And, at the same time, the whole world saw the defeated leader of this Republican Party use the awesome powers of the presidency to instigate an insurrection against the legislature — a coup attempt, plain and simple. After the last time Republicans lost the presidency, in 2012, they famously held an “autopsy” to see what had gone wrong. This time, President Trump went straight to the cremation, throwing the Capitol, with Vice President Pence in it, onto the funeral pyre.
So many sounded the alarm for so long about Trump’s authoritarian instincts and violent rhetoric. For years, he instigated threats and violence against journalists (“enemy of the people”), racial and religious minorities, immigrants and Democrats. Yet Republicans excused him, defended him, enabled him. Now, in defeat, the autocrat showed the world his true colors and mobilized violence against Congress, Republicans included, and his own vice president.
What Trump’s mob did to the Capitol — the first time the seat of American government had been sacked since the War of 1812 — was evil. It was murder. It was domestic terrorism. It was sedition. And, yes, it was treason.
Yet what Trump’s Republican allies were doing inside the chambers of Congress at the time of the attack — Trump’s justification for inciting the riot — was just as seditious: They were attempting to overturn Joe Biden’s election as president, overrule the voters and install Trump, by fiat, for another term.
This Republican Party needs to go the way of the Whigs.
The GOP was born, from the ashes of the Whigs, under similar circumstances. The Whigs in 1848 jettisoned their core principle — limited presidential power — in favor of political expediency. Instead of nominating one of their legendary statesmen — Daniel Webster or Henry Clay — the Whigs went with celebrity war-hero Zachary Taylor, an enslaver who was popular with Southerners but had no governing experience and no fealty to Whig principles. Taylor won, but he savaged Whig leaders and Whig doctrine. The party, split over slavery, dissolved.
In 2016, McGill University historian Gil Troy, presciently noting the parallel deal with the devil Republicans made with Trump, wrote in Politico: “Many Republicans might want to consider what is worse: the institutional problems mass defections by ‘Conscience Republicans’ could bring about — or the moral ruin that could come from the ones who stay behind, choosing to pursue party power over principles.”
Today’s morally ruined Republican Party knows the answer. “The ultimate challenge to the Republican Party is: Do they want to find their soul again? Do they want to be patriots again?” Troy told me this week. It comes down to whether “there are enough people in the party to say, ‘We’ve gone to the brink. How do we pull back?’”
Trump administration officials now announcing last-minute resignations, after excusing similar abuses for years, are hardly profiles in courage. Eleventh-hour epiphanies from the likes of chief Trump enablers Pence, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), though welcome, are unpersuasive. They have the ability to remove Trump from power immediately; any further damage he does is on them.
But the seditious actions this week in Congress to overturn the election and overthrow the incoming Biden presidency provide a useful delineation: which Republicans have followed Trump off the cliff of authoritarianism and which still have some respect for democratic principles.
In the Senate, there are signs of hope. After the insurrection in the Capitol, several senators proposing to overturn the election results reconsidered, leaving only eight Republican senators beyond all salvation: ringleaders Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), with blood on their hands; and Rick Scott (Fla.), John Neely Kennedy (La.), Tommy Tuberville (Ala.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.), Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.) and Roger Marshall (Kan.).
In the House, prospects for Republican redemption are dimmer. Even after Trump’s mob brought siege and death to the Capitol, two-thirds of Republicans voted to overturn the election. They weren’t just the usual nutters — Jim Jordan (Ohio), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Louie Gohmert (Tex.), Lee Zeldin (N.Y.) — but also House Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Steve Scalise (La.).
As long as such people remain in positions of honor, trust or profit under the United States, the Republican Party will not be a participant in constitutional democracy, but rather an entity dedicated to its destruction.