Will There Be a Eulogy?

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

There is only one reason for lawmakers to vote against establishing an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection: The lawmakers are afraid the commission will conclude they are either complicit in the insurrection or a member of a political party that condones treason. Republicans know they have a lot to hide, which is why most Republicans in the House and Senate voted against a commission.

America’s fragile democracy has suffered two major blows in 2021. First, the riot itself, the first attack on the nation’s Capitol since the British burned Washington in 1814 and the most serious treasonous assault on our constitutional republic since the South seceded in 1861. The second blow is the realization that one of the two major political parties is no longer committed to maintaining democracy and the rule of law. By voting down an investigation into treason, the Republican Party has shown its true colors: Subservience to an autocratic leader, a disregard for truth, and a willingness to shred constitutional norms in an unabashed pursuit of power. 

The vote by Republicans to kill a commission combined with stringent voter suppression and nullification laws wending their way through Republican-controlled state legislatures showcase the perilous state of American democracy. A democratic political system can survive only when both political parties — and a substantial majority of the citizenry — agree to abide by the rules. But, in 2021, America is afflicted by a political party that no longer honors the rules. By their actions, Republicans have shown they have no policies or beliefs other than winning elections by any and all means, no matter the legality or fairness. By refusing to investigate an attempted coup to overturn the results of a free and fair election and by passing laws in a number of states clearly aimed at suppressing the franchise of those likely to vote for their opponents, Republicans raise the question of whether they will honor future Democratic electoral victories.

Americans would be naive if they doubted the possibility of further assaults on our polity. The vote against a January 6 commission and the failure to convict former president Donald Trump for his role in fomenting the insurrection — only seven Republican senators voted to convict — only emboldens Trump. The only lesson he could take from both votes is the one he always seems to take when he goes unpunished for his transgressions — that he got away with it, so he can do it again. Trump, who shows every sign of mounting another run for the presidency in 2024, will conclude that he can trample on electoral laws and encourage his supporters to try any tactic — from intimidation to outright fraud — to influence the results. 

What is most perplexing in all this is the strategy of supposedly wily political operatives like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who apparently has concluded that the only way he can become majority leader in 2022 is by placating Trump. McConnell clearly has no great liking for the former president, but the Kentuckian is motivated by a hunger for power, and he seems to share the prevalent view within the Republican Party that Trump is the key to future electoral success. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham expressed this forthrightly: “Can we move forward without Trump? The answer is no…. I’ve determined that we can’t grow without him.”

But, senator, the question remains: Can the GOP grow with Trump? After all, in 2016, Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. They lost the House in 2018 and the presidency and Senate in 2020. Trump’s approval rating never topped 50 percent during his four years in office. (President Joe Biden is consistently over 50 percent, with some polls even showing him exceeding 60 percent.)

Trump can, it is true, cause problems for Republicans whom he perceives as not sufficiently subservient to him and the Big Lie, his constant claim he won the 2020 presidential election. Republicans fear his possible support of primary challengers should they vote or speak against him. But, and this is a big but, what purpose does it serve a Republican office seeker to fend off a primary challenger if he or she cannot prevail in the general election?

The 2022 electoral map favors Republicans. Redistricting following the 2020 census will likely give Republicans additional House seats, and gerrymandering and voter suppression laws will damage Democrats’ chances in a number of Republican states. Midterms tend to favor Republicans anyway, since their supporters are more likely to vote in a non-presidential election year than Democrats. In addition, the party out of power tends to pick up congressional seats in midterm elections.

Still, while the past may be prologue, it is not determinative. Suburban counties across the country — traditionally Republican strongholds — abandoned Trump last November. This trend helped Biden and the Democrats flip states like Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all of which voted for Trump in 2016. Suburban voters may not take kindly to a party that condones treason and threatens the existence of our democracy, a possibility that ought to worry Republicans as they plot strategy for 2022. At the same time, Biden is popular, and his policies even more so. Republicans have made defeating those policies their sole goal, offering little in their place other than obstruction. 

But, the popularity of Biden and democratic policies counts for little if Republicans get away with their assault on democracy. Their actions in recent months — questioning a legitimate election, refusing to punish a president for inciting an insurrection, and voting against an investigation of that insurrection — indicate a lack of commitment to democracy. More frightening for the future is the attack on voting in state legislatures. President Biden noted the danger in his remarks Monday at the National Memorial Day Observance at Arlington National Cemetery. “Democracy itself,” he said, “is in peril here at home and around the world.”

Democrats can have all the public support in the world, but voter suppression, or electoral fraud, or overthrowing the results of an election — all very real possibilities — could overcome their popularity. At that point, democracy will be dead. Will Republicans allow a eulogy?

Posted June 1, 2021