The coming hours and days will reveal how America responds to the Trump-incited bid by armed civilians to take over the US Capitol in Washington DC and corresponding buildings in several states. But two other events, also significant for American politics, should be noted. First, the state of Georgia, for decades a bastion of White supremacy, gave Democrats control of the US Senate. Then, on the same day (January 6), top Republicans broke with Donald Trump.
Millions of Americans watched in disbelief as Trump, desperate to put off a formal declaration by the US Congress of his electoral defeat, publicly asked Mike Pence, the Senate’s chair, to do what by law he could not – “return”, for “re-examination” by state legislatures the tallies communicated by states where Trump lost relatively narrowly. This was followed by Trump asking thousands of summoned supporters to march to Capitol Hill to coerce Pence and members of the two houses of Congress into compliance.
It was a curious sight. A rebellious rally held just outside the White House’s fencing by its current occupant! Going by Trump’s record, we may assume that the rally was paid for by the taxpayer. It was on the customary scale, with music, teleprompters, an array of American flags, a giant screen magnifying Trump’s size, and a large crowd. Then an “army” from the rally marched off to Capitol Hill.
There, finally finding his voice, Pence said “No” to Trump. Just as consequential was the senate-floor response to Trump by Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the 78-year-old Republican who had entered the Senate in 1984 and has been its majority leader since 2014. A seasoned floor-manager and committed conservative, McConnell is the one who has ensured (through the Senate’s power to grant or refuse confirmation) the appointment of conservative judges to America’s higher courts, including the Supreme Court.
Declaring on January 6 that voting against Trump’s proposal was the “most important” decision in his long Senate career, McConnell made other noteworthy remarks. Referring to Trump’s claim that millions of American doubted the validity of the electoral result, McConnell said that “public doubt alone” could not justify returning the question to the states “when the doubt itself” had been “incited”.
Levelling and repeating false charges of fraud, it was Trump who had “incited” the doubt. The charges were false, McConnell added, because any irregularities that might have occurred were “nowhere near the massive scale” required to tip the result.
In this five-minute speech, McConnell spoke of the emergence in today’s America of “two separate tribes”, each living in “a separate reality” with “a separate set of facts”. In another quotable homily (to which Indians too can relate), McConnell told fellow Republicans, “We must not imitate and escalate what we repudiate”.
Aided by the disgrace of the ugly attack on the Capitol, McConnell succeeded in enlisting the vast majority of Republican senators against Trump’s plea. Despite pressure from Trump’s fiery base, only eight senators voted in its favour. On the other hand, in the House of Representatives (elected every two years) a large majority of Republican members backed Trump’s wish, but they were outvoted by the Democrats.
When Trump later conceded that the transfer of power would be “orderly”, he was only trying to conserve his diminished influence and protect himself from impeachment.
Among the Republicans who won’t be sorry at Trump’s decline are Georgia’s elected and appointed leaders, including secretary of state Brad Raffensperger and Gabriel Sterling, who carries the title of “voting implementation manager”. The title is quaint, but Sterling comes across as an official who knows all his facts and is willing, like Raffensperger, to contradict and correct fellow-Republican Trump, even in the face of death threats to himself and his family.
Trump had vowed publicly to make life difficult for these men and for Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp because of their refusal to “re-calculate” (Trump’s phrase) Georgia’s presidential tallies. However, Senator Mitt Romney (the Republican nominee for president against Obama in 2012) is only one of several in his party holding Trump squarely responsible for the critical loss of Georgia’s two Senate seats.
Trump’s inability to accept defeat and his persistence in calling the elections rigged contributed substantially to the Republican losses in Georgia’s runoffs.
Democrats are not complaining. To them, preacher Raphael Warnock becoming the first Black Democrat from the deep south to enter the Senate, and young Jon Ossoff, 33, becoming Georgia’s first Jewish senator, are historic events that could herald the party’s expansion in America’s overwhelmingly Republican south.
Trump was not the sole reason for their success. A bigger role was played by an individual the world may hear more of in the near future – Atlanta’s Stacey Abrams, a tireless foe of voter suppression, and a gifted leader.
Sarah Palin, who drew attention 12 years ago as John McCain’s running mate against Obama, appeared on Fox the other day, indirectly criticizing Trump and making a pitch for a third party in the US, presumably populist but non-Trumpist. Trump’s defeat and subsequent errors have raised serious questions about the future of the Republican party, which he overwhelmed while creating for himself, and perhaps his family, a fiercely loyal base.
There are some uncertainties also on the Democratic side, where passionate progressives range themselves against moderates or centrists. Meanwhile there’s the still-spiralling pandemic and an economy battered by it. However, the America where Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will soon take over the steering – an America shaken by the physical attack on the Congress – is also resilient and inventive.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
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