Yesterday evening, the leaders of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol opened their public hearings—hearings that will show, in the words of vice chair Liz Cheney, that “Donald Trump oversaw a sophisticated seven-part plan to overturn the presidential election and prevent the transfer of presidential power.”
Or, as committee chair Bennie Thompson put it, “Donald Trump was at the center of this conspiracy.”
The violent assault on the Capitol was the culmination of that effort; Trump “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” Cheney said. And he reveled in what he had done. The more carnage, the better.
That Donald Trump acted the way he did was hardly a surprise; some of us had been warning about his borderless corruptions and disordered personality since before he became president. It’s hard to imagine that there’s any ethical line this broken, embittered, vindictive man wouldn’t cross, including telling White House staff that Vice President Mike Pence deserved to be hanged by the violent mob that stormed the Capitol, because Pence wouldn’t refuse to certify the election.
But the story of the Trump presidency isn’t only about the corruptions and delusions of one man; it’s also about the party he represents. Trump recast the Republican Party, of which I was long a proud member, in his image. His imprint on the GOP is, in important respects, even greater than Ronald Reagan’s, despite Reagan being a successful two-term president.
“Other presidents have been accused of wrongdoing, even high crimes and misdemeanors,” Peter Baker wrote in The New York Times, “but the case against Donald J. Trump mounted by the bipartisan House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol described not just a rogue president but a would-be autocrat willing to shred the Constitution to hang onto power at all costs.”
It was bad enough that many Republicans were complicit in Trump’s wrongdoings when he was president; that they continue to be complicit 17 months after Trump left the presidency is an even more damning indictment. They’ve continued to embrace Trump even though he’s a loser.
Republicans stayed loyal to Richard Nixon far longer than they should have, but at least they abandoned him after the “smoking gun” tape was released that proved his involvement in the Watergate cover-up. What Trump has done is worse even than what Nixon did and yet Republicans—despite the case against Trump being far more comprehensive and detailed than we knew in the immediate aftermath of January 6—continue to propagate his lies and either defend his seditious conduct or act as if it never happened. It’s “old news,” we’re told. Nothing to see here. Time to move on.
Not so fast.
The sheer scale of Donald Trump’s depravity is unmatched in the history of the American presidency, and the Republican Party—the self-described party of law and order and “constitutional conservatives,” of morality and traditional values, of patriotism and Lee Greenwood songs—made it possible. It gave Trump cover when he needed it. It attacked his critics when he demanded it. It embraced his nihilistic ethic. It amplified his lies. When House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy—a man who for a few fleeting hours after the January 6 insurrection dared to speak critically of Donald Trump—traveled to Mar-a-Lago a few days later to kiss his ring, it was an act of self-abasement that was representative of his party, his morally desolate party.
Make no mistake: Republicans are the co-creators of Trump’s corrupt and unconstitutional enterprise. The great majority of them are still afraid to break fully with him. They consider those who have, like Liz Cheney, to be traitors to the party. They hate Cheney because she continues to hold up a mirror to them. They want to look away. She won’t let them.
Perhaps the most withering sentences of Cheney’s extraordinary presentation last night were these: “Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
Those in the Republican Party and on the American right who defended Trump and continue to do so—who went silent in the face of his transgressions, who rationalized their weakness, who went along for the ride for the sake of power—must know, deep in their hearts, that what she said is true. And it will always be true.
Their dishonor is indelible.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.
This article was originally published in The Atlantic on June 10, 2022.
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