by Emrys Westacott
The German language is famous for its often long compound words that combine ideas to neatly express in a single word complex notions. Torschlusspanik, (gate-shut-panic), for instance, referred in medieval times to the fear that one was not going to make it back into the city before the gates closed for the night, and now signifies the worry, common among middle aged people, that the opportunities for accomplishing one’s dreams are disappearing for good. Backpfeifengesicht, sometimes translated as “face in need of a fist”, means a face that you feel needs slapping.
One could certainly find a use for these particular words this past week while watching Donald Trump’s Republican enablers suddenly starting to pose as staunch defenders of democratic principles. But we could also do with our own compound expressions to capture the particular forms of perfidiousness on display. For instance, it would be really useful to have a word that means “culpably late enlightenment.”
Every single Republican politician has known perfectly well for the past two months that the 2020 US presidential election was not fraudulent, or rigged, or stolen. (If there are any who really believe otherwise, they are either utter fools or as mentally deranged as Trump himself.) So please, let’s not start giving out medals for honourable conduct when someone like Kelly Loeffler, the (recently defeated) senator from Georgia, decides, after Wednesday’s riotous invasion of the Capitol by Trump supporters, to no longer object to the certification process that was underway at the time. Actually, her change of heart doesn’t make much sense. If she really believed that her objections to certification were justified, why drop them? The antics of Trump’s mob don’t affect the probability that there were serious voting irregularities in certain states.
Some applaud Mike Pence for abiding by the constitution on the day and doing what he was required to do rather than giving in to Trump’s demands and refusing to certify the electoral college results. Give me a break! Pence released a statement just minutes before the joint session of Congress began on Jan. 6. The mob outside had been pinning their faith on Trump’s false claims that Pence had the authority to prevent Biden being certified as President-Elect. The sudden realization that Pence wasn’t going to do this unquestionably inflamed their passions. On some video footage the rioters can be heard shouting “Where is Pence?” A Reuters photographer even heard some people talking about hanging Pence.
But why did Pence wait until the last minute to state his intentions? The issue wasn’t complicated. It didn’t require months of research. In the end he did what every legal authority said he would have to do. He could have made this clear at any time during the previous two months. He delayed, presumably, because he wished to put off as long as possible the moment when, for the first time in four years, he had to distance himself from the absurd ravings of his boss. For his apostasy, Trump denounced him as a “coward”. Trumpsters now regard him as an embedded tool of the deep state. One’s heart bleeds for this good and faithful servant.
The same goes for Republican politicians like Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and dozens of others. McConnell’s sober speech in defence of democratic norms at the beginning of the certification process drew much praise. Yet for a month and a half after the election, McConnell did nothing to challenge Trump’s blatant lies, only acknowledging Biden as the winner after the Electoral College voted on Dec. 14. In all that time, he stood by and watched while Trump and his team fanned the flames of every crazy conspiracy theory that surfaced on the internet.
Ultimately, of course, almost every Republican politician is guilty of culpably late enlightenment. It was blindingly obvious even during the Republican primaries in 2016 that Trump’s ignorance, duplicity, dishonesty, authoritarian attitudes, and severe narcissistic personality disorder made him a truly dangerous candidate for the presidency. Lindsay Graham at that time described him as a “race-baiting, xenophobic bigot,” as “crazy,”, and “unfit for office.” Ted Cruz considered him “a pathological liar,” “utterly immoral,” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s every seen” –which may have been the last time Cruz said anything that one could trust to be his real opinion.
So it simply isn’t believable that the events of Jan. 6 opened any Republican politician’s eyes to the kind of person they’ve been enabling for the past four years. Nor can they seriously claim to be “shocked, shocked!” at the consequences of their constant endorsement, whether explicit or tacit, of the stream of blatant falsehoods about stolen elections that apparently have been absorbed as truth by a majority of Republican voters. They fed the beast, day after day, until it became fierce enough and strong enough to break its chain.
One honourable exception among Congressional Republicans has been Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump at his impeachment trial in February 2020. When he addressed the senate on Jan. 6, Romney told his colleagues that “the best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth.”
Here Romney identified a crucial issue for our time. As historian Tim Snyder has said, “post-truth is pre-fascism.” The millions who revere Trump, internalize his lies, and reject as fake news anything that contradicts what their dear leader says, are certainly living in a realm that has become unmoored from reality. Even now, with over 4,000 people a day dying in the US from Covid-19, many of Trump’s followers continue to view mainstream media reports about the pandemic as part of a conspiratorial hoax.
Will Republican politicians pull back from feeding the party faithful a diet of toxic lies? Or will they double down on the strategy embraced, or at least accepted, by most of them during the Trump presidency, largely out of fear that telling the truth would alienate their increasingly Trumpian base? Which approach prevails will determine what happens in the coming years to the Republican party and, perhaps, to the American political system.