What unfolded Wednesday afternoon in our nation’s capital was shocking. An angry mob, convinced that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and goaded on by Donald Trump, marched on the U.S. Capitol building, where lawmakers were certifying the votes of the Electoral College.
They overwhelmed the security cordon around the building and forced their way inside, smashing windows and breaking down doors. Offices were vandalized and capitol police officers were assaulted. Terrified lawmakers, staff, and journalists fled as the rioters occupied the Senate chamber, sat in the Speaker’s office, and forced armed guards to barricade the main entrance to the House floor. One person was shot and later died.
The crowds were eventually dispersed, and the House and Senate reconvened to finish counting the votes. “They tried to disrupt our democracy; they failed,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) defiantly declared. Nonetheless, it was an appalling assault on our national legislature. To many experts it had all the hallmarks of an attempted coup d'état (or technically an autogolpe – using force to stay in power). The violence and destruction was especially distressing to those of us who have worked in Congress or have friends, family, or students who do.
Regardless of whether it was a planned coup attempt or the thoughtless temper tantrum of a mentally shaky, toddler-like president, the attack on the Capitol brought at least two potentially destabilizing features of contemporary American politics into stark relief.
First, the presidential bully pulpit can be a dangerous weapon in the hands of a malicious Chief Executive. For over a century, presidents have tried to use their national prominence to rally voters to their side. Going public is a standard tool of persuasion in the modern president’s tool box, though the tactic seldom shifts public opinion.
A crucial feature of the Trump presidency has been its effective exploitation of social media and appearances on friendly cable news shows to communicate to citizens. But Trump rarely utilizes his bully pulpit in the traditional way, to nudge Congress into voting for his agenda or improve his standing with the country as a whole. Instead, he uses it as a direct channel between him and his strongest supporters. It is also a means by which he convinces other Republican politicians that, without his Twitter blessing, GOP voters will turn out against them. Trump also goes public to funnel false information and bizarre conspiracy theories to a gullible political base that eagerly feeds on it, a syndrome Pope Francis compared to the desire to eat feces.
Trump has now exploited his bully pulpit to do the unthinkable: sic a mob on Congress and disrupt its Constitutional duty to ratify a presidential election. The implications are disturbing. Future presidents may take similar advantage of narrowcasting and social media to rile up their supporters and wield them as weapons against other branches of the federal government. Rather than intimidate with phone calls or e-mails from an angry public, however, a demagogic president can brandish his bully pulpit to force his will on judges and lawmakers with the threat of violence.
As if acknowledging this incredible power of the modern White House, President-elect Joe Biden, members of Congress, and other officials repeatedly asked Trump to call off the marauders while they occupied the Capitol. That they would have to beg the president to stop the very unrest he had instigated underscores just how weak our other democratic institutions and political leaders are in the face of a Chief Executive with loyal supporters who listen only to him.
The second unsettling aspect of yesterday’s invasion was what happened afterwards. One might expect that the use of violence by Trump supporters who believed the election was fraudulent would have fatally undermined their erroneous claims of a stolen election. Yet over 120 House Republicans – a majority of the Conference – stuck with their original plan and voted to throw out the votes of two states, Arizona and Pennsylvania, despite zero evidence that the elections in either state were fraudulent or illegal. Even Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who knows better, decided to join the fray.
If these House Republicans were fearful of a primary challenge, their desire for reelection mattered more to them than providing leadership. If they were hoping to curry favor with Trump, they put career advancement over the Constitution. If ideological beliefs explain their vote, those beliefs blinded them to the facts on the ground.
Thankfully, Republicans in the Senate proved to be more statesmanlike. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made clear that there was no evidence of fraud and that Biden was elected president. A dozen Republican Senators had been planning to contest the electoral votes of at least three states, but many of them backed off, realizing that the events of the afternoon had altered the terms of the debate. Just six voted against the votes in Arizona and only seven against the Pennsylvania votes, and an effort by Representative Jody Hice to challenge the outcome in his own (!) state of Georgia was aborted when one Senator withdrew support for Hice’s challenge.
Yet the fact that so many congressional Republicans would still give credence to the baseless charges of a conspiracy-minded president backed by violent terrorists does not bode well for the future. If those lawmakers worry more about getting reelected, or about staying loyal to their party or their beliefs, than about factual evidence, the independence of the legislature, and even their own physical safety, then Congress – and our democracy – is in serious trouble.