After a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday to stop the certification of November’s election results, smashing windows and storming offices while forcing lawmakers to cower in hiding, Republicans had to confront a simple question: Were they with the insurrectionists or against them?
Going into the day, 14 GOP senators and more than a 100 House members had announced that they would object to the Electoral College count, on the baseless premise that there were unanswered questions about voter fraud, helping to ensure that the ordinarily ceremonial event would become another flash point in Trump’s flailing efforts to retain power.
After the mayhem, some chastened lawmakers had second thoughts, realizing that it might be best not to give any more oxygen to the delusions that had set in motion the attacks. “What we have seen today is unlawful and unacceptable,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who had previously planned to object, said in a statement. “I have decided I will vote to uphold the Electoral College results and I encourage Donald Trump to condemn and put an end to this madness.” Senators such as Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler, fresh off her runoff loss, and Oklahoma’s James Lankford, gave subdued speeches announcing that despite their concerns, they would drop their opposition to the results. “The events that have transpired today have forced me to reconsider, and I cannot now, in good conscience, object,” Loeffler said.
Meanwhile, Utah’s Mitt Romney, who has become the Senate’s principal voice of conservative never Trumpism, put the choice facing his colleagues as plainly as possible.
“Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy,” he said. “They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy.”
But most objectors shrugged and stuck to their plan. Even after the breach, eight GOP Senators and 139 representatives—a solid majority of the party’s House members—ultimately voted against certifying the results from either Pennsylvania or Arizona. It is hard to overstate just how frightening that end result is.
Up until the moment glass started to shatter, one could have at least made a case—albeit, a weak one—that objecting to the Electoral College results was nothing more than a symbolic gesture of loyalty to the president and his base that would ultimately prove harmless. There was nothing Republicans could actually do on their own to overturn the election’s outcome, since throwing out a state’s Electoral College results would have required a majority vote in both the Senate and Democrat-controlled House. What’s more, small numbers of Democrats had pulled similar stunts in the past, objecting to certification after losing the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections, and the republic hadn’t exactly collapsed as a result.
The obvious difference between those previous elections and this one is that the losing Democrats willingly conceded their races, while Donald Trump did not. Instead, he spent two months whipping his followers into a frenzy with lies about a stolen election in a haphazard, often cartoonish effort to cling to office, then gathered them on the National Mall for a demonstration on certification day. The chaos that ensued, in which four people ultimately died, illustrated in the bluntest terms possible that by fanning the flames of voter fraud conspiracies, the Republican objectors were playing a lethal game with American democracy.
And yet the vast majority of them decided to keep pumping away at the bellows. The lawmakers just shook their finger at the mob’s rampage, while denying any responsibility for egging it on. In a particularly brazen act of chutzpah, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who kicked off the whole objection effort in the Senate, suggested that the attack actually showed why debating the election’s validity in Congress was a good idea in the first place, since it would be a nonviolent way to resolve concerns about fraud. (Never mind that politicians like Hawley helped conjure up those concerns in the first place.) “Our Constitution was built and put into place so that there would be, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, no appeal from ballots to bullets, which is what we saw unfortunately attempted tonight,” Hawley grandiloquently declared. “And that’s why I submit to my colleagues that what we’re doing here tonight is actually very important.“ Other Republicans, such as Reps. Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar, just gunned it straight to Looneyville, repeating the fast-metastasizing conspiracy theory that the people who attacked the Capitol were actually left-wing antifa members masquerading as Trump supporters. One way or another, lawmakers found ways to justify themselves.
Ultimately, Wednesday night’s vote was another demonstration of how Trump has permanently reshaped much of the Republican Party in his own image. Yes, his attempt at the history’s dumbest autogolpe has finally caused some of his allies to crack and staffers to resign, as well as brought about rebuffs from the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and erstwhile golf buddy Lindsey Graham, who seemingly declared his independence from the president (“Count me out, enough is enough,“ he said). But most of its House caucus is now made up of members who are either terrified that they will be primaried by a Trumpier-than-thou challenger from the right or who outright share his lunatic fantasies. Ambitious senators with their eyes on the presidency in 2024 know that for a large share of primary voters, the most important qualification may be loyalty to the current president. The result is a group of legislators who, after witnessing firsthand the dangerous fury that their party’s rhetoric unleashed, decided it was best to more or less just go along. Their ranks include not just rambling backbenchers and the newer class of QAnon-winking reactionaries, but also leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. What’s more, their numbers only seem likely to grow after redistricting this year, which will allow Republican legislatures to create a new batch of safe, Trumpified GOP seats. The Republican Party’s insurrectionist caucus is going to be with us for years to come.