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Trump’s Last Stand

Donald Trump’s last-ditch effort to overturn the election results failed, but the scenes from the Capitol on Wednesday reveal the lasting damage his presidency has had on American democracy

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On Wednesday, Donald Trump invited his supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol and pressure Congress to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.

Trump’s supporters breached the Capitol building, vandalized offices, and forced U.S. Capitol Police to evacuate the House and Senate chambers as Congress convened to certify the ballots cast in the Electoral College. Four people have died, including one woman who was shot and killed by police as the mob tried to break into the House Speaker’s lobby.

Trump has dedicated his final months in office to disputing his loss to Biden. Trump, his lawyers, and his allies cite a litany of baseless “irregularities” in the pivotal states, including Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia that provided Biden’s margin of victory. Long-standing fears about Trump’s intention to dispute any unfavorable outcome in the election came to pass. “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” Trump told Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, in a recent phone conversation leaked to The Washington Post.

Trump is leaving the White House. His presidency is over. The futility of his objections notwithstanding, Trump’s mission now seems simple enough. He means to undermine both his successor and the system that denied him four more years in office. His supporters mean to immortalize him in the process, though they also harbor other delusions and goals in their efforts to help him somehow cling to power. So, too, do Trump’s stalwart allies in Congress, who staged a last-ditch effort to overturn the ballots from several states on Wednesday. In the House, Alabama representative Mo Brooks led the effort to contest the certification of Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. In the Senate, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz forced the issue to a climactic floor debate. Their efforts were supported by dozens of members, all determined to appease their constituencies’ grievances over unfounded claims of election fraud.

The scheme proved futile. Early Thursday morning, Vice President Mike Pence presided over the final count in the Senate that once and for all certified Biden as the president-elect and Kamala Harris as vice president elect. After years of enabling Trump’s worst behavior, Pence and Mitch McConnell finally opposed him in stark terms and with impatient tones. “Nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale that would’ve tipped the entire election,” McConnell said in his opening remarks Wednesday, citing innuendo and anecdotes—e.g., Biden’s rallies were too small for him to have won the election—put forth by his Republican colleagues. “Nor can public doubt alone justify a radical break when the doubt itself was incited without any evidence.”

A day earlier, Democratic challengers Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff upset the Republican incumbents, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, in the runoff elections for the two open Senate seats in Georgia, thus underscoring the limits of Trump’s remaining usefulness to the GOP. But shouldn’t his loss in Georgia and his overwhelming defeat to Biden in the national popular vote already have revealed as much? Trump’s resentments seem destined to persist as a galvanizing concern in GOP politics well into Biden’s first presidential term. When the Senate and House reconvened after the riot, Hawley and Cruz doubled down on their disastrous gambit, determined to curry favor with Trump and his supporters by pandering to the bitter end of his term.

The Republican reckoning with Trump’s departure has been messy and treacherous. Lindsey Graham spread Trump’s conspiracy theories about voter fraud in Georgia in the weeks after the presidential election only to emerge as Trump’s loudest opponent among Republican Senators on Wednesday. Since election night, Fox News has scrutinized Trump’s theories about voter fraud. Tucker Carlson even ridiculed Trump’s election lawyer, Sidney Powell, only to receive a critical onslaught from the conservatives whose delusional tweets formed the basis for Trump’s lawsuits in real time. Fox News anchor Bret Baier has challenged Hawley. But, on this basis, would we really go so far as to regard Fox News as a responsible news source? The network remains indispensable to the conservative media ecosystem that disseminates all manners of nonsense conspiracy theories parroted by Trump and his allies. So, too, do the dominant social media companies, Facebook and Twitter, which have suspended Trump’s posting privileges in response to his incitement of Wednesday’s insurrection, even though much of the content Trump would otherwise promote is still prominent on those platforms. I’d dispute the wisdom of the progressive push to empower tech platforms to moderate so much political expression at a global scale, in real time, and without direct political accountability to anyone. But mass media induced these political anxieties and now the wider political culture must contend with them.

Why bother with conspiracy theories when they could just oppose Biden on his merits? Because they can. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, cribbing from Joan Didion, described the dreampolitik—“a politics of partisan fantasy that so far manages to coexist with normal politics”—at work in Trump’s last stand. “The Republicans behaving radically are doing so in the knowledge—or at least the strong assumption—that their behavior is performative, an act of storytelling rather than lawmaking, a posture rather than a political act,” Douthat wrote in December. His theory accounts for some of these figures, but it fails to explain the overall state of affairs in which so many people straddle the distinction between reality and dreampolitik. Why, suddenly, does Carlson sound so constrained? How have Loeffler and Graham waffled so seamlessly between their inclinations to support Trump at all costs and those to abandon him at the final moment? Which Loeffler is the real Loeffler? Which Graham is the real Graham? Where exactly does the dreampolitik end and the political reality begin?

Trump’s terminal errors have barely intruded into his own dreampolitik. It’s easy to imagine the events of the past week—Perdue and Loeffler’s collapse in Georgia, the riot in the Capitol, and the climactic consolidation against Trump in Congress—mitigating Trump’s influence in GOP politics. Trump lost, and any efforts to propagate his influence will need to contend with that fact and how he also sacrificed GOP control of the Senate. But it’s also easy to imagine the Georgia outcome and the Electoral College drama only further enraging a political base now deprived of its true leader. After all, Trump’s presidency will be outlasted by the national channels that render political realities into dreampolitik. On Wednesday, Carlson denounced the insurrection but pleaded for political leaders “to pause and learn” about its fundamental causes. Who, asks the prime-time cable news host in all seriousness, rang all these hyperpartisan alarms in this political culture? Who indeed?