The Inauguration Day tableau on the West Front of the Capitol crisply presented the disaster of Trump’s final days. On the steps where two weeks earlier a Trump-incited mob had swarmed, former presidents and congressional leaders of both parties assembled in amiable concord.
The clear message: Trump, who had chosen not to attend, was the aberration. The nation’s leaders were linking arms to celebrate a lawful transfer of power. “Democracy has prevailed,” as President Biden proclaimed.
It was a heartening sight, and we should be glad that even the most loyal of Trump loyalists were there. We should celebrate that Pence and others RSVP’d for the inauguration rather than Trump’s pathetic send-off rally at Joint Base Andrews. We should welcome House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) telling Biden, a few minutes after the inauguration ceremony, that he was “proud” of the new president.
But we should not be lulled into thinking that the tableau fully represents reality.
Almost all the Republicans on that platform — former president George W. Bush being an honorable exception — had full-throatedly endorsed Trump’s reelection, even though it had become clear, including to many of them, that Trump represented a danger to the nation. They supported him through his attempted extortion of a foreign leader for his own personal benefit. They supported him when his response to the greatest public health calamity in a century was to say, “It’s going to disappear.”
Worse, they supported him after the election when he insisted dishonestly that he had won. McConnell and his colleagues knew that Trump had lost, but week after week, they blessed his maneuvering in court, as if the result really might be in doubt. Week after week, as was predictable and predicted, their dodging and excusing allowed Trump’s lies to take root among Republican voters.
And when Trump actually tried to commit fraud himself, when he publicly and privately pressured local officials to overturn the results of a fair and free election, it fell to a few heroic local officials in Michigan, Arizona and Georgia to resist the president’s potentially criminal entreaties and stand up to the mob he loosed on them for their integrity. Very few of the eminences who gathered on Inauguration Day came to the defense of those local officials when it counted.
Had it not been for those few, and Biden’s healthy margin of victory, Trump’s coup might have succeeded. McConnell, Pence and the others gave no indication they would have stood in the way. Indeed, on the weekend before the insurrection, Pence was still encouraging members of Congress “to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections and bring forward evidence” of fraud, knowing that no such evidence existed.
So when Trump summoned the mob and then dispatched it down Constitution Avenue, his actions were in keeping with behavior that most of his party had cheered or countenanced for weeks. When Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) vowed to challenge the election results, they were only doing what Pence had “welcomed” days before.
In the end, while Cruz and Hawley stuck to their demagogic path, Pence behaved with principle, and we should salute him for it. We should salute McConnell for eloquently declaring — before the insurrection — that he would not vote to overturn democracy. We should honor Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) for having had something of a change of heart, even if it came after the assault on the Capitol. Thank goodness they did the right thing.
But we also need to face the past four years honestly. You can be sure that, over the next few years, partisans will be seeking to install “team players” in those posts in Michigan, Georgia and every other state where, this time around, honorable officials stood firm. We may not be able to count on the next generation of local officials if there is a next time. Even now, how many elected Republicans will say aloud that Biden won fair and square, with no theft and no rigging?
So, yes, democracy prevailed. But we need to be asking ourselves — and I hope the Pences and McConnells are asking themselves — how we came so close to losing it.