Jan. 6 Was Just the Start of Radicalizing Trump’s Republican Party

Jan. 6 Was Just the Start of Radicalizing Trump’s Republican Party 1

Donald Trump’s January 2021 coup attempt failed to overturn the election; but Trump has succeeded in transforming the GOP into an ever more radicalized party that rewards extremism, and punishes, or even banishes, those members who fail to support ever more audacious attacks on democracy and the nation’s electoral process.

The Republican Party is now institutionally oriented to work towards the anti-democratic aims of its charismatic leader, Trump.

As the one-year anniversary of the Capitol insurrection approaches, we are only now beginning to gain a picture of the full scope of what can now fairly be described as a coup scheme, intended to void the outcome of a presidential election. The scheme was encouraged, if not planned, by the White House, with Trump’s chief-of-staff Mark Meadows serving as field general for the putsch, and encouraging the pursuit of various extreme proposals and bizarre conspiracy theories from a range of co-conspirators, including members of Congress as well as state legislators and freelance neo-fascists such as Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, and John Eastman.

It is essential that Congress’ Jan. 6 committee, as well as the Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies, continue to seek out every relevant item of evidence regarding this effort to take down the nation’s democracy, and identify the role of each of the schemers. The evidence may well establish that individuals, potentially including Trump himself, are guilty of federal crimes arising from the putsch scheme, such as obstruction of the congressional electoral vote counting proceedings.

Yet regardless of what additional facts the congressional and law enforcement investigations establish, we already know that Trump has succeeded in a broader goal of transforming the Republican Party into a vehicle for ever more radical and extreme attacks on the democratic foundations of the nation. His success is reflected in the fact that Trump no longer needs to tell followers inside and outside of government to play their parts in undermining democracy—they now take the initiative to anticipate Trump’s desire for extreme actions and act upon them.

Historian Ian Kershaw famously described the Third Reich’s operating principle as “working towards the Führer.” Party members anticipated the steps its leader wanted, particularly attacks on political opponents and “undesirables” like Jews, and frequently took them without being asked. Over time, it became clear that those who pursued the most radical, and often violent, steps to serve the party would be met with approbation, while those who hesitated would be met with disfavor or worse.

While Trump is, of course, no Hitler, he and his acolytes have used a similar reward-and-punishment dynamic to relentlessly move the GOP towards a dynamic of ever greater extremism, in which adherence to legal and moral norms is viewed as intolerable weakness.

During 2016, Trump’s most devoted acolyte, his namesake son, responded to news that the Russian government was illicitly aiding his father’s presidential campaign by exclaiming “I love it” in an email, and arranging a meeting in the hope of getting “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from Russia. In early 2021, after Trump lost the election, Meadows likewise responded to fellow extremists’ plans to undermine the electoral vote count by “replacing” duly designated electors with Trump shills by, likewise, declaring “I love it.”

We do not know if Trump expressly blessed either scheme beforehand, but it is clear that both Don Jr. and Meadows understood that they would risk Trump’s ire if they failed to pursue the most extreme attacks on American laws and democratic norms available in Trump’s name.

The GOP’s dynamic of rewarding extremism, and penalizing restraint, has only strengthened since Trump lost the election. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy disavowed his initial support for an investigation of Jan. 6, and ultimately supported the sanctioning of Liz Cheney for participating in the Congressional inquiry into the coup attempt. Cheney and fellow Jan. 6 committee member Adam Kinzinger are now facing a call for their expulsion from the GOP caucus from prominent party activists and institutions that are now singularly dependent on Trump, such as Matt Schlapp and the Club for Growth, as virtually all of their House colleagues cower in silence. Meanwhile, McCarthy, recognizing that his hope to be elected Speaker depends on maintaining the support of Trump’s most radical allies, gives free license to members like Paul Gosar, who recently disclosed evidence establishes was an active participant in the coup effort and who recently “joked” about murdering a House colleague.

At the state level, the impetus within the GOP to work towards Trump is likewise even more powerful than it was during the weeks following the election. Trump’s now-infamous call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, demanding that he “find” additional votes for Trump, failed to induce Raffensperger to corrupt the election, and Trump’s rejection of the election results likely contributed to the runoff losses of both GOP incumbent senators—costing Republicans control of the senate.

Yet during the succeeding months, Trump’s relentless attacks on Raffensperger and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp have induced other Republicans to join in attacking the two for not undoing the outcome of the 2020 election, and to induce opponents who share Trump’s extremist agenda to plan primary challenges against them, making radicalism the norm in the party.

The story is the same in many other states, including Wisconsin, where a GOP legislative leader has responded to Trump’s loss there by attacking the state’s bipartisan election commission (including a commissioner he appointed), while some Wisconsin Republican leaders, including Sen. Ron Johnson, are calling for what amounts to a GOP takeover of the administration of elections in the state. In Arizona, an “audit” that confirmed Trump’s loss has nonetheless served as a rallying cry for efforts to undermine voting rights in that state and others. Across the country, people who claim the 2020 election was “stolen” by Biden are running to take control of the local election machinery to ensure that the next election can be stolen by Trump.

While they rarely direct these actions, Trump and his acolytes have praised these extremists while often threatening retaliation against party members who question such a radical approach.

A case in point is Michigan, where Trump supporters have demanded an Arizona-style audit of the election, despite the fact that a GOP-sponsored probe found no evidence of election fraud. A group of Trump supporters, some of them members of the state legislature, have commenced a campaign to intimidate state party leaders to support this audit, as a sign of support for Trump, declaring that their effort is the first step in a “revolution” against the electoral system.

This brings us back to Jan. 6. Trump’s address to a crowd of supporters that day came after a presidential term in which he openly praised neo-Nazi rioters, encouraged gun-wielding protesters to go to state capitals to “liberate” them from COVID restrictions, and wielded a bible in front of a church after a crowd of protesters had been cleared for him by a violent police and National Guard attack. It followed weeks during which Trump himself had waged a relentless campaign to delegitimize the results of the election, commencing even before it was held and using every legal and political lever that he could to get himself reinstalled against the will of the people.

The former president claims that he didn’t tell the crowd that gathered for his speech on Jan. 6 to attack the Capitol, but virtually all of the people who did believed they were acting in his interests, and had every reason to believe that their attack would meet with his approbation.

Indeed, evidence that has come to light during recent months has only added further support for their belief. Trump has confirmed that he was wholly unconcerned with Pence’s safety during the insurrection, and failed even to call him as the siege proceeded. We are also now learning that Trump ignored entreaties from legislators inside the Capitol, and even from Don Jr., and Sean Hannity, to call off his supporters’ siege, as only he could have done.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that, as the siege proceeded, Trump’s acolytes, including Rudy Giuliani, and (as reported by The Daily Beast) possibly Peter Navarro, may well have been employing the disruption in the proceedings as an the opportunity to attempt to encourage more legislators to vote against certification—or to at least to delay it until they could engineer the naming of “replacement” electors.

We now know that in the weeks before Jan. 6, a group of legislators had been working hand-in-glove with Meadows and other Trump allies to implement the coup scheme. Most GOP members of Congress had not joined the scheme. But the insurrection contributed to making more of them more pliant Trump allies. Freshman GOP Rep. Peter Meijer has recounted that, in the immediate wake of the insurrection, a number of his colleagues who had planned to vote in favor of certifying Biden’s election reversed course, some out of fear for their own lives.

Since that time, most GOP politicians have routinely endorsed, or at least chosen not to oppose, the extreme attacks on democracy and the electoral system that have become core tenets of the GOP. As I have previously discussed, appeals to an extremist “base” are now such a central element of the party’s political strategy that GOP “leaders” fear losing support if they don’t support conspiracism and anti-democracy. For example, during a recent Minnesota GOP senate debate, all five of the candidates resisted acknowledging that Biden had won the 2020 election.

Even Trump himself has found that his power as a “leader” of an extremist movement depends on his own reliably continuous appeals to extremism. This was starkly evident last week when Trump himself faced criticism from some of his most fervent followers for acknowledging that the COVID vaccine saves lives, and admitting that he received a booster dose.

In short, extremism is Trump’s calling card, and the force that fuels his movement. Accordingly, whether or not Trump ordered the insurrection, he clearly chose to allow it to continue by his silence, likely because Trump believed the attack on the Capitol served his own ends. And during the months that have followed, GOP activists encouraged by Trump have normalized the goals and even the tactics of the insurrectionists—who are now frequently described by Trumpist Republicans as harmless tourists, or patriots.

The party is working towards Trump.