Republican chairman is to protect everyone’s First Amendment right, however wrong they may be,” as though political parties have no right to engage in viewpoint discrimination.
Asked if he approved of his home city’s Republican organization welcoming Proud Boys, Senator Marco Rubio refused to say. (“Well, when you ask me about the communists and socialists that are part of the local Democratic Party, then we can talk about who’s a member of the Republican Party.”) Rubio, a barometrically perfect measure of the center of Republican opinion, is giving his tacit endorsement of a modern version of the Brownshirts joining the party cadres.
A party that could be trusted not to launch another attack on democracy would be willing and eager to expunge its sins. The Republicans’ refusal to reckon with January 6 and exclude the insurrectionists is the strongest sign that they will try it again the next chance they have.
More on the january 6 hearings
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- The January 6 Hearings Exposed Trump’s Criminality. Will It Matter?
- Turns Out the Secret Service Repeatedly Defied Trump on January 6