One year later: the Capitol riots

By Patrick Stephens

If, as the old adage goes, a week is a long time in politics, then a year must be an eternity. Much has happened since the Capitol riots this time last year: Afghanistan, the summer migrant crisis, AUKUS, the list goes on. Yet its legacy continues to shape US politics in varied, paradoxical and sinister ways.

Start with Capitol Hill. Some Democratic Representatives now refuse to work with those who voted against certifying the Electoral College. Rep. Jake Auchincloss has said he draws a “sharp red line” at working with those who voted in an attempt to overturn Trump’s election defeat; Rep. Sean Casten of Illinois objected to a routine proposal because its Republican proposer, Rep. Trent Kelly, had voted to overturn the Electoral College vote in two states. Even Rep. Brad Schneider, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solver Caucus, has followed suit, stating that he needs “an affirmative statement that Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States and the 2020 election was an honest and fair election” before working with such Republicans.

The most terrifying thing is that it did not represent a point of no return for Donald Trump as an American politician

The consequences of this, in a political system already prone to partisan gridlock, are troubling indeed. Schneider told Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona and vocal supporter of Trump’s false election claims, that he would not sponsor a bill the two had been working on for four years aimed at extending protections for parents who have lost children. Even the few routine uncontroversial bills that used to sail through Congress are no longer guaranteed. In response to Democrats’ refusal to allow amendments to bipartisan bills known as ‘suspension bills’, some Republicans have been blocking the bipartisan bills all together. 

The Republican party since the riots has represented both continuity and a profound shift. The most terrifying thing about the “Insurrection”, as it is euphemistically called, is not that a mob stormed the seat of the most powerful democracy in the world, nor that a Rubicon was crossed in the use of violence in American politics. It is that it did not represent a point of no return for Donald Trump as an American politician. The man who incited violence against Congress is not only not beyond the pale; he is widely regarded as a likely candidate for 2024. His popularity among Republican voters did fall after the riots, but only to 78%; it is now back to 85%, its average for 2019. 

The change comes among non-Trumpist Republicans who reject his narrative of election fraud. Some, among them three senators and a governor, have taken the riots as their cue to leave politics. Those that have not jumped may yet be pushed by a party dominated by Trumpists who regard those who voted to impeach Trump as traitors to American democracy. The most vocal is perhaps Liz Cheney, one of the only 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach him. On the Republican Trumpist personality cult, Cheney is clear: “We can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can be loyal to the constitution, but we cannot be both.” Demoted from the party leadership, she now faces a Trump-endorsed Republican challenger, Harriet Hageman, in a primary to be held in July. Harriet Hageman’s unofficial slogan in Wyoming thus far is the mouthful “Trump won, Liz Cheney done”. 

The riots are awkward for not only Trump, but the pro-Trump press and the wider Republican Party. Hence the industrial-scale gaslighting: a two-pronged approach which both claims the election was stolen, justifying the riots, and also that the riots were, well, not actually riots. Senator Ron Johnson told Fox News: “We’ve seen plenty of video of people in the Capitol, and they weren’t rioting. That’s not what armed insurrection would look like.” In a congressional hearing, Congressman Andrew Clyde said that, from the TV footage, “you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit”. Those happened every day at the Capitol pre-pandemic; January 6th, sealed into the building and escorted out by a SWAT team amid gunfire, must have just been a normal day at the office for him according to such a narrative.

“We can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can loyal to the constitution, but we cannot be loyal to both”

Liz Cheney

A small number of non-Trumpists Republicans dare to speak against the new nonsense narratives. Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, told CNN that “it’s crazy that that many people believe things that simply aren’t true”. Many, though, have adopted the attitude that “he may be a bastard, but he’s ours”. Among them is the leader of the House’s Republican minority, Senator McCarthy. He said that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack, but has since fallen in line, backing the removal of Liz Cheney from House leadership and adopting an attitude towards Trumpists that the Economist describes as “resolutely pro-maniac”. 

Such characters, who helped to filibuster the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the riots, see in Trump a previously successful presidential candidate whose third time may be as lucky as his first. With 70% of Republican voters saying that Democrats stole the election and 52% that the Capitol rioters were trying to protect democracy, vocal criticism of the former President is likely not the path to future success within the party. 

The Pandora’s box opened by the Capitol riots and the false claims of election fraud that preceded it may end up fundamentally undermining the basis of American democracy: trust in its elections. Should the Democrats win again in 2024, Trump will doubtless repeat a similar narrative that has proved fruitful for him thus far. Conversely though, should the Republicans win, it is conceivable that many would question the legitimacy of an election after years of changes to state regulation on voter fraud which Democrats see as a thin-veiled attempt to suppress voting among Democrat-leaning groups, including many people of colour. Almost undiscussed now in the Republican Party yet still causing gridlock in Congress, the riots will cast a long shadow indeed.

Image: Blink O’fanaye via Flickr

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