Our text for today is taken from “Six Crises,” an early memoir written in 1962 by a former vice president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. In the book, Nixon discusses six events involving him that he chose to characterize in a melodramatic way as “crises”. The wisdom he imparts from these experiences is this: “The easiest period in a crisis situation is actually the battle itself…And the most dangerous period is the aftermath. It is then, with all his resources spent and his guard down, that an individual must watch out for dulled reactions and faulty judgment.”
With that in mind, let’s reflect on the events of November and December of last year and January of this year. As has been well documented, in the months leading up to November’s election the 45th President of the United States asserted repeatedly that he would lose the election only by fraud and chicanery. He did, of course, lose but not by any foul play. In the aftermath, he claimed repeatedly that the election had been stolen. The climax of these efforts occurred on January 6 when an unruly, violent mob invaded the Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the election. Despite some fatalities and a great deal of destruction, the mob failed, and order was eventually restored.
The 45th President was impeached for the second time in a year, but a minority of Republican senators voted not to convict him.
This time around the 43 Republican senators who voted to acquit the former President hid behind the rationale that he was no longer in office and therefore could not be banished from an office he no longer held. Never mind that a battalion of constitutional scholars ranging across the political spectrum said that impeaching and convicting a former President would be constitutional. The 43 voted no.
Mitch McConnell, then the majority leader of the Senate recessed the upper chamber so that the House could not transmit the article of impeachment to the Senate while the 45th President was still in office; McConnell didn’t show himself to be a coward, contrary to what many believe. Rather, McConnell demonstrated cunning calculation based on his own ambition and self-interest. He wants nothing so much as again to be majority leader of the Senate. If convicting Donald Trump would have accomplished that objective, McConnell would have been one of the elusive 17 or more Republicans voting to convict. But Trump’s conviction wouldn’t have served McConnell’s purpose. Neither, however, would defending Trump. So, employing sophistry and illogic, McConnell voted to acquit and then condemned the former president. Walking that fine line, hoping to maintain a foot on each side, McConnell did what he thought he had to do. He had already shown only months before that he would apply whatever principle served his purpose, whether it was consistent with the previous principles he had invoked or not.
As for the rest of the Republicans who voted to acquit Trump—many hiding behind the phony claim of unconstitutionality—what can be said? In the final analysis, the most disturbing aspect of the past four years was not so much Trump as it was the cowardice, disingenuity and cynicism of the men and women charged by the Constitution to keep him in check and balanced. They failed to do that. We have to wonder how many of them stood back and let him work his random, chaotic will because they agreed with what he was doing. We have reports that many were privately disturbed and dismayed, but most lacked the courage to say so publicly. The upshot was that we were reminded, as I have said before, that our institutions are populated by men and women who are all too human. If they’re not willing to honor their responsibility to defend and protect the Constitution and the welfare of our Republic, the offices they hold are institutionally useless.
Trump, it is true, is a skilled demagogue, but that does not excuse their fecklessness. The few who stood up to him did so only as they were walking out the door.Only a few of his party stood his or her ground to take him on.
We have to realize and acknowledge that the phenomenon of Donald Trump is neither unique nor unprecedented in our history. We have had demagogues before: Father Coughlin, Huey Long and of course Joseph McCarthy. In many respects Trump and McCarthy followed the same path. But even McCarthy, powerful and destructive as he was for a brief time—and he was very powerful and destructive—never sat behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office with the nuclear codes and the most secret of secrets at his fingertips.
We could take up a great deal of space comparing Trump and McCarthy. Much of their following came from the same socio-economic demographic. They appealed, subliminally if not overtly, to the same resentments, and they delighted their following by sticking their thumb in the eye of the establishment. In the McCarthy era, newspaper reporters (television news for the most part was inconsequential at the time) felt obligated to print what McCarthy said without what we now call “fact checking”. In our time reporters weren’t so supine, but cable television discovered that he was a powerful draw for viewers, and cable television after all is a business. Neither MSNBC nor CNN was under any obligation to cover Trump, especially since he was one of more than a dozen candidates, none of whom received a fraction of the airtime devoted to Trump. Moreover, after the first rally Trump held, nothing he said was newsworthy because nothing he said was particularly new. Nonetheless, week after week, Trump received free airtime on CNN and MSNBC worth millions for no other reason than he put eyeballs on their screens. For Fox News viewers, Trump was catnip.
In McCarthy’s case his demise came ultimately as much from his own party as from the opposition. McCarthy was condemned by the Senate, with a majority of his own party voting to censure him. That was then. Now, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Republican Party is Donald Trump, whatever he stands for. And we still have those 74 million voters to wonder about. If they liked him once—or twice—why not a third time? We know that he’s capable of anything we can imagine—and things that we can’t. McCarthy passed on, but the fire he started never quite went away. The audience for demagogues never disappears.
This story is no longer about Trump. It’s about the men and women who somehow found something appealing—not in his message because he really didn’t have one—but in his behavior and presentation. Part of his following, represented by so many of those people who invaded the Capitol on January 6, are thugs, ne’er do wells, rednecks, yahoos, anti-Semites, racists, white supremacists, etc. Some of the 74 million liked their tax cuts and his “perfect economy.” What about the rest?
We may kid ourselves that the crisis has passed, but that would be wrong. His support in the House and Senate is still strong. McConnell, despite his denunciation of Trump after the impeachment vote, later cheerfully said he would support Trump if he got the Republican presidential nomination in 2024—as if there was never any doubt.
Meanwhile, Republicans in state legislatures are moving ahead with “reform” bills to eliminate “irregularities” in their states’ election system. If the Republicans can’t win fair and square, then a little voter suppression should help, especially now that the Supreme Court has a solid conservative majority. If the remaining protections of the Voting Rights Act are gutted—which seems entirely possible and probable—then Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country will have a green light to eliminate the various conveniences that have been adopted to make voting easier.
And Trump hasn’t gone away. On the contrary, he’s made clear that he intends to play a continuing role and may even run again. The first test of Trump’s durability will be in the fall of 2022 when the House and a third of the Senate will be up for election. Trump has promised a purge of those who were “disloyal” to him. A defeat for his candidates in the primaries, would be a hopeful sign. Even better would be a resounding defeat for his supporters in the November election. (We’ll discuss that event at a later date.) That might finally send a message to his supporters in the House and the Senate that America has moved on.
Until then, the crisis continues.