His comment was one of the most inflammatory statements yet in his long record of incitement. He is effectively arguing that the election — the core expression of democratic values that have sustained America for nearly two-and-a-half centuries — was illegitimate and violence is a more appropriate expression of political will. It is the kind of rhetoric typical of totalitarian leaders and it would once have seemed unthinkable to hear from one of the leading US political figures. It also encapsulates the danger still facing US democracy.
He said the committee should conclude that “the real insurrection happened on November 3rd, the Presidential Election, not on January 6th—which was a day of protesting the Fake Election results.”
In normal circumstances, the rantings of an election-losing, twice-impeached, one-term President might not merit much attention. Some Trump critics believe he should be ignored by the media and not rewarded with the attention he seeks. Yet the ex-President’s incessant attacks on the sanctity of free and fair elections carry extra weight, given his status as the prohibitive favorite for the 2024 nomination, and serve as a warning for the perils that would lie in wait if he runs and succeeds in regaining the White House.
And this week especially, Trump’s statement underscores how his corrosive behavior is enabled by leading Republicans who tolerate his abuses of truth because standing up for reality would block their own paths to power.
Pence and Haley try to mend fences
Pence, for instance, dancing on a political pin to restore his own 2024 viability after being forced to do his constitutional duty and certify Joe Biden’s election win, did his own piece of historical reinvention.
Speaking on Fox News earlier this week, he argued that “the media wants to distract from the Biden administration’s failed agenda by focusing on one day in January.” It’s hardly as if the media has ignored Biden’s troubles. Coverage of his chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal was highly critical and the President’s dipping approval ratings and struggles to enact his multitrillion-dollar agenda have filled news shows and the internet for days.
But not for the first time, Pence was quickly hung out to dry by Trump. The former President’s Wednesday statement obliterated his ex-number two’s argument that January 6 was just a media obsession. It proved yet again that the main driver of debate about the insurrection, in which the mob chanted for Pence to be hanged, is Trump himself.
If he is to have any chance at a future presidential run, Pence must make peace with millions of Republican voters who believe the Big Lie spewed every day by Trump and compliant conservative propaganda networks.
So he boasted on Sean Hannity’s show that he had spent four years in a “foxhole” with Trump and they remain good friends. But that friendship depends on not confronting the gusher of lies about the election, which are threatening the very democratic political system that Pence one day hopes to lead.
In the interview, Haley also pledged to confer with Trump before launching a presidential run, leaving open the possibility she could step aside if he wants another shot. “I would pick up the phone and meet with the president,” she said. “I would talk to him and see what his plans are. I would tell him about my plans. We would work on it together.”
Like Pence, Haley’s route to power would run through an accommodation with a former President responsible for the worst attack on the seat of US democratic government in history. She is far from alone in her appeasement, however. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who castigated Trump after January 6 only to quickly try to make up with him, is effectively anchoring his bid to win the House next year on the ex-President.
Multiple hopefuls approaching GOP primary races ahead of the midterm elections have embraced Trump’s democracy-tainting lies in an effort to win his endorsement. This is all a sign of how the former President’s strange magic, and still-roaring appeal among Republican grassroots voters, still dominates his party.
“I don’t get this toxic hold that Trump has over people,” Kinzinger said on CNN’s “Newsroom” this week.
“He never had it over me. Maybe I just missed out. But I’m glad I did.”
A huge political machine
The political machine spawned by Trump’s slanders about the 2020 election is extraordinary. After all, it is based on nothing more than his refusal to admit that he lost. Trump, apparently fearing he would be beaten by Biden, laid the groundwork for his post-election behavior by lashing out at mail-in voting ahead of time. But it was his unhinged tantrum on election night itself, when he falsely claimed he had won with many votes yet to be counted, that fired up a stunning chain of events that is now the worst threat to US democracy in generations.
It remains barely believable that one of America’s major political parties — apparently willing to tolerate even the most dangerous assaults on reality to win power — is still so in thrall to one man’s crushed ego. But the GOP’s continued tolerance of Trump is so dangerous because democracy can survive only when candidates rejected by the people admit their losses. The burying of personal ambition and vanity in the service of the wider national will expressed at the ballot box is the pillar of any system of self-government by the people.
With key Republicans ignoring his anti-democratic quest in order to protect their own appeals to his voters, the threat to American democracy — which has survived a Civil War, two world wars, economic depressions and the long journey toward civil rights — is likely to get even worse.