Opinion: the norm-busting, ludicrous, calculated, dangerous and inept president leaves behind a damaged country
We can only hope that we have seen the last, ugly stand in the regime of Donald Trump. Last Wednesday afternoon, with a band of the president’s Republican congressional supporters already making formal speeches inside the building to dispute the electoral result, a mob inspired by the president stormed the Capitol, occupying offices and laying siege to the floor of the House.
Ludicrous, calculated, dangerous and inept: the two forces, nefarious Republican lawmakers prepared to advocate overturning a democratic election, and rampaging members of the Trumposphere motivated by a mixture of rage, cultlike devotion, and QAnon conspiracies, expressed the essence of the Trumpian moment.
The norm-busting president finally crossed a line that even many Republicans could not endure. His once reliable enabler-in-chief, Lindsey Graham, has distanced himself, earning abuse from Trump supporters when he passed through Washington’s Reagan National Airport. Normally complicit Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticised attempts to dispute the election prior to the events at the Capitol and then condemned the actions when the session resumed.
From RTÉ Nine News, US House of Representatives’ Democrats introduce impeachment proceedings against US president Donald Trump
Too little, too late. But why is this time different? After all, Trump has incited violence before and defended those who engaged in violent acts, including Proud Boys, racist and anti-Semitic demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, and armed protestors at the Michigan state capitol. Maybe even McConnell and Graham can recognise when enough is enough, though they are unlikely ever to support the impeachment that Trump again deserves.
The answer at one level is fairly straightforward. With every avenue now exhausted to achieve the outcome of a Trump second term, the only alternative for Republicans is to cover their tracks and convert themselves into advocates for the national good. The reality is that they got what they wanted out of a Trump presidency: a stacked Supreme Court, conservative judiciary and massive tax cuts.
But another answer suggests that Trump and the mob he instigated have tangled with a more complex reaction to American political space. This is one that points to the truth that there are still a few norms that can’t be broken.
From RTÉ Radio 1’s News At One, the Wall Street Journal’s White House reporter Catherine Lucey on a tumultuous week in Washington following the riots on at the US Capitol
Time and again, the phrase used to describe the onslaught (by politicians and commentators alike) has been that of “desecration”. The Capitol building, with its classical dome and impressive rotunda, is as close as the country gets to sacred ground, a temple to democracy. To see it defiled has outraged a wide swathe of the population, even as some have compared the assault to resistance by colonial forebears against the British in the leadup to independence. Of course, Trump has thrived on treating nothing as sacrosanct, other than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which he described as passing a ‘sacred’ number when it reached 30,000 points in late November.
Others have called the building the “citadel” of democracy, a fortress breached all too easily on the day, bringing reminders of 9/11 when the Pentagon came under attack and the Capitol itself was targeted in Flight 93. The labelling of Wednesday’s mob as domestic terrorists resonates with that dark episode when the country faced international assailants, thereby cordoning off last week’s participants as national enemies.
Where does all of this leave Trump? For the moment, he is isolated politically as his final days in office tick by. His promise of a ‘smooth transition’ in a robotic speech given under duress was not accompanied by conceding the election. But he has presumably lost any real authority, and the late banning of his access to Twitter and Facebook deprives him of crucial outlets. He and his supporters will pivot to complaining about suppression of their free speech, distracting from the issue of the attack on the Capitol.
From RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, RTÉ Washington Correspondent Brian O’Donovan on the aftermath to the riots on Capitol Hill
His future out of office is more difficult to predict. If an impeachment goes through before or after he leaves the White House, he may be disqualified from running for federal office again and thus part of the threat he poses would disappear. We can hope that some of the odium of Wednesday attaches not just to him but his family, undermining their electoral prospects.
In a final demonstration of graceless petulance, Trump has said that he will not attend Joe Biden’s inauguration, something we can actually be thankful for, as Biden himself stated. As for his party, the best outcome may be an internal civil war among Republicans and check on the electoral prospects of people like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who actively participated in efforts to challenge the election result on specious grounds.
At the same time, the mood of Trump supporters will remain inflamed. His message to them at the rally reinforced a key theme of his entire presidency: something rightfully yours has been taken away (your job, your income, your future, your privileged place in American society). Now you’ve been cheated again, this time in a rigged election, of your president.
From RTÉ News, Donald Trump has been permanently suspended by Twitter
The group that invaded the Capitol engaged in destruction and vandalism while conveying a feeling of entitlement, that this place is their possession wrongfully occupied by illegitimate and “evil” politicians. The outlook was perfectly captured by a photo of a smiling member of the mob toting away the Speaker’s Lectern (he has since been arrested in Florida). The uprooted object signifies not just a souvenir but a possession of the “true patriots” backing Trump, appropriated by right.
None of this will change soon. In Trump, they found both a monarch and tribune. On the one hand, he was commander in chief, president, and head of state. On the other, he was an outsider and insurgent, representative of the aggrieved and disenfranchised.
The process of recovery and repair will take far longer than cleaning up the Capitol after the assault of January 6th
The contradiction was perfectly captured in Trump’s declaration at the rally that “we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you” only to get in his Secret Service SUV and head back to the White House. It is also instructive he delivered his taped message telling the crowd to disband after the violent coup attempt not from the formal pressroom podium, but from the lawn of the White House. Gone were the theatrics of his return from Walter Reed Hospital in October, striding up the stairs to the White House balcony.
Trump leaves behind a damaged Republic. The process of recovery and repair will take far longer than cleaning up the Capitol after the assault of January 6th.
Daniel Carey, MRIA, is Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway and Professor of English in the School of English and Creative Arts. He is a Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy and a board member of the Irish Research Council. He was Chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance 2014-16.