I won’t try to summarise this morning’s events in Washington, where incitement by Donald Trump led to rioters storming the Capitol building in an attempt to prevent the certification of last November’s election result. But regular readers will not be surprised by my view that this is a logical culmination of the direction that the Republican Party has taken over the last twenty years.
Nothing concentrates the mind, though, as much as being besieged in one’s own office by an armed mob. So a number of Republicans have condemned the president’s actions in much stronger terms than they would previously have dared use.
For example, Richard Burr, a North Carolina senator not previously known as an anti-Trumpist, said (as quoted by the BBC) “The President bears responsibility for today’s events by promoting the unfounded conspiracy theories that have led to this point.” Liz Cheney, a high-ranking House Republican (and daughter of the former vice-president) was even more explicit: “the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”
It’s reminiscent of the Charlottesville rally in 2017, in response to which a surprisingly large number of Republicans condemned Trump’s equivocation over racist violence. But on that occasion, after a brief moment of moral clarity, most of them quickly returned to quiescence.
Some will probably do so again. But not only have they been more directly affected this time, and Trump’s incitement been even more explicit: there is a more important difference. Trump leaves office in two weeks, so fear of his power and influence is a diminishing force in the Republican Party. Just as anti-Trump Republicans were much more plentiful before November 2016, when he seemed unlikely to ever be in power, so they can be expected to multiply as, despite his best efforts, that power finally leaves him.
The question is not so much whether personal loyalty to Trump will endure – although, given the strength of the hardcore Trumpists in the Republican grassroots, some will feel they have no other choice. The question is whether disowning Trump will lead to any more broad questioning of the longer-term trends in the party that have brought it to this point.
That seems much less likely. Already the media are full of spurious claims of moral equivalence, with today’s rioters being equated with the “Black Lives Matter” protests of last (northern) summer. But the latter, of course, were not incited to violence by the Democratic Party’s leadership, and when violence did break out it was met with a vastly more heavy-handed police response than were this morning’s rioters.
And while riots and looting are a bad thing wherever they happen, there is surely a major difference between riots that are inspired by real, serious grievances and those inspired by purely fictitious ones.
Over and above all those differences, however, stands the critical fact that this morning’s riot was specifically an attack on the institutions of democracy: an attempt to prevent the elected Congress from certifying the election of a president. That’s what takes it across the line from protest to insurrection. The proper comparison is not Black Lives Matter, but the Weathermen.
Of course it was an unsuccessful insurrection; the rioters have now been cleared and Congress has resumed the process of certifying the electoral college votes. Some Republicans are still objecting, but their ranks have been thinned by this morning’s events. After seeing just what the process of making baseless allegations of fraud has led to, some of them have decided that this was not what they had in mind.
It is, however, more or less exactly what the president had in mind. That is the Republican Party’s dilemma: it is trying to reconcile the competing demands of constitutional government and domestic insurrection. Not surprisingly, it’s finding that it can’t be done. But the dilemma will outlast the Trump presidency.