MAGA’s Moment of Weakness
“We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning, you’re going to come to me and go ‘Please, please, we can’t win anymore.’ You’ll say ‘Please, Mr. President, we beg you sir, we don’t want to win anymore. It’s too much. It’s not fair to everybody else.’”
—Donald Trump to rallygoers in Billings, Montana on May 25, 2016
It’s been one humiliation after another for Donald Trump and his die-hard supporters.
They lost at the ballot box. They were rejected by the courts. Their attempted coup was a dishonorable failure. Their insurrection turned into a deadly disaster.
The man himself is diminished. Losing his Twitter account made him look weak. Slinking out of Washington on inauguration morning made him look small.
Axios reports that Trump will claim the “presumptive 2024 frontrunner” title at Sunday’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Yet he’ll do so without Mike Pence, his once-devoted running mate, who declined the opportunity to show his support.
Whatever the future might bring, at this moment, the twice-impeached one-term president and his movement positively reek with the stench of defeat.
They seethe behind their brave faces, plotting revenge against high-ranking defectors. Not since the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland has Trump’s position within his own party been so precarious, so exposed.
The lack of reciprocity for a wave of recent betrayals is instructive.
Liz Cheney held onto her perch in House leadership after voting to impeach and accusing Trump of having blood on his hands.
Despite his vote to acquit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the events of January 6th.
The number two Senate Republican, John Thune, stressed that his not-guilty vote “should not be read as exoneration,” calling the former president’s anti-democratic behavior “inexcusable.”
Will McConnell or Thune pay a price for their disloyalty in the immediate future? Unlikely.
Trump released a rambling, two-page statement calling McConnell a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack” and threatening to back primary challenges against GOP senators. And then . . . nothing. Even Lindsey Graham sided against Trump, telling Sean Hannity’s audience that McConnell was “indispensable to Donald Trump’s success.”
Nikki Haley—last seen denouncing her administration colleagues Rex Tillerson and John Kelly for insufficient loyalty—felt liberated enough to tell Republican leaders immediately after the insurrection that “[Trump’s] actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.” And that was before telling Politico’s Tim Alberta that “we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
The only price Haley has paid was being denied an audience with the exiled Himself at the winter palace.
Consider the machinations to force a vote on witnesses at the impeachment trial. On the eve of closing arguments, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler took to CNN to remind Americans that while the fighting raged between the pro-Trump mob and law enforcement, Trump’s heart was with the insurrectionists.
“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump was reported to have told House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. (McCarthy has maintained strategic silence about the episode, but he did seek an audience with the former president in Florida, where he reportedly failed to obtain access to Trump’s valuable list of supporters.)
Herrera Beutler remains unpunished for exposing McCarthy’s fecklessness.
Come to think of it, the only elected Republican to suffer any real consequences since January 6 has been QAnon superstar Marjorie Taylor Greene. What protection did Greene derive for being on Trump’s list of favorites? Not much.
And about that vote for witnesses? Five GOP senators, in a spur of the moment decision, opted for a course that could have dragged out the trial for weeks, opening the door to politically explosive testimony implicating not only Donald Trump, but other powerful elected officials and right-wing activists.
Democrats retreated soon after, but that doesn’t change the fact that enough Republicans were willing to take the trip with them to give bipartisan cover to an unpredictable fact-finding investigation into Trump and those close to him.
Do not understate the implications of Republicans willing to take the fight to their colleagues. These skirmishes, if nurtured properly, could escalate into open warfare, and ultimately inflict crippling damage to the party’s national prospects.
There is no way to insulate the GOP from the truth about the insurrection. The party was complicit, at all levels, in the Big Lie and the anti-democratic plot to defy the will of the American people. Leaders and intellectuals across the conservative movement endorsed violence and attacked democracy.
Any honest investigation into the origins of the mayhem of January 6 will necessarily implicate powerful and well-connected leaders and activists. When this happens, their instincts for self-preservation will overwhelm attempts to close ranks. Which will set off more waves of recriminations from people with little left to lose.
This period of weakness for a divided and staggered GOP may not last long. New passions will arise that could unify Republicans, especially in opposition to the Biden administration’s agenda. Or another crisis could provide Republicans with an avenue of escape.
Which is why Democrats and anti-authoritarians of all political stripes should take advantage of this moment and push.
Start by taking dissident Republicans at their word that Donald Trump’s Big Lie undermined our democracy, disrupted the peaceful transfer of power, and inspired the insurrection. These admissions by top Republicans will stain the former president and his political movement.
But it shouldn’t end there.
Democrats and pro-democracy Republicans should take an aggressive posture on witnesses for the 9/11 Commission-style investigation into the storming of the Capitol. Liz Cheney is right that the probe should be led by former officials, people uncompromised by threats of primary challenges or political retribution.
The power to issue subpoenas, and enforce them, will also be critical. Michael Flynn should be called to testify—do it in prime time—about his advocacy for martial law and his support for a pro-insurrection militia group.
The investigation should also focus on the militant groups behind the insurrection, organizations such as the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, and the Oath Keepers. Public hearings should be held, exposing linkages between violent militias to elected officials, party activists, and conservative media. Republicans should be pressured to denounce them, by name.
The anti-democratic roots of the insurrection should also be exposed to the light. Criminal investigations will proceed, but we also need a public accounting of how Trump, his White House aides, and others (such as Rudy Giuliani and Lindsey Graham) applied pressure on state legislators and elections officials to overturn Joe Biden’s victory.
Washington Metropolitan Police officers can testify about the violence of January 6 and challenge Senator Ron Johnson’s suggestions that the insurrectionists weren’t armed, or that they were the unwitting puppets of mysterious provocateurs.
At every turn, in every venue, Republicans should be challenged on whether or not they agree with Senator Mitt Romney’s statement that “President Biden won the election through the legitimate vote of the American people.” Will they join the Wisconsin GOP in refusing to condemn political violence? Are they afraid to take a clear stand against secessionist movements? These are major fault lines in the party’s foundation, and they can be stressed much further.
This is the opportunity to overwhelm the beleaguered MAGA partisans and expose those who hide behind whataboutism, technicalities, and process to evade hard questions.
While many Republicans issued statements about the supposed unconstitutionality of Trump’s second impeachment trial, few offered any affirmative defenses of the president’s post-election behavior. No one could defend the president’s inaction and expressions of sympathy for the insurrectionists.
This reluctance to enthusiastically defend their former president is an Achilles Heel. And they know it.
Press the issues that divide Republican leaders and presidential hopefuls from the extremists in their ranks. And send the message to the silent majority of go-along-to-get-along elected officials that there will be no more free rides, no more benefiting from the GOP machine while disclaiming responsibility for how that machinery was used to attack democracy.
Right now, Trumpism is weak.
So sweep the leg.