This idea — that Trump’s mesmerizing powers will keep tens of millions of Americans in thrall to him long into the future — has been stated so often, including by me, that everyone has come to accept it as a certainty.
But what if it isn’t a certainty at all? What if this is a mirage that is rapidly dissolving before our very eyes?
This might seem like a strange notion, coming after Trump successfully incited a mob of thousands to violently assault our seat of government. But, paradoxically, that very event may be setting in motion the process by which that fearsome power is rapidly waning.
The House is set to impeach Trump on Wednesday for inciting that insurrection, and five House Republicans have announced they will vote yes, including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of leadership. At least a dozen might follow. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has privately asked Republicans if he should call for Trump’s resignation.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has reportedly concluded that Trump did commit impeachable offenses and believes impeachment will make it easier for the GOP to expunge the stain of Trump. He is said to be leaning toward voting for conviction.
Trump’s spinners threaten Republicans
Trump’s allies have worked furiously to stave off such defections by invoking the specter of an enraged MAGA Nation that will punish Republicans for years. One of Trump’s highest profile propagandists is aggressively pushing polling that shows GOP voters oppose impeachment.
Meanwhile, both of Trump’s older sons — Eric and Don Jr. — wielded the threat of primaries against Republican lawmakers to pressure them into voting last week to overturn the election. They’ll surely escalate that in the impeachment context.
Indeed, Eric just underscored that his father’s vast army will remain, claiming the president “would get followed to the ends of the Earth by a hundred million Americans.” A former White House adviser is even predicting that MAGA Nation might form a third party of “Trumpists.”
Trump himself has pushed this line in his own way, telling reporters Tuesday that impeachment is causing “tremendous anger.” That’s properly understood as a tacit threat of more mob action against Democrats — action from his mob — but also against Republicans who go along.
But this time around, these threats don’t seem to be striking the usual spasms of fear into Republicans.
Case in point: The Post reports that the White House is not leaning on GOP lawmakers to oppose impeachment. Why not? Because as Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs reports, White House aides know perfectly well that Republican members of Congress don’t “have any real worries about any retaliation from Trump,” because he has “been essentially castrated without his Twitter account.”
That rings true, and it’s a striking repudiation of the illusion that Trump’s spinners are weaving. So what does that mean about MAGA Nation’s future ability to terrorize Republican officials?
The future of MAGA Nation
The makeup of the mob that stormed the Capitol is hard to pin down. There were white supremacist and white nationalist groups, and extremists such as the Proud Boys and QAnon, and a lot of Christian theocrats. It wasn’t primarily a working-class movement: There were a lot of reactionary business owner-operator types.
They appeared united by a belief — or a professed belief — that the election was stolen from Trump. Some segment of them clearly hew to the notion that violent nullification of election outcomes they hate is their way forward, via the direct intimidation or possibly even the murder of lawmakers elected by their fellow Americans to represent themselves.
That threat will continue and possibly metastasize into something worse. Federal law enforcement agencies are now bracing for more violence when Joe Biden is inaugurated. Armed protests are anticipated at many state Capitols. Lawmakers are getting briefed on assassination threats.
It might be time to start thinking of this as a genuine violent insurgency, as Juliette Kayyem and David French suggest, with Trump as its spiritual leader. And if that is so, they note, then one solution is what you might call maximum containment, or limiting Trump’s oxygen wherever possible and defeating this movement on every front.
What’s striking is that some Republican lawmakers suddenly appear more oriented toward a general posture of maximum containment. It’s almost as if they’re seizing on last week’s events to persuade themselves that the movement Trump will actually command going forward has revealed itself to be more politically extreme and marginal — albeit perhaps able to do far greater damage with smaller numbers — than they previously permitted themselves to think.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean many Republicans will support impeaching or removing Trump. It’s likely that maybe a dozen in the House and maybe a handful of senators will go along with that at best. It’s still extremely unlikely he’ll get removed.
But even if so, as GOP strategist Liam Donovan suggests, that’s likely more because there isn’t great political upside for most Republicans in supporting impeachment than because there’s reason for them to fear it.
Here’s a crazy suggestion: We might look back on this as the moment that Trump’s ability to strike abject terror into Republican lawmakers began to fizzle. Indeed, let’s go even further out on a limb and predict that, in the end, those supposedly frightful threats of Trumpist primaries will end up amounting to little or nothing.