The dramatic, destructive, and disturbing attack on the Capitol building, incited by Donald Trump, and resulting (so far) in 5 deaths, doesn’t seem to be working out too well for Trump or his supporters.
Protest polarizes. Social movements and their events work by pushing people to take sides. When things go well for the activists, a dramatic campaign stiffens the spine of institutional allies, engages passive observers, and creates doubt and division among opponents.
Making things go right is the result of good choices about tactics, locations, demands, and allies–and it’s not always in control of the planners.
But think, for example, about the March from Selma to Montgomery, in which well-dressed and well-disciplined activists calling for the right to vote suffered horrific violence from state troopers at a bridge named after a Confederate general and leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Committed activists grew more committed, allies distracted by other matters–most notably, President Lyndon Johnson, developed focus, and some of the resistance wore down.
In almost caricatured contrast, the assault on Congress backfired in almost every way. Trump bears a great deal of the responsibility. In a crazed calculus of confrontation, Trump reasoned (that can’t be the right word) that pressuring loyal allies to abandon the Constitution and refuse to recognize the electoral votes that cost him the election, would keep him in the White House. When they refused, Trump accelerated the pressure, calling out a bizarre coalition of the willing to show strength and intimidate squish Republicans who somehow took their oaths of office at least a little seriously. Most notably, he loosed his allies on the most obsequious of all, Vice President Mike Pence.
Bizarre costumes and incoherent claims probably didn’t help, but the scuffles with police, the destruction of property, the looting and disrespect, and especially the violence, all made it harder for most Trump supporters to stay on board.
It will get harder.
Although most Republican representatives stayed in the fold, voting to reject votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania, about half of the sprinkle of Republican senators who’d pledged to do so, backed off and voted to recognize Joe Biden’s victory and certify the elections, leaving only 6-7 senators voting to reject electoral votes. Most visible among them, Senators Josh Hawley (Missouri) and Ted Cruz (Texas), who both reek of presidential ambitions. Experienced attorneys with Ivy League law degrees, they certainly knew the weakness and dishonesty of the arguments they made, but also made a calculation that trying and failing to win Trump a second term by a grandstand effort would pay off for their own ambitions.
Note that other very conservative and equally ambitious contemporaries in the Senate, Tom Cotton [Arkansas] and Ben Sasse [Nebraska], made a different bet–that standing up for law and order and tradition and the Constitution would bring a bigger payoff. The destruction at the Capitol made it much easier for advocates of the institutional path.
But it’s hard right now to think that anyone will be able to hold the entire 46% of the American electorate that Trump twice collected, and Trump’s crusaders in the Senate are already paying a price.
Hawley, for example, lost a book contract and the support of an early mentor, former Missouri senator, John Danforth. His newfound national visibility has come packaged in ridicule, and accompanied by calls to resign.
But his opponents have also paid a price. Republican senators Mitt Romney (Utah) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) have been jeered at airports for failing to support the president. In a historical moment when both peaceful protesters and vandals have appeared at the homes of members of Congress, this has to be uncomfortable.
My point: the Capitol invasion banged right into the growing split within Republican ranks, undermining rather than promoting unity.
It’s even worse at the grassroots. No doubt, plenty of Trump supporters are uncomfortable in standing with costumed people who mix Molotov cocktails, carry zip-tie cuffs and body armor, and brandish Nazi and Confederate symbols. Looking around at their putative teammates, they’ll bow out of the game.
The fracturing of the coalition will speed up as law enforcement goes after the most egregious transgressors. Already, some invaders caught in photos and videos–sometimes ones they took themselves–have issued admissions and apologies. Members of state legislatures have resigned, and local police forces and school boards are investigating their employees who posted themselves violating the law.
The easiest to identify, like the enthusiast taking a podium for a joyride, have already been arrested. There will be more arrests and prosecutions. Identified transgressors have appeared on no-fly lists already, and those who escaped identification have faced jeers when they boarded their flights.
Prosecution,punishment, and social sanction all make it easier to draw a sharp line between political populists and their one-time allies affected by conspiracy theories or visions of revolution, who’ve turned themselves from cranks into criminals.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, now democratic socialists, institutional Democrats, and old-school main street Republicans have made a common cause with defending the institutions of governance.
The other day, a student who described himself as far left told me that he’d spent hours online working to identify people who participated in sacking the Capitol, and sending names and documentation to….the FBI. I know he’s not alone. Watching the failed matador defense of the capitol grounds, critics of racist policing are going to have to develop more detailed ideals for public safety.
It’s not that the white nationalists and Trump true believers are going to go away, it’s just that they’re going to have a much harder time mobilizing support and attention, as they become increasingly marginal. Trump himself, thrown off Twitter and Facebook, and virtually every other social media site you’ve ever heard of, is having a harder time finding a platform than a polar bear in the summer.
All this means that those who remain are going to be those who are more willing to take extreme and disruptive approaches and are less amenable to either reason or self-interest.
Nothing easy is on the horizon.