United States President Joseph R. Biden Jr, has been in office just shy of a month. Many people, inside and outside of US borders are waiting for him to reveal his plans to reverse many of his predecessor’s policies. For Chris Chatteris SJ the legacy left by the former president, and his continued popularity, appears to further weaken the Republican Party.
‘All political lives…end in failure’ said Enoch Powell, the right-wing British politician, in the 1960s. When a national leader loses an election, his or her party is quick to cast the losing candidate aside, to prevent further liabilities to the party. A new leader is anointed and fresh policies are elaborated in the hope that the electorate might side with the now-opposition party in the next election.
In the unusual case of former President Donald Trump that failure is postponed. Any hope that many Republicans secretly harboured of him sinking quietly into Floridian obscurity has been predictably dashed. He hasn’t gone away because many members of his party are still completely in his thrall. They are mesmerised by the fact that he gained 75 million votes. Many of the members of the party he once led hope to count on his support when they run in next year’s mid-term elections.
What Trump’s supporters fail to notice is that his opponent, the incumbent president, received an unprecedented 81 million votes and that the swing to the Democrats was substantially fuelled by a revulsion for Trump’s catastrophic handling of a multitude of international and domestic problems. The former president’s abysmal management of the COVID-19 pandemic was the death knell, the most telling example of poor judgement that has cost almost half-a-million deaths.
A postmortem of the election, released this month by some of his own strategists, documents voters’ anti-Trump sentiment in detail. Nonetheless, top party officials like Kevin McCarthy, a Republican Congressman who is now the House minority leader in the US House of Representatives, have felt the need to make the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago and pledge fealty to the former president.
Why continue to support Trump?
Although the tactic of clinging to Trump carries a high risk of political failure, the moral calculus is far riskier. The price of Donald Trump’s continued support for the party will surely be to continue to buy into his lie that he won the election. At his impeachment trial, this could be made dramatically clear. Trump fired his first set of lawyers because they would not agree to base his defense on the argument that he was provoked to incite the riotous mob that stormed the Capitol building on January 6 to stop what he believed was mass election fraud by members of the Democratic Party and ultimately, the greatest threat to democracy.
It would be safe to assume that the new lawyers are more compliant to Trump’s claims and wishes but, if the impeachment becomes a platform on which he parades his outrageous claims about the election, once again, Republican senators will—if they vote to acquit — be morally compromised for being complicit in Trump’s big lie. They might, and likely will, say that they voted to acquit because the impeachment was unconstitutional, but no one will be fooled. If anything, this will bolster the position of the Democrats.
Meanwhile, the newly-elected Georgian Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who harbours conspiracy theories that attribute the California wildfires to a Jewish space laser, and wears a facemask proclaiming that ‘Trump Won’, was appointed to two important House committees. Before the congresswoman was elected, she commented on social media that school shootings, such as the one in Sandy Hook, may have been staged events. And on President Biden’s first day in the White House, she motioned to impeach him.
What was McCarthy thinking when he appointed Greene to the congressional educational committee? Was he trying to butter up Trump who has, unsurprisingly, described her as a “future Republican star”? If so, McCarthy is quickly learning the truth of the dictum attributed to Lyndon Johnson: ‘If your mother-in-law has only got one eye and that eye is in the middle of her forehead, you don’t put her in the middle of the living room’!
Following Greene’s appointment, the House Democrats gave McCarthy an ultimatum: remove Taylor Greene from these committees or they would — in an unprecedented move — vote her off. Even his own hallowed colleague in the Senate, the basilisk-eyed Mitch McConnell, put pressure on him to rectify his blunder, labelling her utterances “looney lies”. McCarthy refused to give in to this unusual bipartisan pressure, forcing House Republicans had to choose whether to vote for or against one of Trump’s high-profile liars-in-arms. Most of them voted in favor of her appointment but the Democratic numbers ensured that she was removed from the committees.
Implications for democracy
All of this may be great political blood sport for the Democrats, and it is difficult to blame them for indulging in it to punish the Republicans for inflicting Donald Trump on the country and the world for four years. None of this, however, is good for democracy in a world where anti-democratic strongmen are absolutely delighted to see US democracy fail.
We should pray for the Republican Party, which is after all the party of Abraham Lincoln, the founding father of American democracy. And we should pray irrespective of whether or not we’re US citizens. For as we saw with the Trump years: the despicable trends of his leadership caught on; spurring and inspiring a wave of leader-tyrants worldwide.
We pray that the opposition party can exorcise the corrupt and venal spirit of Donald Trump and find a new leader, one of integrity and gravitas. Sadly, it seems unlikely that such a necessary exorcism will happen before the Republicans have experienced a long period of penance — and even a time of abstinence — in the political wilderness.