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A Very American Coup

The Trump era ends with a bang, not a whimper, revealing a misplaced faith in our elected officials to protect the democratic project.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

There was a brief moment on Wednesday—before hundreds of MAGA goons stormed the Capitol and chased out lawmakers certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, before cable networks and social media feeds were inundated with images of would-be insurrectionists stalking the halls of Congress with Confederate flags and cavorting on the rostrum in the Senate chamber, before shots were fired and tear gas deployed and blood spilled, before the attempted coup was well and truly underway—when it appeared that this country’s democratic traditions would prevail after four years of siege by Donald Trump. To bipartisan acclaim, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that the GOP’s last-ditch efforts to overturn the results of the election, if successful, would “damage our republic forever.” It appeared that, in the dying days of the Trump presidency, at least some Republicans were finally taking a stand.

“McConnell is rising to the historical occasion,” wrote the historian Michael Beschloss on Twitter. “This is about as impassioned as Mitch McConnell gets,” said National Review’s Rich Lowry, claiming that McConnell, who has done as much as any individual to undermine the promise of democratic rule in the United States, “is deeply committed to our institutions, traditions, and system of government. One of his finest moments.” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo was more clear-eyed about McConnell’s legacy but agreed that he was in fighting form: “Mitch McConnell bears so much responsibility for all of this. In some ways he is the most responsible. But right here, in this speech he says just the right thing.” McConnell’s speech was widely described as “emotional,” surely the first time the epithet has ever been applied to a man whose impassive mask suggests nothing but a bottomless emptiness beneath. But it’s not clear that people listened closely to his words, which reveal the folly in trusting the elected officials we have to save the republic.

McConnell’s floor speech came on the heels of Vice President Mike Pence announcing that, contrary to what Trump had claimed, he did not have the “unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.” Here was another democratic guardrail seemingly holding firm. Trump took Pence’s repudiation as a betrayal, and there was some karmic justice in discovering that the many years Pence has spent smiling blandly at his boss’s myriad transgressions availed him nothing in the end. At a rally held just outside the Capitol, Trump essentially accused Pence of helping the Democrats steal the election: “Mike Pence, I hope you’re gonna stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country. And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you.” At the same rally, Trump railed, “We will never give up! We will never concede! You don’t concede when there’s theft involved!”

This was an incitement to riot, the last goad for a crowd that had received nothing but goads from the likes of Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who had ostentatiously refused to certify the election in a transparent bid to endear themselves to Trump’s supporters; from every anonymous Republican official who had told the press that there was no harm in “humoring” Trump’s otiose attempts to throw out the election results; from all the elected Republican lawmakers who, over the past four years, had defended the president when they could get away with it and pretended not to see his tweets when they couldn’t. And riot the crowd did, tossing aside the flimsy barricades that circled the Capitol and easily overwhelming a curiously acquiescent Capitol Police force. The scenes that played out across cable news and Twitter were some of the most surreal of this surreal presidency: a grinning Trumpista resting his boots on a desk in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s evacuated office; panicked lawmakers and their staffers donning clear “escape hoods,” like astronauts alighting on a hostile planet; a guy bedecked in animal skins and horns ruling the roost and calling, “Where’s Pence? Show yourself!”

For six antic hours, it was as if the inmates really had seized control of the asylum. They chased the guards across the marble floors, pecked at the abandoned phones, made off with the lecterns. Trump released a video in which he half-heartedly urged his supporters to leave in peace, all while maintaining that the election had been stolen from them. Order was ultimately restored, meaning that a dozen or so rioters were arrested and the rest were allowed to waltz out of the place unscathed, hooting for the cameras and bearing trophies. What sort of coup was this, anyway? The mob had indeed overrun the legislature and attempted to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power—very much fulfilling key components of a coup—but had no allies that could seize other centers of influence and never came close to securing the seat of government. McConnell returned to the floor to condemn a “failed insurrection” and triumphantly declared, “We will not bow to lawlessness or intimidation.” The certification of the vote resumed.

In the outraged aftermath, there was talk of impeaching Trump and invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove him from office for the final two weeks of his term. There was a frantic scramble to locate at least one righteous Republican, with the role falling to Mitt Romney, who excoriated Trump and his abettors for “being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy” and later gave Hawley a masked stare of death that instantly became a meme. And there was a sense that, if we could just make it through a nervy 14 days, there would be a new Democratic president and a new Democratic-controlled Congress on the other side. It was easy to forget that the day started with Democrats—against all odds and all structural disadvantages—winning the Senate by prevailing in two runoff elections in Georgia (Jon Ossoff’s victory was confirmed during the chaos of the short-lived coup). With the end of the Trump era mercifully in sight, at least one Democratic senator, Tom Carper of Delaware, was willing to let the whole coup business slide: “I just think we need to turn the page,” he said.

The insistent message throughout the day was that, though the guardrails may come down and the barricades be flung to the side, they could be put back up again. McConnell, Pence, Romney, and, off in the middle distance, President-elect Joe Biden—they took turns representing guardians of the democratic order. Biden himself said, “The scenes of chaos do not reflect the true America, do not represent who we are.” But with a gang of deplorables taking selfies in a ransacked Congress, it all smacked of desperate, wishful thinking. This is who we are. It was a testament to the hopelessness of the Trump era that people turned to Mitch McConnell—Mitch McConnell!—as a savior.

No one would have guessed him to be impassioned about anything other than his own cold accumulation of power, and his speech, if you listened closely enough, was true to his nature: an argument not on behalf of democracy but against it. The crux was that Democrats are the principal forces working to overturn fairly won elections by challenging sacred institutions like the Electoral College and the Senate, both of which tilt the playing field in favor of an increasingly rural GOP. If the Republicans were to go down that particular road to perdition, McConnell argued, it would imperil the very anti-democratic structures that have given his loathsome party any chance at wielding power in the first place. “We must not imitate and escalate what we repudiate,” he warned, adding that the Senate could “either guarantee that Democrats’ delegitimizing efforts after 2016 become a permanent new routine for both sides or declare that our nation deserves a lot better than this.”

It was both ironic and fitting that the deliverer of this ersatz paean to democratic values, who has played such an instrumental role in using the system’s weaknesses to perpetuate minority rule, was literally swept away by the forces that he and his colleagues had allowed to fester under Trump. As far as saving the country goes, McConnell’s stand was far too little, far too late. All that remains to be seen is whether the same will be said of the incoming administration.