I hung up the phone a bit stunned.
A contact of mine in a GOP Senate office—a man I’ve known for twenty years, a man whose children I once coached in youth sports—told me that he could not support the Senate trial of former President Donald Trump for his actions regarding the Capitol insurrection. “He could have got us killed,” the man admitted. “And I’m not happy. But he shouldn’t be impeached. He’s already left office.”
In the same breath this Senate staffer told me that former President Bill Clinton deserved everything he got, because he “lied to the American people. His lies, in part, are the cause for what happened on January 6th.”
On the morning of the Capitol riot, I got death threats from insurrectionists before I even began my workday. As I walked across Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House checkpoint on 17th Street, a passing crew of unhappy Trump supporters encouraged and invited me to die.
Later, when I walked from the White House to the Capitol in order to talk to some of the insurrectionists, I again received death threats. When I introduced myself as a reporter, “Fake Media” and “Enemy of the People” were often hurled my way.
When I told one very angry group of QAnon supporters, who kept asking me why I didn’t cover a story having to do with cannibalism and pizza, that I worked for Playboy, some of the threats stopped.
“Playboy?” one fat man carrying a Confederate battle flag said as he screwed up his face into a visual question mark. “Can you get me into a party?”
It is hard to be in the mood to party these days with what is going on in Washington. Capitol Hill is a flurry of activity—not legislative activity, but activity involving QAnon enthusiasts, climate deniers, science skeptics, and gun-toting representatives. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue sits a new president who spends most of his days trying to rally the country into taking the coronavirus epidemic seriously while signing as many executive orders as possible to undo the madness of King Donald.
The cleanup after Trump remains the most monumental effort of any chief executive of the United States since the first 100 days of the FDR administration. Not even ten days in, the guy Trump dismissed as “Sleepy Joe” has already put more energy into governing than Trump put into anything—with the possible exception of his golf game.
And the GOP, meanwhile, is splitting apart as some of the Trump apologists continue to swear fealty to their grifter king and others look for some way to extricate themselves from the hell that he created.
For many years, congressional Republicans have operated under a few rules:
My way or the highway (you’re with the party consensus or you’re against the party).
Politics is a zero-sum game (so there is no such thing as a compromise that can benefit both sides).
Don’t fraternize across the aisle (which might lead to learning from Democrats or even wanting to compromise with them).
In the last five years, they added two more: If you don’t have something nice to say about Donald Trump, say nothing at all and If you repeat a lie enough times, you can act as if it’s true.
Now that the Republicans have lost control of the Senate, the House, and the presidency, they are both emboldened and scared at the same time. Emboldened because they can revert to their natural mode of obstructionism without responsibility for governing. And scared because two of President Biden’s main themes so far—his pleas for unity and his commitment to reality—directly threaten their tactics of division and fantasy.
You can see this playing out on the two main issues that continue to dominate our national politics: the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of Trump’s post-election Big Lie.
Nothing shows how far from reality the GOP still remains than the pandemic. Donald Trump’s apologists keep telling us what a great job Operation Warp Speed was. But it is now obvious that while Trump’s commitment to finding a vaccine may have been legitimate—and even that is debatable, given his disengagement—his commitment to getting Americans vaccinated was not.
Moncef Slaoui, who, under Trump, led the government’s vaccine rollout plan, said in December, “We know that it should be better, and we’re working hard to make it better.” But it did not get better; the vaccination process remains slow, uncoordinated, and confusing. Slaoui submitted his resignation at the request of the incoming administration.
President Biden is talking about vaccinating 100 million Americans in 100 days, or perhaps as many as 150 million. The new administration is having to meet that goal with little of the groundwork prepared for them, since the Trump team failed to address two critical choke points: production of enough vaccine and having enough caregivers to physically stick the needles in enough arms.
The QAnon rioters were gone from the Capitol by the end of the day on January 6, but QAnon is now represented by outspoken members of Congress. It is disturbing to hear Nancy Pelosi say, as she did this week, “The enemy is within.” But she’s not wrong.
Yet it’s not just the QAnon enthusiasts that should worry us. Each day I interview and run into pockets of people, some of them still in government, who continue to believe in the Big Lie—that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump—and all the little lies. While Biden talks about unity and reality, the Republicans thumb their noses at getting on the bus of common sense and heading in one direction together.
The Republican party has nothing constructive to offer as the pandemic worsens—with the daily death toll reaching appalling new highs and new strains of the coronavirus surfacing, some apparently deadlier than the most common U.S. strain—and we are literally in a race against time to get enough people vaccinated. The party has nothing to constructive to offer as the American people continue to feel the economic effects of the pandemic. The party refuses to reject the lies or the liars responsible for the attack on the Capitol.
With the pandemic and the Big Lie, President Trump and his supporters crashed the ship of state into an iceberg. They aimed right for it, full speed ahead. The Republican party still defends Trump for his actions, and looks to blame anyone else it can.
President Biden has done a lot in his first few days in office to try to steer the smashed-up ship toward safe harbor. But there’s still a long way to go.