January 28, 2021

It has been just three weeks and a day since a crazed mob, egged on by the former president and his supporters, stormed the U.S. Capitol to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election. They smashed into the building, carrying handcuffs and searching for our elected officials, whom they threatened to harm. They killed one police officer and wounded 140 more. Our vice president, senators, and representatives, along with all their staff, had to be evacuated to secure quarters, and then to hide, while rioters took over the building, rifling through their offices and smearing excrement on the floors.

That anyone is trying to downplay that attempt to destroy the central principle of our democracy—fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power-- is appalling.

And yet, Republican lawmakers are doing just that. Within the party, the pro-Trump faction and the business faction are struggling to take control. Those in the business wing of the party are not moderates: they are determined to destroy the government regulation, social welfare legislation, and public infrastructure programs that a majority of Americans like. But they are not openly white supremacists or adherents of the QAnon conspiracy, the way that Trump’s vocal supporters are.

Members of that second faction have risen to power by grabbing headlines with more and more outrageous statements that play well on right-wing media, although they appear to have no program except hatred of the “libs.” Members of this faction are going after the business wing of the party, seemingly with glee. Today Florida Representative Matt Gaetz held a rally outside the Wyoming state capitol to lead a challenge against Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, the third most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives. Cheney was one of ten Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the January 6 riot.

Cheney is no “lib”: she is a hard line right-winger. Trump and his supporters are targeting her to make it clear that no one is too powerful for them to go after. The former president wants loyalists across the Republican leadership. The dividing line in the party now is not between moderates and extremists; they are all extremists. It is whether a lawmaker supports the former president and his false accusation that the Democrats “stole” the 2020 election from him.

As if to underscore this reality, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who originally blamed the former president for the January 6 insurrection, has backed down and caved to the Trump wing of the party. Over the past two days, McCarthy met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, apparently discussing how to retake the seven seats the Republicans need to regain the House majority in 2022. To accomplish that, Republicans in Georgia as well as other states are backing laws to suppress voting.

Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged that in this atmosphere Democratic members of Congress and staffers are facing harassment and violent threats. Representatives wrote a letter to leadership asking for stronger security measures, and Pelosi responded by agreeing that “the enemy is within the House of Representatives.” When asked to clarify her statement, she said: “[W]e have members of Congress who want to bring guns on the floor and have threatened violence on other members of Congress.”

We’ll see how this plays out in the next two weeks as Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate approaches. Mounting evidence suggests that at least some members of the president’s circle planned for trouble on January 6—presidential adviser Steve Bannon, for example, and new  representative Lauren Boebert from Colorado, both recorded on social media their expectation that January 6 would see a fight or a revolution—and it seems unlikely that an examination of the president’s behavior before and during the attack of January 6 will bear close scrutiny.

News broke yesterday that extremists began planning for an attack on the Capitol in November. The Alabama Political Reporter broke the story on Tuesday that new Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) met on January 5 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., with the then-director of the Republican Attorneys General Association, an organization that backed the January 6 rally, and with members of the Trump family and the family’s advisors, including Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. One of the attendees wrote on Facebook that he was standing “in the private residence of the President at Trump International with the following patriots who are joining me in a battle for justice and truth.”

Former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center Robert Grenier noted yesterday in the New York Times that the United States is facing a violent insurgency and should apply the lessons we have learned about counterinsurgency to head off political violence. Grenier notes that the nation must insist on criminal justice, tracking and trying those responsible for crimes. We must also return the nation to a fact-based debate about issues.

Crucially, Grenier noted that it is a national security imperative to convict the former president and bar him from future elective office. “I watched as enraged crowds in the streets of Algiers, as in most Arab capitals, melted away when Saddam Hussein was ignominiously defeated in the Persian Gulf war,” Grenier wrote. “Mass demonstrations in Pakistan in support of Osama bin Laden fell into dull quiescence when he was driven into hiding after Sept. 11. To blunt the extremists, Mr. Trump’s veneer of invincibility must similarly be crushed.”

In all my years of studying U.S. politics, seamy side and all, I never expected to see the name of an American president in the New York Times in a list comparing him to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But then, I never expected to see an American president urge a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol to overturn an election, either.