Who Will Be Destroyed?
Watching footage of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham being accosted this week by hardcore Trump supporters in an airport probably offered, for some, a moment of schadenfreude. Here, it seemed, were the chickens finally coming home to roost. All the aggressive fealty, the dogma, the conspiracy, and the violence Graham helped enable as he defended Trump for the last few years had finally been directed back at him. “Traitor!” the crowd shouted in his face. “You know it was rigged!” one woman screamed at him, as he tried to walk through the terminal.
If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed…….and we will deserve it,” Graham tweeted in May, 2016, a couple months before the Republicans did just that. In the early days of the Trump presidency, Graham’s tweet seemed like proof that, despite everything, there was still sanity within the Republican party. Perhaps, we might have assumed early on, such clarity about Trump would mean that he would be curtailed, that at least some Republicans weren’t fooled. Clearly, that was wrong. More recently, as Graham — like many of his colleagues — morphed into a sycophantic Trump apologist toady, his tweet stands out as evidence of a deep moral and ideological rot at the heart of the GOP.
In an essay for the New York Times, Timothy Snyder writes that the Republican Party has become a coalition of “those who would game the system… and those who dream of breaking it.” Most Republican politicians, Synder notes, would fall into the former group, the ‘gamers’ — those who discovered they could use Trump, and the more extreme breakers, as a kind of distraction to achieve legislative or other long-sought goals. For instance, Snyder writes, the ‘gamers,’ led by Mitch McConnell “secured hundreds of federal judges and tax cuts for the rich.”
The violence at the Capitol on January 6 forced each side of the coalition to show its hand, Snyder argues, and neither cohort wants Trump to stick around. The ‘breakers’ need Trump to disappear so they can appropriate his personal martyrdom as their own. The ‘gamers’, on the other hand, have lost their use for Trump. “He is useless,” Snyder writes. “Shorn of his obligations of the presidency, he will become embarrassing again, much as he was in 2015.”
Maybe. But since we’re talking about it, who (or what) else might end up being seen as useless?
France’s re-revolutionary ruling class, the ancien régime, suffered from a special kind of blindness, never seeing until it was too late that a world could exist in which their position might not just change, but instead disappear completely. We might consider it an analogy to the Republican Party under Trump.
To varying degrees and with varying agendas, the Republicans have sought to entertain not just Trump — whose cloying narcissism proved a useful tool — but more dangerously, the lurid ideas that rode his slipstream into the brainwaves of mainstream America: the racism and misogyny; the cultishness and authoritarianism; the pure, fantastical conspiracy. The Republicans have enjoyed the fervor these ideas have created, but they’ve misinterpreted rabid support for a cause as being support for their cause. So keen to feel the boundaries pushed, they’ve failed to notice that they’ve now been surrounded.
So, maybe this is who Graham’s “we” in his 2016 tweet will ultimately refer to. Perhaps it’s the GOP, whether or not individually their goal under Trump was to break politics or simply game it, that will ultimately be destroyed. Maybe they will deserve it.
On the other hand, we might find that “we” will, in the end, refer to something much larger.
The Capitol mob’s goal last Wednesday, such as it was, might have been ostensibly to rectify a perceived injustice carried out against Trump, personally. But its purpose was to do more than just nullify the results of a fairly contested election. The goal was to nullify the use of any election at all. Individuals were targeted Wednesday, but what the mob ultimately seeks to take down, or de-legitimize, is governance writ-large, and with it the foundational institutions society uses for collective decision-making. The mob has been convinced, via a blizzard of misinformation and sustained attacks leveled by politicians like Lindsey Graham, that these institutions — including the people within them — are useless.
Speaking days after the attack about the erroneous claims of fraud — what Snyder calls Trump’s “big lie” that will now persist as a narrative in American political and social discourse no matter his future role — one Trump supporter in Georgia told the Times: “We’ll be lucky if we still have a country left after this.” It might have been worth asking if he still thinks there should be one.