By JohnCarl McGrady, Editor in Chief
Editors Note: This article was written before Marjorie Taylor Greene was stripped of her committee positions in the U.S House of Representatives. However, its core points remain unaltered.
On January 6th, a group of pro-Trump insurrectionists laid siege to the U.S Capitol as Senators voted on recognizing the official electoral vote totals sent by the states, capturing several parts of key buildings and engaging police officers and military personnel in running skirmishes in a doomed attempt to overthrow the U.S Government and install Donald Trump in power that ended with two dead, many injured, and large portions of the Capitol ransacked.
The mob was motivated in large part by tweets from President Trump, and repeated calls from many Republican Senators and members of the House of Representatives telling them that the election was fraudulent and stolen by Democrats, despite overwhelming evidence that there was no meaningful fraud and Joe Biden defeated Trump in a fair contest. The President’s former lawyer, Rudy Giuilani, went as far as to call for a “trial by combat,” spurring on the violent insurrection.
In the wake of this devastating assault on American democracy, many have called for swift consequences against the Republican leaders who fostered the aggression that led to the attack, especially president Trump, who was impeached—for the second time—by the House of Representatives soon after the insurrection. Trump has now yielded the presidency to Joe Biden, and the Senate impeachment trial has been delayed, and will begin soon after this paper goes to print. Two-thirds, or 67 Senators, will be needed to convict.
However, aside from Trump, consequences for politicians have been few and far between. Some politicians who were directly involved with the riot itself have been forced out of office, but none of these individuals served on the federal level. In fact, even many of these state-level politicians who attacked the Capitol building have escaped consequences. As for politicians who goaded rioters to attack, only Trump has faced any formal repudiation at all, and he was leaving the White House on January 20th regardless.
So, can a literal rebellion alter U.S politics?
My answer is a heavily qualified yes.
Washington D.C will certainly be altered. D.C residents will likely push harder for statehood, and Congress might be more receptive of it. Had D.C been able to control its own law enforcement response the way states can, the riot wouldn’t have gotten as bad, which will be a talking point when activists try to push the issue to the federal level. D.C statehood would pass the House, and Biden has said in the past he would support D.C statehood, so the measure would just have to get through the Senate, where Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) would be the deciding vote—as he will be on many policy initiatives Biden attempt to pass for at least the next two years. Manchin is so far uncommitted on D.C statehood, saying he is “open” to the idea, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the riot made him come down in favour. Regardless, even a 51-49 defeat in the Senate would be a big step towards D.C statehood. If D.C becomes a state, this would be huge for the district, and nationally would also give Democrats two more seats in the Senate, which from time to time would be enough to swing the balance of power in the chamber, or allow Democrats to pass or block certain bills they wouldn’t be able to otherwise, though it is worth noting that over the last 20 years, D.C would have only flipped control of the Senate for a couple of months in 2017, and that’s assuming Doug Jones (D) still would have defeated Roy Moore (R) for control of the Alabama Senate seat up for grabs in 2017 had control of the whole chamber been on the line, which isn’t guaranteed.
Beyond D.C, the results might be more minimal. Usually, I would guess that something like this would fire up Democratic donors and activists, leading to a big push in the 2022 midterms, but with the astronomical size of donations and activism in 2020, and Trump leaving office, it’s hard to see those numbers going anywhere but down, and it also seems that they are mattering less and less.
Arguably, the fact that the vast majority of the mob is escaping arrest or punishment—and the ones who are being punished are the ones stupid enough to have their picture taken stealing the Speaker of the House’s podium, or sitting in Nancy Pelosi’s office chair—might embolden far right groups. So will the total lack of pushback from the politicians they vote for. People like Lauren Boebert (R-CO), who is trying super hard to carry her gun into Congress in a Wile E Coyote-esque effort, and Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-GA), who believes Barack Obama is stealing adrenochrome from babies in a Satanic cult, have avoided saying bad things about the insurrection, and Trump told the mob he loves them. They will surely take that as a show of support.
Many people have pointed to the fact that Trump has taken a hit to his political future. His approval ratings are tanking for the first time in his presidency, and even some Republicans are turning on him. However, I would argue this is not as meaningful as it might seem. The world has no shortage of inflammatory, racist idealogues, and there several prominent Republican politicians who are doing the same thing Trump is. What would matter is if Trump’s ideology took a political hit.
Trump’s ideology could take a hit if a lot of politicians in power decided that it was better for their futures to disalign themselves with it, and become more moderate. By moderate, in this sense, I mean being somewhat more pro on the pro to anti democracy scale, not towards the centre of the liberal-conservative dichotomy that dominates American politics. As far as this goes, only ten Republicans voted for Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives, merely 5%.
That doesn’t seem like a major repudiation of Trump’s ideology, nor does the lack of any action against people like Josh Hawley (R-MO), who spearheaded the Senate effort to install Trump in power, or even Boebert, who need I remind you is literally attempting to smuggle firearms onto the House floor. Of course, this blowback could be slower to emerge. As mentioned earlier, many companies have pulled political contributions from the Republican party. As a side note, some have stopped all political contributions, but it’s important to note who these companies were donating to in the first place. The answer is almost always Republicans. If this leads to a dearth of cash in 2022, and Republicans fail to win back control of the House, despite ample opportunities to gerrymander and a favourable reallocation of House seats after the Census, it’s not implausible that Republicans will react by moderating anti-democratic rhetoric, not because of an actual change of heart, but in order to get more cash. However, this is not the most likely outcome.
Republicans have piloted a minoritarian agenda for decades, relying on systemic advantages in the U.S electoral system to remain in power despite championing broadly unpopular policy initiatives and constantly losing the popular vote, and there’s no reason to think that would stop now. At some point in the 1980s or 90s, the Republican party decided playing into systemic advantages and pushing more extreme policies was worth more than playing for the most votes or support, and it’s not likely losing a few sponsors would alter this ideology. In fact, the sponsors lost represent a tiny fraction of the total money available to the Republican party, and they’ve successfully competed with the Democratic party despite being a continuous monetary deficit since Trump entered the political landscape, anyway. Money just matters less now.
If money doesn’t push Republicans away from Trump, then it would have to be their conscience—or voters, we’ll circle back to that in a second. While many Republican politicians are strongly pro-Trump and support his ideology, some are more critical, including Utah Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT). It’s possible that the insurrection could cause the Republican party to fracture in half, with anti-Trump Republicans on one side, and pro-Trump Republicans on the other. In such a fracture, the pro-Trump faction would control the vast majority of the instiuttional power, but the anti-Trump faction would hold enough sway to be seriously damaging to the pro-Trump faction if they decided to stand candidates in federal elections, such as the 2024 presidential race. In fact, if we do see this split, it will likely be during the 2024 campaign that it becomes apparent, when the most prominent anti-Trump Republican running is eliminated and vows to run as a third party alternative.
Unfortunately, this is also not particularly likely. It’s not impossible, and political science suggests that political parties are much more likely to split when they are in the minority than the majority, as they have less incentive to band together to hold on to power, but it doesn’t make sense from a game theory perspective. If there were three major candidates running for president in 2024, and two were conservative, the liberal candidate would be able to hold together the largest third of the electorate with relative ease in the majority of states and coast to 270 electors and the presidency. While some Republican politicians may be strongly opposed to Trump, it’s not likely that they oppose him enough to hand a Democrat the presidency and a political trifecta in order to prevent his sympathizers from grabbing control. America’s political parties have survived 166 years, a Civil War, a Great Depression, two major party realignments, and two world wars. A riot in D.C isn’t likely to be the thing to bring down this hegemony.
That said, some few members of the Republican party might leave the party and become independents, but those who do will likely be politicians in very strong positions. For example, Murkowski won re-election as a write-in candidate in 2016 and now Alaska has adopted ranked choice voting, which kills the chance of a Republican spoiler blocking her from winning in 2022. She’s pretty much immune to pro-Trump pushback, but also unlikely to seek the presidency. The same goes for other possible defections, like Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, or U.S Illinois House Rep Adam Kinzinger. Defections like this would lessen the institutional power of the Republican party at the margins, but not enough for serious effects. How much different would an Indepedent Charlie Baker be from a Republican one? Not much, I wager.
That brings us back to voters. Even if fundraising or morals don’t cause a major power shift, anti-Trump Republican voters refusing to vote for pro-Trump Republicans might be able to. But without a strong third-party conservative to vote for, how likely is this? They would have to vote either for a liberal, or not vote. I don’t doubt they would do this to remove Trump from power—a lot of them did already, which was part of how Biden won in 2020. However, as discussed above, the repercussions for the insurrection have been placed almost entirely on Trump. This makes it easy for someone like former South Carolina governor Nikki Hayley, Fox News host Tucker Carlson or Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) to run on the same exact platform as Trump, with the same anti-democracy rhetoric, but appear much less bad by virtue of not having been impeached twice and focused on as the primary target after the Capitol insurrection. Social and fiscal conservatives wouldn’t abandon someone like Cruz, who shares the same policies as them, becasue his rhetoric is similar to Trump’s. It might be a warning sign for them, but it doesn’t make logical or strategic sense for them to heed that warning sign and hand the White House to, say, Vice President Kamala Harris.
Again, it is possible that they would. It is impossible to know what will happen in American politics over the next ten, four, or even two years. All that can be made are educated guesses and inferences. If moderate Republicans, whether voters or politicians or both, break with the pro-Trump base in large numbers ahead of the 2024 presidential election, I will be surprised, but I will not shocked. The most important message I can communicate here is uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen. Neither do politicians, or voters who support different things than us. Nobody knows; everyone is making guesses and strategic decisions and playing the odds.
In the long term, I fear those odds will send the U.S tumbling down an increasingly undemocratic tunnel, but I don’t know that. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that when I read this article again in preparation for an article I’m writing for my college paper leading up to the 2024 presidential contest, I laugh at my naivety and cringe at how foolish my predictions were. Only time will tell.