The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) There is no doubt that politics aside, Donald Trump is petulant, vulgar, self-absorbed, and erratically behaved. If he had not run for president and instead managed to cut a deal to avoid doing time in prison for his real estate and tax fraud, the story of how the one-time New York estate mogul, was living in Mar-a-Lago, putting on weight, golfing, rarely leaving the premises, having the occasional tantrum and indulging in increasingly weird conspiracy theories, would have made for a great New Yorker or podcast series.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that alternate universe, but in this reality where Trump is a former President who continues to play a very destructive role in American political life. The anecdotes about Trump’s bizarre behavior reached a new level last week when former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified before the January 6th Committee, describing the specifics of what Trump did before and during the storming of the Capitol. Cassidy’s testimony, based mostly on hearsay rather than what she saw, indicated that, among other things, Trump tried to grab the steering wheel of the vehicle in which he was riding when, for security reasons, he was told that he had to return to the White House. Trump followed that up by lunging at a member of the Secret Service and later, in great anger, throwing a plate at a wall, shattering the plate and leaving ketchup stains on the wall.
Trump and others have accused Hutchinson of lying in her testimony. It is now her word against that of the most dishonest president in American history, but in some sense, it doesn’t matter. Even if Trump behaved decently on that day, he would still be unstable and a vulgarian. The question this raises is why are we still so obsessed and focused on the deeply odd and disturbing personality and character of Donald Trump.
It is true that Trump should face some legal consequences for his actions not just on January 6th, but frankly for his years running a criminal business operation that expanded into electoral politics beginning in 2015. However, if that is the goal of the Committee and the focus is narrowly on Trump and that political operation, the threat to American democracy that he accelerated will remain almost entirely unchecked.
The public hearings that have captivated a segment of the American population over the last few weeks have demonstrated very clearly that Trump contributed to the violence on January 6th and that many of the people around him played a deeply nefarious role in both indulging Trump’s fantasy that he won the election as well as helping craft a plan for overturning Biden’s victory. Hutchinson’s testimony drove this home while also adding some color that appeals to many a prurient interest in Trump’s disturbing behavior.
The problem is that the focus is too narrow. By only looking at the people around him, rather than the GOP more broadly, the committee may make it possible for the GOP to rid itself of Trump and find a more palatable standard-bearer for a party that has been almost completely taken over by Trump’s anti-democratic cult. While the committee has done an excellent job building a case against Trump, they have been disturbingly timid about asking the rest of the GOP the necessary tough questions.
Implicit in the January 6th Committee’s strategy is that if Trump himself can be brought to justice, the threat to future elections and American democracy will be removed. That may have been true five or six years ago, but it is no longer the case. Rooting out the real threat to American democracy is a much more difficult task that may be beyond the ken of this committee, but it begins with accepting the depth of Republican commitment to the big Trumpian lie.
In the days between the election and January 6th, it was not just the Trump administration and a handful of ultra-MAGA Republican members of congress who embraced and spread the lie that Trump won the election, but more or less the entire GOP. For example, it was not until mid-December, more than a month after the election had been decided, that Mitch McConnell recognized that Biden had won. Until the morning of January 6th, Ted Cruz was actively trying to find a way to deny Biden his victory in the election. Fully 147 Republican members of the House of Representatives voted against certifying Biden’s victory even after the violent events of January 6th.
The lie that Trump was the real winner of the election was not simply the opinion of a mentally unstable, narcissistic man-president, but by the end of 2020 was a widespread view among Republican elites and voters. Given that, while it is important to hold Trump and others at the center of the big lie responsible for their role in the events of January 6th, to do that while failing to investigate the role of the GOP more broadly, may lead to a few high profile indictments, but will little to solve the underlying problems.