If there was a silver lining that I hoped would result from last Wednesday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it was that FINALLY Congressional Republicans would begin the long overdue process of divorcing themselves from Donald Trump. It wouldn’t even be a display of courage so much as one of self-preservation. I mean, the guy already lost them the White House, cost them the Senate, and nearly got the Vice President lynched by a mob that he incited.
Unfortunately, just like every other time I’ve mustered that hope over the last four years, Republicans have once again confounded me with their befuddling loyalty to a man whose only loyalty is to himself. Only hours after an insurrection of which they were the targets, over 140 Congressional Republicans still objected to the certification of the Electoral College vote in various states, perpetuating the very lie that had them hiding under their desks in fear earlier that day. And while Wednesday’s impeachment was the most bipartisan in history with ten Republicans “courageously” voting to impeach a president from their own party, it wasn’t nearly as bipartisan as it should have been.
The Republican Party sticking with Donald Trump after the insurrection feels like sticking with the Titanic as the last lifeboat is lowered from the deck. There is clearly no future for a Trump-led Republican Party, but Republican politicians also know that there might not be a future for them either if their Trump-crazy constituents catch them being too critical of their hero. This also highlights the sad reality that no matter how many Republican leaders in Congress decide to suddenly grow a backbone or a set of principles, the challenge facing both the Republican Party and the nation at large will remain the same—no matter what happens to Donald Trump, a substantial minority of the country will remain committed to him and the warped worldview he helped to cultivate.
Different people have different reasons for remaining loyal to Trump. Some are just pure believers in Trump-spun conspiracy theories. They truly believe that this election was “stolen”, and thanks to years of Trump’s “fake news” campaign against journalists and facts in general, they cannot be shown any evidence that will convince them otherwise. In their minds, it was not the insurrection that threatened the foundations of American democracy, but the constitutional process of certifying a presidential election that their guy lost. This is the kind of upside-down thinking that helps to explain how thousands of people can believe that they are committing an act of patriotism by committing an act of treason.
Others feel that the insurrection was no different or worse than the “leftist” riots that took place over the summer, but that’s a dumb comparison for a lot of reasons. Violence and destruction should always be condemned, but motives matter, and the very real racial injustice that motivated last summer’s unrest is different than the made-up story about a stolen election that motivated last week’s insurrection. Also, there’s a distinction worth making between the looting of a Lake Street Target and the armed seizure of the U.S.-fucking-Capitol. Both are bad, one is worse.
Others are convinced that all Democrats are “radical socialists” hellbent on creating a police-less police state void of civil liberties and high school sports. For them, the incoming Biden administration and extreme leftists that control him pose a far greater threat to the country than any right-wing militia.
And this is where they need to be proven wrong.
This train-wreck end to the Trump presidency has left Democrats with a pretty tremendous opportunity. With control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Democrats have the ability to do something that Donald Trump refused to do for four years—govern, preferably in a way that will help to win some of these people back.
Even though the calls for “healing” and “unity” from Republicans during the impeachment vote were laughably disingenuous, they are right that once Biden is inaugurated, he must make good on his promise to bring Americans together. Impeachment was necessary, but if the first order of business of the Democrat-controlled Congress is launching an investigation into the illegal activities of the Trump family, I’ll be extremely disappointed. That’s not to say that Trump and his people should not be held accountable for any crimes they may have committed. I’m sure there are courts and committees to carry out those types of investigations. But to make this the centerpiece of the Democratic agenda would only breathe new life into the spirit of a presidency that the American people desperately need to put behind them.
Instead, Biden and Congressional Democrats need to show that they are the purveyors of policies that make people’s lives better. They need to show what it looks like to have a government that actually takes the pandemic seriously, listens to medical experts, and can prioritize both saving lives and ensuring people’s and business’s economic well-being. They need to show how the fight against racial injustice is a fight that benefits all Americans, and how things like progressive taxes, higher minimum wages, and expanded public healthcare options benefit many of the white working-class voters who left the party for Trump. They might think they hate socialism now, but they’ll find it a lot less terrifying if it increases their paychecks and reduces their medical bills.
Republicans have an important role here, too, because while a Republican Party in disarray might be good for the fortunes of Democratic politicians, it is not good for the country. We need brave conservative leaders to step up and forge a new Republican Party for the post-Trump era. A party that is committed to intellectually defensible conservative values like free markets, state’s rights, and fiscal responsibility. A party that doesn’t use racist or xenophobic dog-whistles in order to earn votes, and instead seeks to build an inclusive platform more attractive to an increasingly diverse electorate. A party that actually challenges Democrats to be better as opposed to just less bad.
Even as I write this, it all kind of sounds like a pipedream. The reality is that the Democratic majority in Congress is slim, and significant reform on many of the issues I mentioned is not super likely. What is more, a significant rebuild of the Republican Party will take more than a few years, and many of this current collection of Congressional Republicans have already demonstrated their unwillingness to stand up for the good of their party, the good of their country, or just good in general. I also fear that no matter how much “unity” the country is able to foster over the weeks and months ahead, right wing extremism will continue to be a threat to the health and safety of this country and its citizens well-into the future.
But to end on a positive note—no matter what challenges the future might hold, I believe there is reason to be hopeful. This has been an ugly end to an ugly four years, but last week I believe that we finally hit rock bottom, and when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. The Trump presidency is coming to an end, and the vaccine distribution is underway. The days are getting longer in Minnesota, and the weather will soon be getting warmer. 2021 thus far feels a lot like 2020, but the year is young, and I’m optimistic that it won’t end that way. That doesn’t mean it will be a great year, and that the year won’t have its low points and its setbacks. But if Democrats can be competent, and Republicans can be decent, and the American people can gain a reminder and an appreciation for what competence and decency look like, even that would be something worth celebrating. Even if 2021 doesn’t end with McConnell and Pelosi mask-less and holding hands commemorating a record year for bipartisan legislation, it could at least be the year in which we rebounded from a historically bad pandemic and a historically bad presidency, and made some solid progress on our shared endeavor to…sigh…make America great again.