The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I hate to say it, but the chaos isn’t over

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks on the floor of the U.S. House on Thursday. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)

The midterm elections might be behind us, but chaos is surely in front of us.

Weirder Republicans have been returned to power. The twice-impeached Donald Trump is in a run for the presidency — again. And uber-MAGA activists are even more delusional in their belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

To the question of what could go wrong: Everything.

Not that we’ve been backstroking in sun-drenched serenity. When angry hordes attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, I sensed that the drama we were witnessing wasn’t the culmination of something but the beginning of a long battle for the country’s future.

Trump isn’t only to blame, of course. And Republicans aren’t the only miscreants in the devolved state of American politics. But let me be clear: Today’s Republicans are worse than today’s Democrats because of Trump and the cult he has created through lies, mass deception and old-fashioned circus trickery.

The gradual chipping away of democratic norms and widespread loss of faith in traditional institutions began decades ago. But the Trump phenomenon gave form and function to a simmering, ambient anger among lower- and middle-class White voters, whose grievances and resentments were affirmed by a man who had everything.

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He told them they were right, and that’s all they needed to submit their loyalty.

In just four years, Trump created an army of locked-and-loaded patriots whose mission was to take back their country. Almost overnight, it seemed, street-corner soap boxes where fevered conspiracists held up signs and shouted slogans gave way to governing seats at the grownups’ table.

Though voters wisely passed on most of the screamers, some got elected and reelected.

Not enough to claim a mandate, perhaps, but enough to hand the House speakership to a Republican — most likely Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — and send current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) packing. Her speech on Thursday, which McCarthy skipped, provided a parting glimpse of grace and eloquence.

McCarthy insisted he couldn’t attend because he “had meetings.” He explained that other speakers had said their farewells during votes and lamented that she didn’t follow suit. He could have attended then, he said.

But the truth is, almost no Republicans attended. The only senior Republican present was Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), who had the decency to show respect for the first female speaker in U.S. history.

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday, co-anchor Mika Brzezinski posed apt questions for McCarthy: “Who raised you? Would your mama be proud?”

To the victory party, apparently, go the ill-bred.

In her remarks, Pelosi was humble, emotional at times, referring to the recent attack on her husband, and appropriately respectful toward colleagues from both parties. Except, that is, for Trump, whom she skipped over when mentioning the presidents she worked with through the years. There’s only so much grace to go around when it comes to the man who watched on television while insurrectionists called out “Nancy, where are you?” and invaded Pelosi’s office.

Pelosi referred to the Capitol as “a temple of our democracy, of our Constitution, of our highest ideals.” She said, “American democracy is majestic — but it is fragile. Many of us here have witnessed its fragility firsthand, tragically, in this chamber. And so, democracy must be forever defended from forces that wish it harm.”

We know whom she was talking about.

Not for a moment do I think all Republicans want to hurt democracy, but many have been terribly served by Trump. To my mind, there is no greater act of incivility than deception, and there is no greater deceit than the fabrication that Trump won reelection in 2020. The former president has mined that lie with such success that he’ll never stop. But one must ask, what are the boundaries of his deceit? What lies is he willing to tell, and to what end?

“A new day is dawning on the horizon,” said Pelosi, “… a story of light and love. Of patriotism and progress. Of many becoming one.”

She was trying to hit a high note, no doubt, but her optimism is overshadowed by reality. Because, without a common enemy, we are not likely to see any of those ideas come to fruition in the foreseeable future. Republicans such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), who now has power to make demands and extract concessions, are already lobbying McCarthy to investigate the treatment and trials of convicted Jan. 6 perpetrators, the very folks who hunted down Pelosi and, at Trump’s encouragement, threatened Vice President Mike Pence with harm.

Many people think Trump is beaten and that Trumpism is a broken force. We will see. For the next two years, the poltergeist himself is loose upon the hustings. And we all know how much he loves chaos.