Trump supporters sought to reverse the result of a democratic election on Wednesday at the behest of the president himself. DER SPIEGEL has reconstructed the events of a day that will live in infamy.
By Max Hoppenstedt, Janne Knödler, Britta Kollenbroich, Roland Nelles, Ralf Neukirch, René Pfister, Maximilian Popp, Mathieu von Rohr, Alexandra Rojkov, Marcel Rosenbach, Alexander Sarovic und Christoph Scheuermann
Suddenly, there he stands. On the podium of the United States Senate, in the heart of American power. A bearded man with a fur hat and horns on his head, his bare torso a medley of chest hair and tattoos, a heavy metal chain dangling from his neck and his face striped with red, white and blue makeup. Like a harbinger of hell. He is holding an American flag in his hand and looking around. All of the Senators who had been there just minutes before have fled and the room is empty aside from the handful of other men who had breached the Senate floor along with him. “Where is Pence? Show yourself!” the intruders call out.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, as president of the Senate, was supposed to be presiding over the counting of the Electoral College votes confirming the election of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. It is normally a ceremonial act, a key part of the democratic transition of power. But the fact that Pence is involved in the process at all has transformed him into a pariah for those who continue to support Donald Trump.
The man in the fur hat is named Jake Angeli and he looks like a character from some dystopian video game. He is a passionate fan of Donald Trump and is just as ardent in his loyalty to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Angeli has managed to achieve a certain amount prominence in the scene as a “Q Shaman,” and has been making appearances at rallies and events for months to protest on Trump’s behalf and has also attended demonstrations countering Black Lives Matter events. Over the summer, he told a reporter that he wanted to show the president that there are patriots out there who will support whatever he does. It would be hard for Trump to find a more pliant supporter than the Q Shaman.
Hundreds of men and women joined Angeli in forcing their way into the Capitol on Wednesday, the seat of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The photos and video clips show the world’s proudest democracy under siege: Trump followers senselessly pounding down windows and doors, while security confront them on the other side with weapons drawn; men and women wearing MAGA hats and waving Trump flags as they hoot and holler in the halls of the Capitol; intruders who slouch in the desk chair belonging to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; frightened lawmakers in gas masks being rushed to safety through the basement halls of the Capitol. They are shocking scenes. Some of Trump’s supporters are wearing camouflage and helmets as though they were preparing for a civil war.
It quickly becomes apparent how unprepared security personnel were. The Capitol Police, who are responsible for protecting Congress and staff, deploy pepper spray, tear gas and truncheons, but they are badly outnumbered by the aggressors. Windows are shattered, dozens push their way into the building and hundreds more follow. In the Rotunda, located between the House and the Senate, a Trump fan climbs onto the pedestal of a statue of former President Gerald Ford, puts a MAGA cap on his head and starts waving his Trump flag.
Dozens are injured in the scuffling and skirmishing. One woman is shot by Capitol Police and falls to the ground in a pool of blood. She would later die in hospital.
Attack on Democracy
The mob of Trump fans, QAnon supporters, right-wing anarchists and weapons fanatics was ultimately able to lay siege the heart of American democracy for several hours. Some were carrying the Civil War-era flag of the Confederacy, a symbol of hate and racism.
The attack on the Capitol was anything up unpredictable. It was incited, touted and trumpeted by the president of the United States, whose job is actually that of protecting his people from harm. It was Donald Trump who demanded on Wednesday midday that the vice president instigate a coup d’état. It was Trump himself who, speaking from a podium in front of the White House, encouraged his followers to march on the Capitol.
Most Trump supporters are convinced that the election was stolen from their hero, that the Democrats falsified the election results, destroyed ballots cast for Trump and manipulated voting machines.
It is a lie that the president has been disseminating for weeks, despite there being not even the flimsiest shred of evidence for election fraud. In numerous states, election commissions have audited the results, some of them several times. In dozens of court cases across the country, judges have rejected complaints from Trump’s campaign as being unfounded. Even many Republicans have stopped believing in the fraud narrative, if they ever truly did. But for millions of Americans, Joe Biden is not the legally elected president of the United States.
The world on Wednesday became witness to an attack on democracy that was months in the making, provoked by the very highest levels of American government. Trump recruited fellow Republicans to reverse the decision made by the American electorate and grant him a second term in office. Those who declined to go along with the effort were subjected to immense pressure. He tried to win the vice president as an ally in his campaign, and when that didn’t work, Trump sought to brand Pence as a traitor. What we saw in Washington this week was nothing less than a coup attempt by the outgoing president.
After hours of silence on Wednesday, Trump did finally issue a video statement encouraging the mob to go home. At the same time, though, he made clear where his affections lay: “We love you, you’re very special,” he said. The violence wasn’t an accidental byproduct of Trump’s incitement, it was specifically summoned by him.
Since Wednesday, there has been a growing push in the U.S. capital to get rid of Trump as quickly as possible, even before Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. The president “encouraged a violent attack on the United States Capitol,” said Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski. It is simply too dangerous for the country to allow him to remain in office, he added.
On Thursday, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi also demanded that Trump be removed from office. She called on Vice President Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and immediately expel him from the White House. Otherwise, she said, the Democrats would introduce articles of impeachment. There are, she allowed, just a few days left until his term comes to an end, but “any day can be a horror show for America,” she said. The 25th Amendment gives the vice president, provided he has the support of the cabinet, the power to declare the president unfit for office.
Removing Trump from office with the 25th Amendment would be a first in U.S. history. It has been used several times in the past to temporarily pass power to the vice president, such as when Ronald Reagan underwent a medical procedure in 1985 and was briefly under general anesthesia. But the amendment has never been used to depose a president against his will.
Whether or not he is quickly removed, his support base in Washington appears to be crumbling. A number of former allies resigned from administration positions in the hours after the raid on the Capitol, including his former chief of staff, Nick Mulvaney, who was serving as special envoy to Northern Ireland. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao also resigned, though it was unclear if the move was primarily an attempt to protect her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: Since she is no longer a member of the cabinet, she would not have to cast a politically sensitive vote on the 25th Amendment should it be invoked. High ranking China adviser Matthew Pottinger also resigned on Thursday. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos followed on Friday. Other Republicans quietly voiced their support for Trump’s removal from office.
Essentially, Washington has been engulfed by the final battle of what has been a disastrous presidency. It is a sad, filthy and unsightly downfall. And it shows how low Trump has managed to bring his country after just four years in the Oval Office.
Will the United States ever be able to recover from the ignominy of Jan. 6, 2021? It is difficult to imagine the country being able to present itself as the shining beacon of democracy in the coming years – if the country isn’t even able to stage a peaceful transfer of power. America will not be able to provide any advice to up-and-coming democratic leaders for as long as the images from Wednesday – which ex-President George W. Bush compared to a “banana republic” – are in circulation.
The U.S. now finds itself facing a painful period of self-reflection. It would be too easy to merely blame Trump for the attempted coup. He does, of course, bear a lion’s share of the blame for the attack on the Capitol for his full-throated claims that the election was stolen from him. But the pack would not have been so ready to participate in sedition had Trump not had such a committed coterie of abettors at his side during his entire term in office – a team of lackeys who played a significant role in the dismantling of democracy in America.
It was only thanks to these powerful ranks of allies that Trump was able to pursue his plan of sowing doubt about the integrity of the election – a plan that he and his advisers kicked off last summer and which reached its logical and dangerous conclusion on Wednesday.
There had been indications for several weeks that Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol, on American democracy, was in the making. The president himself announced the date when his supporters would be needed: Jan. 6, he tweeted, would be a day to “save America” and “stop the steal.” It wasn’t even necessary to read between the lines. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he tweeted. “Be there, will be wild!”
In the social media groups where conspiracy theories about the election having been stolen from Trump are considered fact, Trump’s followers spent several weeks organizing for the big day – on Facebook, on Telegram, on the new right-wing messaging platform Parler and also on message boards like 4chan.
It wasn’t difficult to follow the preparations. All you had to do was visit websites like thedonald in the early days of January, with much of the planning for Jan. 6 being conducted out in the open, visible to all. Even days before that date, marching orders had been posted, along with overt fantasies about storming the Capitol. There was even a discussion about whether they should bring weapons and, if yes, which ones.
Followers of the conspiracy theory QAnon, in particular, saw Jan. 6 as a day of hope, a day when Joe Biden’s inauguration could be blocked and Trump’s power could be secured. QAnon believers are convinced that a secret elite rule the world. At the very least, they believe that political leaders and democratic institutions are corrupt, with many of them even believing the Democrats sexually abuse and murder children.
“I Can’t Allow That”
Jerry Pritchard began preparing for the battle before sunrise on Jan. 6. His comrades-in-arms were set to arrive at 4:45 a.m. and Pritchard was hurrying to be ready before they showed up, as he explained over the phone the next day. There were nine of them, like Cindy, who has a degree in economics, and Paul, a retired farmer. All of them are members of the Republican Party in Northampton County, Pennsylvania.
It was still dark when their pickups began turning into Pritchard’s driveway. They had huge American flags in the beds of their trucks, several meters long. One of the flags bore the visage of Donald Trump, with the words “A Hero Will Rise” printed beneath.
Pritchard had never before attended a protest in Washington before. In his 54 years of life, he had never seen a need. He works at his father’s construction company, coaches baseball and goes to church on Sundays. Political protest? Not his thing. “But now they are trying to steal our election and take our country away,” Pritchard said over the phone. “And I can’t allow that.”
Pritchard’s family has been members of the Republican Party for generations, but they have never been as loyal to a politician as they are to Donald Trump. What others find repellant is, for Pritchard, a cause for deep admiration: his tone, his coarse rhetoric, his willingness to win it all or tear everything down trying. For Pritchard, Trump embodies the perfect American, and it seems hardly coincidental that he looks and sounds a bit like the president. “I’m a Trump guy,” he says.
The drive from Walnutport, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., took over three hours, and when they reached the capital that morning, they immediately headed for The Mall, where Trump was planning to speak to his supporters. Photos from these morning hours show the group in a lively and cheerful mood, smiling excitedly into the camera. Pritchard has an American flag wrapped around his neck to stave off the chilly, overcast weather.
Thousands of others were also making their way through downtown Washington on Wednesday morning. Among them were numerous members of the Proud Boys militia, a group that has proven its proclivity for violence on several past occasions. Their uniform includes black-and-yellow polo shirts. During a debate with Biden during the campaign, Trump told them to “stand back and stand by.”
The Proud Boys harbor a right-wing extremist worldview and believe that Western civilization is facing an existential threat. They were the most visible militia on Wednesday morning, but there were several dozen other right-wing groups that were also involved in the attempt to prevent Biden from moving into the White House, groups with names like The Three Percenters and Patriot Prayer.
At around 11 a.m., according to Jerry Pritchard’s account delivered by phone the next day, his phone rang. It was his sister, who is head of the local GOP chapter in Pritchard’s hometown. “Pence has stabbed Trump in the back,” she said, referring to the vice president’s refusal to block Biden’s election. “I started crying,” Pritchard says.
At midday, Trump appeared in front of his followers on the National Mall, the glorious strip stretching from the White House to the Capitol, where he spoke for about 70 minutes in a speech which, even for the president, was muddled, disgraceful, dangerous and full of lies. “We will never give up,” he called to his supporters. “We well never concede. It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.”
In closing, he called upon the crowd to march to the Capitol at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue to “give our Republicans the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” The president then returned to the White House to watch the ensuing chaos on television.
The unrest began at around 1 p.m., when a large number of Trump’s followers left the National Mall and began heading for the Capitol. Some in the group were armed with baseball bats and knives.
Pritchard and his companions also marched toward the Capitol after listening to Trump’s speech. A video shows them surrounded by people carrying flags. Pritchard then ran through the crowd to the steps of the Capitol, where he pushed against a barricade, as he would later explain. He wanted to tear it down when a police officer suddenly appeared in front of him and asked him what he was planning on doing. “I want to enter and save my country,” Pritchard says he responded. Right then, a teargas cannister landed at his feet, he says. His eyes started burning and he felt a pain in his shoulder where he had been hit by a rubber bullet. He stumbled backwards, he says, and poured water into his face.
“I was so furious,” he says. “Furious at the traitor Mike Pence, I wanted to break windows, I wanted to show that we will not accept it.” But the others in his group wanted to pull back, and Pritchard also moved away from the Capitol.
At around 2:30 p.m., the first Trump followers breached the barricades with surprising ease, climbing over them on the west side of the Capitol Building. The police seemed to offer only limited resistance in some places – not even remotely comparable to the military-like police presence of the National Guard during the Black Lives Matter protests last year. The question as to how the police could be overpowered so easily will be one the county will be addressing for quite some time to come.
Jerry Pritchard and his buddies watched the storming of the Capitol from a distance until late in the evening. Pritchard was fine with it. “It’s a building full of crooks,” he says. He means all of the politicians, “except Donald Trump.” Only gradually did the authorities, thanks to the arrival of the National Guard, win back control over the Capitol.
Pritchard and his group only left for home at 9 p.m. “I was so angry, for the whole drive,” he says. “I still am. I always will be.” He says he goes to bed angry and his anger is still there when he wakes up. Meanwhile, lawmakers in the Capitol continued their session late that night and confirmed Biden’s election as the next president of the United States.
For Pritchard, that has translated into his final break with the Republican Party. “It’s time we form a new party,” he says. “And then we’ll come back, stronger than we are now.”
Losing Is Lonely
What the future holds for Trump, meanwhile, is likely a question that not even he can answer. Thus far, the White House has kept largely silent, aside from Trump’s acknowledgement on Thursday evening that “a new administration will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.” That acknowledgement came in the form of a video posted on Twitter, after his account had been locked by the company for a day. Other than that, Trump has been keeping a low profile.
Just how far Trump’s spirits have sunk since the election can be seen in the fact that he no longer even enjoys those mini-rituals that used to give him such pleasure. Trump used to love answering a couple of questions from journalists on his way to his helicopter, but these days, he goes for days at a time without leaving his residence.
Losing is a lonely endeavor, and since Nov. 3, Trump has been drawing an even sharper line between friends and “traitors.” He has fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who had attracted his ire after refusing to send armed troops into America’s cities. Attorney General William Barr, meanwhile, who had long been one of Trump’s most reliable lieutenants, resigned on his own – apparently because he no longer wanted to be part of Trumps orgy of pardons for his cronies.
Even Rupert Murdoch has found a place on Trump’s shit list. Trump believes that the Australian media mogul is deeply indebted to him because his presidency generated vastly higher ratings for Fox News. Yet it was Murdoch’s TV station that called Arizona for Biden on Election Day, thus essentially ending Trump’s dream of re-election.
Now, Trump has turned to such broadcasters as Newsmax and OANN, which make Fox News look like a paragon of journalistic sobriety.
Trump still enjoys talking on the phone with his faithful lawyer Rudy Giuliani, but he now almost prefers speaking with Sidney Power, the new star in Trump’s firmament.
A lawyer, Powell amassed her wealth by defending white collar criminals, but for Trump, she invented the fairy tale of a socialist coup that is now installing Biden in the White House. According to that myth, the leftist regime in Venezuela manipulated voting machines in the U.S. The story was so outrageous that Trump’s new favorite broadcaster, Newsmax, which had aired the story in its entirety, was forced to air a correction after it was sued by the manufacturer of the voting machines in question. That, though, didn’t prevent Trump from considering her as a special counsel to investigate alleged election fraud – an idea that Pat Cipollone, chief White House counsel, was allegedly able to foil at the last minute.
Trump is hardly interested at all anymore in what is happening in the world outside. Even during the campaign, he had talked about how embarrassing it would be should he lose to Biden, “the worst presidential candidate” in U.S. history. Now that U.S. voters have delivered him precisely this defeat, it seems as though he no longer cares even a bit about the country’s fate.
Each day, far more than 2,000 people are falling victim to COVID-19 in the U.S., with a record 4,111 fatalities on Thursday, far more than lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks. The total number of deaths could rise to a half a million by summer – a figure greater than the sum of U.S. soldiers who died during World War II. But Trump has largely bowed out of fighting the pandemic. It seems like a cynical commentary on the situation that the White House’s nightly schedule sent to the press for the president says he is working tirelessly for the American people.
Trump will continue to shape American politics even after he leaves office – that much is clear. Some 74 million Americans voted for him in the Nov. 3 election, 11 million more than in 2016. If you drive through rural America, through Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia, you’ll see Trump flags still flying in front yards all over the place. It is from this base that Trump draws his power.
Trump could run for president again in 2024. He has already aired the idea internally. “There’s a good chance Trump will be back,” says Thomas Patterson, a professor of government at Harvard University. He says that Trump’s approval ratings have remained stable among Republicans. “It’s pretty clear that the hard core of the party’s base is behind him,” he says.
Trump’s prospects also hinge on whether he finds new media allies. Fox News may have turned its back on him, but OANN and Newsmax are still offering their unconditional support for the outgoing president. “The right-wing media is making things extremely difficult for some of the remaining moderates among the Republicans,” Patterson says.
There are persistent rumors in Washington that Trump will launch his own television station. “I think that would be a real option for Trump,” says his former adviser Anthony Scaramucci. As early as 2016, when it seemed all but certain that Hillary Clinton would win the election, Trump reportedly considered buying a channel. His son-in-law Jared Kushner scoped out the terrain and made an offer to an existing broadcaster, American media reported at the time. In Trump’s hands, a TV network would be a weapon he could use to target his enemies, and their numbers certainly haven’t diminished in recent days.
In recent years, Trump has lived on the nimbus of invincibility. But he also remains the butt of jokes, the notorious groper and braggart who was never taken seriously by the upper echelons of New York society. With the loss of office, that ridicule is again creeping up on Trump, which is another reason why he is fighting so desperately.
“Of course Trump knows he lost,” says Scaramucci, who briefly worked as the White House communications director before falling out with his boss. He says Trump knows full well that his aura and allure are attached to the office he holds. “You also have to remember that the minute he loses power,” he says, “there eight to 10 people in the Republican Party, who, when they look in the mirror, they see a future president, and they’re going to do everything they can to destroy him.”
Trump long thought he could just stay in the White House. But what if he winds up going from the Oval Office to a prison cell? It would be the first time in the history of the office that a president has been put behind bars.
Some presidents have been guilty of crimes, but not even Richard Nixon, who spent two years covering up the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex, had to stand trial. Shortly after his resignation on August 9, 1974, he was pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford.
What’s Next for Trump
In normal times, that kind of restraint makes sense. The prestige of the office sustains more than just a scratch when a former president is put through the wringer of the criminal justice system.
But does that still apply to Trump? It’s not only the left-wing of the Democratic Party and many legal experts who are now arguing that trust in democracy and the dignity of the office of the president can only be restored if Trump is forced to answer to the courts.
Trump has been guilty of far more than the usual white lies associated with politicians. “Impunity corrodes faith in institutions and in the rule of law,” says Martin Flaherty, a professor of law at Fordham University in New York. He argues that elites in politics and the financial world have been allowed to get away with too much in recent decades. Trump, he says, “is an embodiment of corruption that goes far beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
The Russia scandal, in particular, could still be dangerous for Trump. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team spent two years investigating Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. In the end, he listed no less than 10 instances in which Trump could be guilty of obstruction of justice. During his appearance before the U.S. Congress in July 2019, Mueller suggested that he had only refrained from indicting Trump because he believed a sitting president enjoyed immunity from prosecution. After he released his report, 700 former federal prosecutors penned an open letter stating that if he weren’t president, he surely would have been put on trial.
So, will that investigation be revisited? Biden has already indicated that he has little interest in pressing charges against his predecessor. The Democrat ran his campaign on the promise of reconciling the country back to its former self. And nothing would rile up the Trump base like criminal charges against their hero.
As such, Randall Eliason thinks Biden’s caution is prudent. Special Counsel Mueller does have enough evidence for an indictment, the former federal prosecutor says. “But the question is: Is it the type of case, at this point, that is worth going after a former president?” An indictment coming from the Justice Department would set a dangerous precedent – and pave the way for the politicization of the judiciary.
There are also other ways Trump can evade prosecution. During his time in office, the outgoing president has already signed 94 pardons and commutations, including for Roger Stone, who lied to Congress on the president’s behalf, and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for tax evasion and bank fraud. Two weeks ago, Trump signed pardons for former U.S. soldiers who had murdered civilians in Iraq.
And Trump has already indicated that he is willing to pardon himself if he has to. The New York Times has reported that he discussed the possibility with his advisers after the election. In June 2018, Trump tweeted that he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself. There is a dispute among legal experts over the legality of such a step and so far, not a single president has ever attempted to pardon himself – much less before being charged with wrongdoing. Richard Nixon allegedly toyed with the idea. But the Justice Department concluded after the Watergate affair that even a sitting U.S. president could not serve as his own judge and jury.
That still leaves the possibility of an early resignation. Then Vice President Pence could briefly serve as president, giving him the possibility of signing a pardon for his former boss. It’s unlikely that such a move could be challenged legally. However, it’s doubtful that Pence would want to tarnish his own legacy by pardoning a president who essentially called for a coup during his final days in office. And even if Pence could be softened – the problem remains for Trump that a presidential pardon wouldn’t protect him from criminal proceedings initiated by the states.
In New York, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has already launched an investigation into Trump. It began with the hush money payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal, which Vance deemed to be illegal campaign financing.
In the meantime, the focus of the case appears to have shifted to tax evasion and bank fraud. Even if the details of the investigation are still under wraps, the New York Times recently reported that Trump paid virtually no federal income tax for years – likely in part because he interpreted the possibilities for tax avoidance very generously and possibly unlawfully. For example, Trump reportedly shelled out around $70,000 to hair stylists one year before he became president. His daughter Ivanka also collected generous consulting fees.
A further complication for Trump is the fact that his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who for years handled all the delicate tasks for his client, is cooperating fully with New York investigators. District Attorney Vance has also spoken with employees of Deutsche Bank. The Frankfurt-based bank was one of Trump’s main lenders for many years.
And it’s not just legal worries that are plaguing the president. He is also likely to face uncomfortable times financially. The Financial Times has estimated that $900 million in loans will be coming due in the next four years, and Trump is apparently personally liable for more than a third of that amount. In normal times, that probably wouldn’t be the source of too many headaches for him, but Trump makes most of his money from hotels and golf resorts, businesses that are suffering enormously as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Add to that the weakness in the urban real estate market, which is a further blow to Trump’s bottom line. Still, it remains unlikely that he will be facing financial ruin: Forbes magazine estimates Trump’s net worth at around $2.5 billion. But it is possible that Trump will have to unload some of his real estate to pay back his loans. Trump already sought in October 2019 to sell his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, but he was unable to find a buyer willing to pay a half a billion dollars for it.
The Enduring Trump Legacy
Politically, Trump will remain a figure the world will have to reckon with: Just as he divided the country, he is now dividing the Republican Party. On the one hand, there are those in the GOP who are turning their backs on Trump. Congressman Adam Kinzinger, for example, a former Air Force pilot, tangled with Trump early on and is now accusing the president of igniting a storm of violence. And Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has been the target of death threats ever since he dared to declare Joe Biden’s victory in the state.
But not everyone has been as resilient as Raffensperger. It’s a bit like withdrawal from an addiction. Trump delivers to the Republicans what they covet most: conservative judges, tax cuts and a firm “no” to tougher gun control laws. Now, though, Republicans are starting to realize the toll that comes along with the drug called Trump. The president has not only made the Republicans docile – he has also largely turned them into part of his cult, hanging to his every word as if he were some guru.
And as in any cult, faith trumps truth. Many Republican officials now feel they have to submit to this parallel reality. It’s clear that senators like Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz, who objected to the certification of the election results, know that Trump wasn’t cheated out of victory. The very men who this week charged against the Establishment are themselves products of the East Coast elite: Hawley got his law degree from Yale and Cruz graduated from Harvard. The two men are certainly opportunists, but they haven’t lost their minds.
For them, going into battle for Trump one last time was a sober, and cynical, political calculation. That they decided to support a coup attempt, however, will forever stain Hawley’s and Cruz’s legacies. At the same time, it shows just how fearful they were of disappointing Trump’s base.
“The next six months will determine whether Trump remains in control of the party,” says Mark Smith, a professor of politics at Cedarville University in Ohio. He believes it would be best for the party in the long run if it broke free of the outgoing president, adding that Trump has never really been popular beyond his base and that his approval ratings have rarely been above 50 percent. “There is strong evidence that he is driving away a significant number of voters, especially in the suburbs,” Smith says.
The Republicans, it should be noted, performed surprisingly well in elections for the House of Representatives in November and also in state elections. It’s Trump who lost. He did manage to expand the total number of votes he got compared to 2016, but he also helped mobilize Biden’s supporters and drove many of the few remaining moderate Republicans to vote for the Democratic candidate. The latter group, especially, tipped the scales in favor of the Democrats.
Now Trump will go down in the history of the Republican Party as a president who gambled away the White House in one term as well as the party’s majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. It’s a disastrous record, which is why power players like Mitch McConnell, who is losing his role as Senate majority leader, are suddenly turning their backs on Trump after all.
For the past four years, McConnell has covered for nearly every lie and lunacy that has come out of the White House. The Kentucky politician remained silent as Trump let the children of refugees be snatched from their parents’ arms. He defended the president when it became clear that Trump had attempted to blackmail Ukraine’s leader into providing campaign ammunition against Biden. And he didn’t lift a finger when Trump called on Attorney General William Barr to open investigations into Biden.
By midday Wednesday, however, McConnell had performed a long-overdue about-face. The same man who spent four years helping to crush democracy, was suddenly contradicting Trump’s claim that the election had been rigged on the floor of the Senate. He spoke out in no uncertain terms against the plan by fellow party members Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley who, along with other Republican Senators and more than 100 members of the House of Representatives, sought to challenge Biden’s election. “I will not pretend such a vote would be a harmless protest gesture,” McConnell thundered, making it clear to everyone that his four-year friendship of convenience with Trump is over.
But is that also true for the rest of the party? In the early hours of Thursday morning, more than 100 Republican lawmakers voted in the House to conduct a retroactive audit of the presidential election.
They aren’t necessarily fans of the president, but they are driven by fear of his supporters’ anger.
That, in turn, may play into Trump’s hands. He could play a major role in steering the party’s fortunes in the future. And Trump has left no doubt that anyone who turns their back on him will face revenge. During a campaign event in Georgia on Monday, he promised to campaign against Republican Governor Brian Kemp in the next election — all because Kemp had dared to certify Biden’s victory in his state.
Trump could also prevent the party from moving back toward the center. Under Trump, the Republicans have become a movement that denies climate change and considers racism to be a fringe issue at most. It was Trump who declared the European Union an enemy of the U.S., and this despite the fact that Republicans have placed great emphasis on fostering trans-Atlantic friendship for decades.
An Uphill Battle for Biden
This is not good news for Biden. He has repeatedly said that, as president, he would seek to work with the Republicans. But is that even possible when much of the party has abandoned reality? The double victory of the two Democratic Party Senate candidates in Georgia, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, now gives the Democrats a majority in the Senate for the first time in years. The years-long stalemate that paralyzed Barack Obama, particularly in his second term in the White House, is history. Biden will not be facing a hostile Senate when he takes the oath of office on Jan. 20.
As a first step, the incoming president could significantly expand the already approved corona aid package. The Democrats want to give most Americans a $2,000 check – an effort that Trump has also endorsed but failed because of McConnell’s opposition.
But Biden’s plan goes well beyond that. During the election campaign, he said he would help states and municipalities with a massive economic stimulus package. He also wants to provide greater support for the unemployed. The question of how quickly the U.S. economy recovers from the crisis sparked by the coronavirus will be a determining factor in the success of Biden’s presidency. The majority in the Senate is also an important factor for Biden’s nominations. Biden will now be able to appoint cabinet posts, judges and ambassadors without having to take the Republicans into account. Still, Biden and incoming Vice President Kamala Harris won’t be able to just push through any legislation they want to. A 60-percent majority is required in the Senate for many bills. And just like the Republicans, the Democrats are a deeply divided party.
In that sense, it would be best for Biden if he could get a few moderate Republicans on his side. That would make him independent of the hotheads within his own party. But cooperation with the Republicans will only succeed if the party is able to free itself of Trump.
Moreover, the storming of the Capitol has highlighted the extent to which polarization of society has intensified under Trump, but also how the Americans understanding of democracy has shifted. In a poll taken by the institute YouGov, 45 percent of Republicans said they supported the storming of the Capital, while 43 percent condemned the attack.
“Trump is a demagogue who amasses power by fomenting prejudice and social division,” says political scientist Smith. “He could find imitators who want to be like him and copy his style.” Men like senators Cruz and Hawley, for example, who have embraced Trump’s accusations of fraud only because they have their eye on the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 and want to keep the Trump base on their side.
Trump never had the political skill and diligence to systematically bring the political apparatus to heel. But he has been ruthless in exposing the weaknesses of American democracy. That could pave the way for smarter demagogues – for men like Cruz or Hawley, who have spent their entire lives trying to secure political power. The danger to America will not be over with Joe Biden’s inauguration. He will become president of a country that has lost its footing.