Capitol Riot Was Trumpism’s Essence on Display

All kinds of political movements, good and bad, can inspire acts of lawless violence. Rhetoric rooted in violence has long been a widely accepted part of political debate. Americans across the political spectrum routinely call for “revolution,” or say they want to “burn down” the system, or commend a politician for being a “fighter.” Nobody bats an eye, or should, any more than we pause to note that a “campaign” is both a political and a military event.

But President Donald Trump has gone further than most in flirting with political violence. Just weeks after his presidential campaign started in 2015, two men in Boston beat up a homeless man and said in their defense that Trump was right about “illegals.” Trump’s initial response was to call the incident a shame and then explain that his supporters were “very passionate.” As the primaries were underway, he told supporters that they should “knock the crap out of” anyone they thought might be about to throw a tomato, promising he would pay the legal fees.

As president, Trump has consistently broadcast his contempt for those who consider themselves constrained by statutes, norms or the Constitution. You can read about it in the 2019 report on Russian election interference by the Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, or watch the clip of Trump talking about his “total authority” — or you can look at his tweet on Wednesday about how “weak” it was for Vice President Mike Pence not to overturn the Electoral College.

The mob that breached the Capitol on Wednesday and forced Congress out of operation may not have seen that tweet themselves, but they had been carefully misled into thinking that Joe Biden had stolen the election. They had been told, over and over, that elites had failed them, their weakness the cause of all their country’s troubles. And they knew that weakness was to be despised above all things. The election dispute, Trump lawyer and confidant Rudy Giuliani had told Trump supporters before the chaos, should be settled through “trial by combat.”

The disgrace of Jan. 6 will be remembered for a long time, and it will be remembered as a culmination rather than an aberration. This is what self-righteous “patriotism,” devoid of any real commitment to the country’s form of government or its best traditions, looks like.

It should also be remembered as a result of the devaluation of character. Trump’s critics have dwelt — even harped, we’ve been told — on his character flaws. But his extreme indifference to truth, his eagerness to spread conspiracy theories, his unwillingness to take responsibility for his own failures: All of it has had real consequences. They include radiating damage to the characters of those around him. A lot of Republican officials have slowly, and with varying degrees of regret, sunk so far that they have failed to speak up against Trump’s attempt to overturn a presidential election. Many have even abetted it.

The fact that more than half of the Republican members of the House of Representatives voted to object to recognizing Biden’s victory shows how much Trump has done to deform the Republican Party. But it is possible that the morning of Jan. 6 will prove to have been the peak of his influence on it, the moment he finally went too far for much of his party.

Pence refused to obstruct the vote count (a decision doubtless made easier by the lack of any obvious action Pence could take to do it). More than half the senators who said they would join Trump’s challenge to the results balked after the country witnessed the lawlessness at the heart of it. Donald Trump Jr. told the rally that every Republican who accepted Biden’s election should lose a primary. If he means it, he is going to have a busy few years. Even Chris Christie, the primary opponent-turned-slavish loyalist has jumped ship.

Trump’s critics have often hoped that at some point Republicans would conclude that the worst features of his leadership are a political dead end. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Even though Republicans lost the presidential election and then their Senate majority almost entirely because of Trump’s personal defects, his presidency is ending with Republicans in decent electoral shape. It has near-majorities in the House and Senate, not to mention a solid hold on the Supreme Court. There isn’t much demand to return to the pre-Trump party, which too often had nothing attractive to say to the economically struggling. (It still has too little.) The party isn’t going to stop trying to appeal to the blue-collar voters Trump drew to the party, and shouldn’t.

Some Republicans who say they want a “Trumpist” party mean one that is socially conservative, undogmatic about economics and cautious about foreign intervention. Trump doesn’t care deeply about any of that, and it’s not what’s most harmful about him. The essence of Trump, the innovation he has worked in our politics, the thing that Republicans should work to excise: That’s what America saw on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.