John F. Kennedy famously (and incorrectly) observed that the Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two brushstrokes: one signifying “danger” and the other “opportunity.” As the dust and debris of the desecration of the Capitol subsides, the Republican Party confronts just such a two-faceted moment.
Since 2016, when he accepted the Republican nomination for the presidency, Donald Trump has been the Party leader. And not just in a titular or ceremonial sense. He has demanded and received almost complete loyalty from Party members. He effectively engineered the early retirements of critics and of supporters whose support was merely tepid, including, to name just a few, Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and Luther Strange of Alabama.
Now, as the nation reacts in shock and revulsion at the mob violence, the Republican Party faces a grave danger due to its association with Trump.
The desecration of the Capitol generated a national trauma. The Capitol is more than a building. It is the visible symbol of our system of government. In our Constitution, the powers of Congress are described first, in Article I. The placement is not accidental. The Founders considered the national legislature to be the first in importance of the three branches of government. An assault on the Capitol represents an attack on our federal system itself. In some ways, the images of rioters smashing doors and windows to maraud through the building’s chambers and offices were even more traumatic than the pictures of the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Those office buildings symbolized the nation’s financial structure. The Capitol symbolizes its philosophical and political foundation.
Donald Trump deserves blame for that travesty, but his responsibility is more nuanced than the countless headlines and commentaries referencing “incitement,” might suggest.
In fact, in his long, rambling pre-riot speech, he never openly urged his supporters to commit violence. He actually did the opposite, stating at one point: “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” Under the Supreme Court’s Brandenburg test, Trump’s speech would almost certainly qualify as protected under the First Amendment.
But when Trump stood at the Ellipse to address the crowd, he assumed the role of Marc Antony in Julius Caesar. In his funeral oration, Marc Antony also purported to discourage mob violence against his political opponents, even though that was his very purpose:
O masters, if I were disposed to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong —
Who, you all know, are honorable men.
I will not do them wrong. I rather choose
To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
Than I will wrong such honorable men.
Like Marc Antony, rather than openly incite violence, Trump engineered the same result more shrewdly. He told the crowd that the nation was “under siege” by forces trying to “steal the election.” Yes, Trump also told them to march peacefully to the Capitol — but just how peacefully can conscientious citizens be expected to act when convinced that a massive electoral theft is occurring? The rioters chanting “Stop the steal” as they rampaged through the Rotunda, were persuaded by their President that the only way to stop a crime in progress was to prevent Congress from carrying out its Constitutional obligation to count the Electoral College votes.
While Trump’s diatribe was constitutionally protected speech, it was at the same time a violation of the oath he took at his inauguration four years ago, when he promised that he would “to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The Republican Party now faces the real and present danger of becoming irretrievably linked in the public mind with the desecration of the Capitol, just as the Democratic Party was connected with secession by the Confederate states, and just as the Republican Party was connected with the Great Depression. In both cases, the Party associated with the disaster faced decades of wandering in the wilderness.
But if there is danger, there is also opportunity for the GOP.
The Party now has the opportunity to finally, formally, and fully disassociate itself from Donald Trump by not only voting to impeach and convict him, but by taking the initiative to actually lead the effort in both Houses of Congress. Such an effort would be especially meaningful in the Senate, where the Republicans still hold a majority. Although Georgia’s two sitting senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, were defeated in the January 5 runoffs, they will retain their seats until the votes of all 159 counties are counted and certified by the Secretary of State, on or before January 22.
The prospect of these two defeated Republicans voting to convict Donald Trump, and making him the first president to be removed from office, would carry important symbolic value.
Since taking office, Trump has commanded loyalty by fear rather than by affection. Republican office holders understood that while they demonstrated fealty, they would be rewarded with fulsome praise, and when they dissented, they would be slammed as losers, total losers, clowns, dummies, and lightweights.
Perdue and Loeffler played the game and lost, when they should have won. In November 2020, after a campaign largely untouched by Trump, Perdue defeated his Democratic opponent by 88,000 votes. Loeffler ran in a crowded primary with several candidates from both parties. Her vote tally added to that of her Republican primary opponent, Doug Collins, far exceeded Raphael Warnock’s vote total. Under Georgia’s election rules requiring a +50% total, both Perdue and Loeffler were required to win runoff races. Given the November results, both could reasonably have expected to win. But both chose to tie themselves tightly to Trump, who proceeded to march through Georgia wreaking more destruction than General Sherman – only this time, the destruction was inflicted on Republicans. Trump made the runoff elections about himself, castigating the state’s Republican governor and secretary of state and blaming them for his November loss, and fomenting a civil war within the Party.
Thanks to Trump’s intervention, Perdue and Loeffler both lost, and the Republican Party lost control of the Senate.
Theirs was not an isolated experience. Overall, Trump was an albatross in the 2020 elections. Throughout the country, Republican candidates outperformed him. While Trump was losing the presidency, Republicans, against all expectations, were gaining seats in the House of Representatives, and in the state legislatures.
All this illustrates the “opportunity” element of the current Republican crisis. They now have the opportunity to publicly break the Party’s bond to Donald Trump. Leading the effort to impeach and convict him would benefit, not harm, the GOP.
Republicans may have thought they were engaged in a Faustian bargain. But according to the legend, Dr. Faustus received valuable consideration for the sale of his soul, namely unlimited knowledge and pleasure. The Republican Party received no such consideration for its loyalty to Trump. Instead the Party received defeat after defeat. In January 2017, the Party could lay claim to the White House and both Houses of Congress. In January 2021, in return for four years of blind loyalty, the Party will have ceded them all to the Democrats.
Even if it entails benefit rather than cost, some might question the value of removing a president who will be out of office in few days anyway. Why bother? For Democrats, the question is well taken. It really doesn’t matter to them whether Trump leaves office when he is removed by a Senate vote to convict, or when Joe Biden takes the oath of office.
But for Republicans, it is crucially important that he be removed by a Senate still under their control. Otherwise, he will loom as a threat to gain the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. At minimum, the risk of his functioning as a Party king-maker, with the power to anoint his successor, will remain. In some ways, that would be even worse, because it might lead to a competition among the Party’s 2024 candidates to see who could abase him or herself the most as they vie for his blessing.
Removal of Donald Trump from office by a senate acting in its final hours of Republican control is the best, perhaps the only, way to fully exorcise him from the Party’s soul. It is the best way to seize the opportunity presented by the Capitol crisis.
Correction: The term of David Perdue, like that of all senators in his class, ended on January 3. Therefore, should an impeachment trial occur, he would not be in office and could not vote to convict. That senate seat will remain vacant until the results of his race are certified by the Georgia Secretary of State later this month. Kelly Loeffler, on the other hand, will remain in office until certification, and could vote on conviction in a Senate still under Republican control.