We are witnessing the consequences of Republican radicalization

Yesterday’s mob insurrection against the US government was a direct consequence of Trumpism, nationalism, conspiracy theories, and zero-sum politics

Friends,

It is exhausting to live through history so often. Doubly hard is writing about it. Regardless of the challenge, I want to address yesterday’s events in Washington, DC, and will do my best to bring a political-psychological and empirical angle to the conversation. This post will be long.*

I see yesterday’s events as a natural product of a lot of underlying trends that the President and his allies have been fomenting for a long time. Trumpism, radicalization, conspiratorial belief, and polarization are all partly to blame. But there is also an institutional explanation for how we got here. I’ll do my best to unpack this.


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Yesterday was a dark and distressing day in American history. Only in the Civil War have our federal democratic electoral and lawmaking institutions come under such threat, both by the people and their elected leaders. But even in the 1860s, Confederates did not wave their flag in the halls of the US Capitol as they did yesterday. Although not often taught in schools today, Americans have also perpetrated murderous, white-nationalist insurrections in sub-national governments before. Yesterday's events reminded me of these dark historical events. Yet the brief unlawful occupation of the Capitol could be a harbinger of even darker threats to democracy yet to come.

I want to be very clear about the context of yesterday’s events. This was not a civil occupation of Capitol on any ordinary day. Rather, a violent mob made up mostly of Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Congress as legislators voted to certify the votes of the Electoral College. Such certification would be a formal end to their preferred presidential candidate’s bid to stay in power. The insurrectionists were able to push through barriers and overwhelm Capitol Police, breaking into the House and Senate chambers thereby forcing legislators, staff, and press to flee the building. The insurrection can therefore be characterized as a violent attack on the government that delayed the electoral processes of the United States.

In terms of the importance of the attack on the Congress, this partisan electoral context makes all the difference.

Another key element of yesterday’s events happened before the mob entered the Capitol. At a rally early in the day, the president encouraged supporters to march to the Capitol and give GOP officials “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” President Trump stirred the crowd, saying “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” His son and lawyer were more explicit, the former saying “we’re coming for you” and the latter demanding that the opposition face a “trial by combat.” This has all the makings of a coup, though luckily lacked the key elements for successful execution.

Given the strength of opinion leadership for co-partisans, I think it is reasonable to assume some causality here. If Donald Trump had demanded peaceful demonstrations outside of the Capitol, the later events of the day would have been avoided.

We should acknowledge another piece of context before moving on. The invasion and disruption of the Capitol happened while chambers were debating unprecedented challenges to election results in Arizona The objections to the state-certified and court-verified ballots were brought on by Republican lawmakers hoping to throw out votes they thought cast under illegal expansions of mail-in voting (this is a lie, by the way). There can be no doubt that such illegitimate grievances gave license to many of Trump’s voters who wrongly believe the contest was stolen from them, fanning the flames of their insurrectionist mentality. Further, Trump sent them there to embolden Republicans to overturn the count. There can be no denying the implications.

The combined (a) egging on of violence and disruption of the electoral process by the president, (b) attempted coup against legislators; and (c) unprecedented and unfounded objections from Republican lawmakers constitute an extremely troubling assault on our democratic values and electoral norms. Some of the said actions may even have been seditious.

Here are two questions that can help us make sense of these events: First, how did we get here? And second: what can we do now?

How we got here

Apart from the direct links between Trump’s words early yesterday morning and the invasion of the Capitol by a violent mob of his supporters later in the day, I think there are at least four identifiable long-term causes that set the psychological stage for yesterday’s attempted coup.

  1. Trump(ism): First and foremost, yesterday’s events are a consequence of the vast majority of Republicans’ almost cult-like embrace of Donald Trump and his whims. This is true both for GOP lawmakers (many of whom supported his attempts to decertify Biden’s electoral victories in key swing states, eg in the House) and voters, who are overwhelmingly likely to adopt his beliefs (importantly, seemingly regardless of their ideological slant). There are both partisan components to this almost-blind loyalty that translates to other GOP leaders and something special about the way Trump commands his followers. Perhaps researchers can focus on the imagery of Trump as a divine ruler sent to dispel rings of Democratic Satanists to uncover a religious component to this loyalty. His populism is also of note here and sets him apart from other Republican leaders. Some polls even indicate that the party’s voters are more loyal to Trump than the party itself.

    Concerningly, as I have written about before, there is more to Trumpism than just loyalty to Trump and I believe most of it will outlast his presidency. A different president who wins power via the same tactics of populism, religious idolatry, conspiratorial thinking, and negative partisanship would assemble a remarkably similar coalition with a very adjacent ideology. In fact, given the electoral link, GOP voters will all but demand it. The anti-democratic sentiment is also not particular to Trump; Republicans have for a long time held contempt to majoritarian rule, and their all-or-nothing obstructionism is a product of Mitch McConnell’s earth-scorching opposition to Obama between 2014 and 2016.

  2. Nationalism and white ethnic grievances: We cannot deny the white ethnonationalism of yesterday’s insurrection. The images of Confederate battle flags flying in the US Capitol speak to the hold that nationalism has taken over the Republican Party. In some ways, what we saw yesterday was a new side of nationalism in America. We have known for a long while that Republican opposition to multi-racial democracy breeds contempt and violence toward both non-whites and Democrats. But yesterday was an illustration of how the “ethnic antagonism” of the GOP also erodes their devotion to democracy and leads partisans to endorse illiberal seizures of power.

    Of course, this has been a fundamental problem for America since its founding. The problem of a white grievance party — first Jim Crow whites, then Southern Democrats, and now Republicans — has plagued the country for over two centuries. It is an outgrowth of demagogues taking advantage of incompatibility between the makeup of our society and the structure of our institutions. As it did not spring up overnight, nor will it become fixed overnight.

  3. Republican endorsement of election conspiracy theories: Although some of the crazier conspiracy theories on the political (far?) right are hard for some commentators to take seriously, false attacks on election integrity are both more palatable to “mainstream” voters and more serious threats to the rule of law in America. The fact that Republican lawmakers endorsed many of these theories (which, to be clear, have no basis in fact and have been decisively disproved in the judiciary) so much as to try and decertify electoral tallies plays a large part in legitimizing the false grievances of the mob that invaded the Capitol yesterday. Of course, we cannot overlook that in the aftermath of the attack many Republican members of Congress (including some particularly distasteful individuals such as Mo Brooks and Matt Gaetz) immediately manufactured new theories absolving the mob of their guilt and blaming the attempted coup on Antifa.

  4. Zero-sum politics and affective polarization from institutional breakdown: Finally, we cannot ignore the effects of America’s two-party system — stemming from first-past-the-post electoral rules — and the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College. Americans consistently giving both the Congress and Presidency the lowest marks they have in decades, regularly saying they have little to no faith in the way the government is run.

    One solution is to move toward a system of multi-party democracy, perhaps via changing electoral rules or our institutions themselves. The first steps toward this end would be relatively easy for Congress to accomplish now that Democrats are in control of the House, Senate, and Presidency; adopting ranked-choice voting for federal elections would certainly bring the ideological composition of the House more in line with regular Americans. That would do a lot for shoring up faith in American democracy.

    We have also now seen both sides of the dangers of the Electoral College over the past four years. First, it assigns the presidency to a party that consistently cannot win a majority of Americans’ votes in medium-to-high turnout elections. That Republicans could control the Senate and Presidency by losing the popular vote by 3 or 4 points is a travesty of representation. But second, the Electoral College also has a serious anti-democratic, removed-from-the-people, antiquated perception that hurt trust in our elections. The added steps of certifying state-level tallies and sending slates of electors to the meeting of the full College in December (sometimes multiple slates from the same state!) creates many opportunities for corruption — either real or perceived — that hurts the process.

    Both of these institutional weaknesses also combine with the extraordinarily powerful nature of the (anti-Democratic) US Senate to create an environment of zero-sum politics that divides Americans into teams fundamentally opposed to each other. It is not a coincidence that we have now seen a violent mob of in-power voters storm the US Capitol in an attempt to prevent the opposition party from taking the reigns of the Executive now when partisan antipathy and negative polarization are at all-time highs. When the stakes of government are perceived to be so astronomically high, people are more likely to endorse damaging courses of action as merely the means that are justified by the end — their party holding power.

These are just four of many potential explanations for yesterday’s attempted coup on the government, and I have no doubt missed something obvious, but I think these are the biggest factors that we can directly grapple with during the immediate aftermath. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below.

What we do now

We are now at a crossroads. On one path, we continue, heads in the sand, pace toward democratic distress unabated. Collective tolerance of dangerous endorsement of conspiracy theories by elected officials will breed further distrust of government among the masses. Insurgencies will become more violent and more common as politics becomes increasingly hostile and zero-sum, and as members of the fringe are emboldened by their leaders in the shadows.

Attacks on the media will also become more commonplace; we cannot forget that the same ideological elements that caused a bomber to send explosive packages to CNN offices in 2018 were present among many of yesterday’s seditious mob members. One of them wrote “MURDER THE MEDIA” on a door of the US Capitol; a group of other smashed television equipment and harassed nearby reporters.

The other path is toward a renewed and brighter democracy. There, competition between the parties is not over whether democracy is right and worthwhile, but over the more arcane policy and political disagreements of the last two centuries. Conspiratorial media is reigned in, and potentially dangerous speech online is confronted, not encouraged, by the political leaders that would normally benefit from it.

This imagined world will be hard to achieve. A YouGov poll conducted after yesterday’s events found that a majority of Republicans approved of the violence at the Capitol. This is a concerning degree of toleration of the worst attack on our democracy since Jim Crow. But so long as we are imagining a better future, there are a few things we can do to get there.

First and foremost, Republicans must vote to impeach and remove President Trump from office — and bar him from ever holding office again. He assembled and incited yesterday’s mob violence against Capitol lawmakers and should not be legally forgiven for that. For the good of Democracy, Congress must check the president. If not, the next coup might look more like those in Africa and South America. It will not merely be another putsch.

Second, everyone who entered the Capitol illegally yesterday should be jailed for trespassing, and perhaps tried for sedition. They took up arms against their government. We should not tolerate that behavior — or, again, it will be even worse next time. Multiple improvised explosive devices were found near the Capitol yesterday; it is not hard to imagine things quickly getting worse from there.

Third, Republicans must distance themselves from the conspiratorial right and stand up for a principled future of their party. I would suggest that Mitt Romney has set the standard here. In demanding that some of his fellow partisans, and president Trump, take responsibility for the mob attack yesterday, he has shown that the GOP can be more than a power-seeking, anti-democratic party that tolerates gross violations of our principles and institutions. Of course, this is unlikely, but it is a necessary step toward building a better government.

Related to this: Congress could form an information oversight committee formed to regulate the dangerous spread of fake news on social media and conspiracy websites. They could find civic education initiatives, and invite good-faith Republicans to spearhead similar efforts to lend them legitimacy. Amending Section 230 might be a dangerous but necessary step in this regard.

Fourth, as discussed above, Americans could demand, and Congress enact, reforms to our electoral institutions. The Senate and Electoral College are, of course, gross violations of the spirit of democracy and present many other (perhaps more threatening) problems than those I’ve discussed here, but breaking the two-party stranglehold on our government could go a long way toward changing politicians incentives and fundamentally reorienting lawmaking and politicking in America.

Finally, I would like to see the renewal of the spirit of active, participatory democracy in our discourse — both in the media and in person. While Fox News, the Republican Party, and their conspiratorial allies bear the vast majority of the blame for our current moment, the damage they have done cannot be undone merely by commentators writing on their ills alone. It will take a great deal of effort, but a party or movement devoted to the birth of a new democratic ideal would restore a lot of what is missing in civic conversations and the maturity of individual civic education today.

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Yesterday’s mob insurrection is a troubling development in America’s slide toward authoritarianism. By some definitions, it was the most direct attack on the Federal Government and independent operation of electoral democracy since 1814, when the British burned Washington, DC to the ground. Our current moment is also more concerning than the rise of fascism in America during the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, as with Charles Coughlin and his deranged, anti-democratic ilk, we had strong parties to defend the republic. Today, it seems that the Republican Party has abdicated its role to safeguard democracy, and has in many ways encouraged the fascism that has been festering among both its ranks and leadership for years. All of (a) nationalism and ethnic scapegoating, (b) partisan attack to prevent the political opposition from taking power, and (c) attempts to take control of media narration are key political components of fascism, and we saw both go substantively unpunished yesterday.

It is reassuring that law enforcement was able to eject the president's mob from the Capitol and resume the transition of power yesterday. This is a silver lining and a sign that our institutions may be able to perform the minimum functions of democracy even in bad situations. But our freedoms will be restricted still under such a scenario — and we can fear what happens next time.

Despite the silver lining, yesterday was the first time in history that that transition of power was not peaceful. That will stain our country in the history books that have yet to be written. To actually alter the course of our country will take a full reckoning by the many people in power who have brought us to the troubling place we find ourselves in today. It is easier to see the dusk of democracy than the dawn of a brighter era.

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Notes:

*Given the monumentality of yesterday’s events, this post was a bit rushed. Accordingly, I regret that there may be a few typos and grammatical errors. I hope you can forgive me. (But I also put a lot of work into it, so please share it!)