I started writing about the Georgia runoff and electoral vote certification three days ago for a piece I had planned to post on Thursday. Then the Capitol was attacked by right-wing insurrectionists at the direction of the president and it suddenly felt quaint to be talking about an election. As I was re-writing, the fallout from the insurrection began and events progressed at such a rapid pace that it was impossible to keep up with them. Things remain fluid and perspective requires time, so — for now — here are a few initial observations about the political ramifications of the week’s events.
The Georgia runoff was the forgotten story of the week, but apart from Biden’s victory it is the most significant electoral event of the political cycle. Black voters turned out in record numbers in a Senate runoff designed specifically to disenfranchise them, electing two candidates of the young, multicultural, progressive South and giving Joe Biden a Senate majority and narrow but complete control of government. This is a monumental outcome that few were willing to predict would happen.
It is difficult to overstate the ramifications of the Georgia vote. With Kamala Harris breaking the tie in a 50-50 Senate, Democrats are in position to set the legislative agenda. Mitch McConnell’s reign of terror as the self-described Grim Reaper is over. He will be stripped of the ability to prevent legislation from coming to the floor, which means for the first time in years the American public will see what it looks like when government functions as intended. With the balance of power shifting from McConnell to Joe Manchin, the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, and with the fate of the filibuster still an open question, we will not experience a dramatic shift to the left. But we will see Congress get things done, and for a ravaged country this will be an awakening. Joe Biden is now set up to succeed.
In practical terms, this means the new administration can proceed with crisis management and institutional repair without Senate Republicans opposing at every turn. It means larger relief checks for people suffering the economic devastation of Covid and funds to facilitate distributing the vaccine. It means more latitude for dealing with the climate emergency, tax reform, the minimum wage and infrastructure repair. It means protecting and strengthening the Affordable Care Act. It makes civil rights and immigration legislation possible and it means Biden’s judicial choices will be confirmed. So will his cabinet choices.
Georgia’s validation of democracy stood in stark contrast to the siege carried out on Wednesday in support of kabuki efforts by Republican representatives and senators who sought to derail the electoral vote count on the basis of lies about a corrupt election. The assault and the Republicans’ theatrics shared the goal of disenfranchising millions of voters and installing Donald Trump as president. The only significant difference between the insurrectionists and the officials is the former were operating on a diet of lies promulgated by the latter. Wednesday’s attack represented the toxic convergence of the three pillars of Trumpism — a president divorced from reality, a radicalized base invested in Trump, and congressional enablers willing to indulge Trump and his base for the cynical purpose of using them to propel their ambitions.
But in a break with what we’ve seen time and again over the past four years, their actions coupled with the rebellion divided the Republican caucus. Even before the Capitol was breached, Mitch McConnell recognized the political risks of making his caucus take sides for or against Trump in a stunt that wasn’t going to prevent Biden from becoming president. But he was unable to control members like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz who are calculating that the path to the presidency in the post-Trump era requires performance art fealty to Trump’s delusions of voter fraud.
But does it? Georgia taught Republicans the harsh lesson that Trumpism activates opponents in larger numbers than supporters, even in a southern state in the early stages of realigning. The red surge we saw in November didn’t materialize last Tuesday without Trump on the ballot. And Trump will turn against anyone he feels isn’t serving his interests, as he did by attacking the Republican Georgia governor and secretary of state who had the audacity to follow the law and certify Biden’s victory. His false claim to his supporters that Georgia officials weren’t going to count their ballots was a disincentive to Republicans who believed it, and his unwillingness to admit defeat and argue for the preservation of a Republican Senate to hold Biden in check robbed his party of their most potent message. It is reasonable to conclude that Trump is a primary reason why McConnell is about to become minority leader. Republicans controlled Washington four years ago. Trump has cost them the House, the White House, and now the Senate. They cling to him at their peril.
After the Georgia result and the insurrection, some Republicans are waking up to the possibility that Trumpism is a road to political oblivion. But what are the alternatives? Having bet their future on riding the anger of voters who fear how the country is changing, Republicans have become poison to the emerging America that just took the Senate from them. Their gambit to use anti-democratic means to stay in power has taken a dangerous step from undermining the republic to overthrowing it. Their choices are to continue to press for authoritarian rule and march further into the abyss or begin the long ride back to normalcy by engaging with Biden as the loyal opposition. It is now likely that some Republicans will calculate that their self-interest rests with the second option, making it possible that Biden will have some governing partners across the aisle while other Republicans keep feeding the beast that is consuming them.
These divisions on the right are already apparent. The “Republican enablement complex” split to an unprecedented degree in the wake of the attack. Support for the resolutions challenging the election melted away in the Senate. Senators Romney, Sasse and Murkowski condemned Trump in unusually strong language, with Murkowski demanding he resign and threatening to leave the Republican Party if he doesn’t. That demand was echoed by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, while hometown papers in Missouri and Texas demanded that Hawley and Cruz resign from the Senate for their roles in instigating insurrection. Then Trump was kicked off Facebook and Instagram, followed by the big blow: Twitter suspended him permanently, silencing the megaphone that enabled his rise to power and allows him to foment his base.
There is no way to put a positive spin on this situation. Donald Trump has shattered the national Republican Party and left them powerless. The divisions unearthed by the week’s events have the feel of a death rattle for a party that for years had been slowly extinguishing democracy as the only path to staying in power, now brought to the brink by events that only the most extreme and amoral among them can tolerate.
Right now, there are real and immediate dangers of further insurrection and the frightening prospect of an unstable president isolated and alone. We are predictably living through the most intense moment of transition, the moment I have been warning about for years when I said that Trump would have to be extracted from power. With raised awareness and in the wake of this week’s failed coup, authorities should be able to turn back other attempts at violent disruption while congressional Democrats work to constrain Trump as best they can in his final days. In a week and a half he will lose his power and authority, and while he still has his supporters he has lost his platform. Without the bully pulpit and without Twitter, Trump will be an angry old man shouting into the wind as he awaits indictment.
There are real longterm dangers as well. The monster created by years of grievance politics will loom over civic life for a very long time. The potential for more violent episodes may grow at first after Trump leaves office. Biden will need to work swiftly and effectively to turn down the temperature and guard against future insurrection. It is essential (though it is not guaranteed) that enablers like Trump, Hawley and Cruz face meaningful sanctions for their behavior. Thursday’s intense blowback to Wednesday’s revolt is a hopeful sign. We need to remain vigilant to recover from this dark moment.