ANALYSIS — Republicans in Congress thought they’d escaped unscathed on Election Day. Polls projected a drubbing, but the GOP gained seats in the House and looked well-positioned to retain Senate control.
Donald Trump’s loss to Joe Biden they could see as a blessing in disguise, figuring they could harness the president’s supporters for future use while no longer answering for the demagogue’s outrages.
But the mob attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, egged on by Trump, has proved otherwise. The GOP is on the cusp of civil war between Trump loyalists and an old guard that had hoped to take the Trump wins — the new tax law; the raft of conservative judges, including three on the Supreme Court; and a diminished regulatory state — and move on.
For the country, this is a moment of danger. With Inauguration Day still more than a week away, there’s no telling what new incitements Trump has planned, despite his post-riot call for an orderly transition. Most lawmakers are unable to do anything to restrain him and can only hope Trump is sincere.
The cleaving of the GOP may prove helpful for President-elect Biden and a united Democratic Congress, as he seeks to seat his Cabinet and respond quickly to the coronavirus crisis.
The GOP’s Senate moderates, and perhaps also conservatives who saw the mob up close and then retreated from their plan to vote against certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory, will feel compelled to cooperate with their Democratic colleagues. Joe Biden may get a honeymoon after all.
Even as the Republican Party accepted the devil’s bargain of 2016, which almost all of them initially resisted for fear of Trump, a party establishment remained, wary of the demagogue. That establishment emerged in isolated moments when Trump’s latest outrage went far beyond the pale and came out in force as Trump’s legal challenges to the 2020 vote failed.
It spoke openly before the riots of Jan. 6. “We cannot simply declare ourselves a national board of elections on steroids,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in rebuking GOP colleagues trying to reject Biden electors at Trump’s request.
Even Vice President Mike Pence, a loyalist from the start, defied Trump, saying he could not unilaterally reject the electors.
The need for party elders to break with Trump had come into greater focus the day before. Two Republican Senate incumbents from Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, lost their seats, handing the chamber over to the Democrats when Kamala Harris takes the oath of vice president on Jan. 20.
Trump’s conspiracy theories of election fraud, villainizing of Georgia officials and undermining of last month’s coronavirus relief law could not have done more to hurt their chances.
And then Trump told followers who’d gathered in front of the White House they needed to fight. “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he told the crowd before the riot. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
The mob rushed the Capitol. Lawmakers took shelter. Pence, there to oversee the counting of electoral votes, fled. The rioters desecrated the Senate chamber and vandalized the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick died in the melee, and police shot one of the rioters, Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, to death.
Out of the mayhem came a chastening. “We will not bow to lawlessness and intimidation,” McConnell said. Lawmakers from both sides, Trump loyalists included, condemned the violence.
Later that night, the Republican bid to overturn the election results — always doomed to fail but planned as a demonstration of loyalty to Trump, and perhaps a prelude to the 2024 GOP presidential primaries — fizzled. Only eight senators voted in favor of disqualifying Biden electors from either Arizona or Pennsylvania.
That was several fewer than expected. Loeffler, who’d planned to vote to disqualify, was among those who said they’d changed their minds after the Capitol invasion.
So Republican lawmakers who for the past four years thought they could control Trump, or at least mostly gain from his 2016 election, are now reconsidering. The GOP that looked positioned for a comeback just nine weeks ago now is split between those who plan to continue following Trump and those who don’t. All are tarred by association with the man who incited the riot.
Distracted by each other, these factions will be a less effective counterweight to the new Democratic majority in Washington.
In addition to splitting his party in two, Trump has continued to help Democrats unite their own factions. They put aside significant disagreements to defeat him but still have very different ideas about the policies Biden should pursue.
Democrats will need strength of purpose to enact an agenda with the narrowest House and Senate majorities in a generation. The centerpiece of their legislative effort in 2021 will be a budget reconciliation law, in which they can combat the virus, change tax and health policy and pursue other party goals. They can pass it with simple majorities, and that bar has now become easier to clear.
Enervated Republicans, meanwhile, will return to the Capitol in less than a fortnight.
House Republican leaders who need their members to vote as a bloc to pressure Pelosi’s 11-seat majority and prepare for a comeback bid in 2022 now face a more difficult job.
GOP senators hoping to win a power-sharing agreement and preserve minority party privileges now negotiate from a weakened position.
The incoming Senate majority leader, Charles E. Schumer of New York, in decrying the rioters, also reached out subtly to Republicans who might be willing to help him. With the 60-vote requirement for most legislation to get past a filibuster still in place, he will need their votes.
“It was Speaker Pelosi, Leader McConnell, Leader McCarthy and myself who came together and decided that these thugs would not succeed,” he said, indicating rare cooperation. It can only be hoped that Jan. 6 offers a lesson for all representatives and senators that there’s a cost to treating politics as blood sport, as most of them have for years.
Trump has taken it to stratospheric new levels. But one-upmanship and the schoolyard arguments over who started it have long eroded civility, lawmaking with it, and given encouragement to unstable people.
The public takes notice. In the last decade, a radical fired upon and wounded GOP ballplayers practicing for a friendly game and a madman shot a representative in the head in Arizona. These are no longer isolated incidents.