We all live in the America Trump has made. Normal politics isn't enough.
Updated: Jan 8, 2021
At around 2pm eastern time yesterday, I watched the speeches on the Senate floor, both struck by the contrast between Pat Toomey and Ted Cruz and wondering, as usual, how deep those differences really run. I sent a brief message to a friend complaining about this and he, watching a different news feed entirely, sent back an incredulous message. “They’re speaking on the Senate floor while protesters are trying to storm the Capitol?”
We were using the word "protesters" at that point.
Within the hour, things had changed dramatically. The insurrectionists breached the Capitol and the chambers were cleared, their occupants sheltered in place or eventually evacuated. But that split screen moment, with one reality a warped version of business as usual and the other a violent nightmare, sums up so much about the politics of the Trump era.
For four years we’ve been hearing people ask, “will the institutions hold?” The aftermath of the 2020 election offers a somewhat equivocal answer. State and local election officials resisted Trump’s calls to subvert the process. Courts upheld the law. The Electoral College voted on December 14. But Trump himself refused to concede the election, and his efforts gained some support among Republican in Congress. We know now that the violence and conspiracy theories entangled in this refusal did not stay buried on message boards. It came to the Capitol and unleashed lawless violence. The institutions, literally - physically - did not hold.
By the early evening Congress had convened once again to finish certifying the votes, which they have now done. There’s quite a bit to be said about the objections that were still raised and supported - by a few Republican Senators and far more Republican Representatives. Talk of impeachment was raised, once again, but has thus far been dismissed by Congressional Democrats. (Updated, 1/8/21 - House Democrats are signaling the possibility of impeachment and drafting articles)
The question about whether the institutions will hold is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation about how to restore American democracy. Institutions can secure some stability, and some distribution of political power, but they can also make things appear normal and functional when they are anything but. They can maintain white supremacy. The informal rules of the game can also make it more difficult to respond to real threats, as we are seeing now. Holding Trump and his Congressional enables accountable requires going beyond the normal rules about how the game is played - invoking section 4 of the 25th amendment, beginning a second impeachment, using procedures of Congressional expulsion. These are extreme, norm-breaking, uncollegial. But living in that reality doesn't make the other, less norm-bound one, go away. These have always coexisted, to some degree. But Trump has brought them to the front and center, infusing the day-to-day practice of politics with authoritarianism, racism, and violence, and leaving his political opponents with an unappealing set of options about how to respond.
Moving through - not past - what happened yesterday and coming out as a renewed democracy requires not just asking about the strength of institutions but about the ideas that shape these institutions. As I wrote last week and as yesterday showed clearly, the power of the presidency has been severed from the obligation to uphold the Constitution. The office has long relied on its occupant to integrate power and obligation. This has often been flawed, but now it’s broken down, without clear accountability.
Our institutions and practices have also relied on a sense of clear separation between words and actions, with few norms in place about how to respond to rhetoric that incites and inflames - and how such incitement might violate the Constitutional oaths taken by public officials. It also rests on an assumption that extremism can be clearly separated from mainstream actors and views, and we also know now that this does not describe what’s going on. Insurrectionists took over the seat of government, and most walked out uninjured. Elected members of the legislature condemned their actions but, in voicing objections to the election, affirmed their cause. Casual, everyday white supremacy met with the violent and more outward kind. And we need new scripts for how to respond.
We don’t have to reach back very far in American history to see where democracy has faltered, where violent white supremacy has terrorized, where institutions and norms have upheld injustice in place even as they performed crucial functions. But throughout this post-election period I’ve been reminded specifically of the moments before and after the Civil War, when questions about whether to accommodate and preserve were most pressing. We still live with the consequences of these decisions, especially with the absence of a full reckoning and Reconstruction after the Civil War. They’ve brought us to this moment of split-screen politics, with the defenders of institutions and democracy unable to cross necessary lines to forcefully reassert these values. As a result, we are all a little less free.