A sobering look at the toxic factions in the Trump-era Republican Party

Timothy Snyder. Photo (cc) 2015 by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

A lot of smart people are trying to make sense of last week’s insurrection. Was it an attempted coup? I resisted the label at first on the grounds that there was literally no mechanism by which Congress could be forced to keep Donald Trump in office. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump considered it a coup attempt, and that many of his thugs did as well.

With that in mind, I recommend this piece by Timothy Snyder that’s coming out in next week’s New York Times Magazine. Snyder, a history professor at Yale and the author of 2017’s “On Tyranny,” has written a brilliant analysis of the Republican Party in the Trump era. Reading the whole thing will be well worth your time, but I found two points that he made to be especially clarifying.

The first is whether what we’re looking at is fascism or not. Many of us have been struggling with that ever since Trump rode down the escalator some five and a half years ago. He clearly had authoritarian impulses. But fascism on the order of Franco or Mussolini?

The way Snyder puts it is that Trump’s presidency was defined by post-truth, which amounts to pre-fascism. He writes:

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves.

If the coup attempt had somehow succeeded, I suppose we would be looking at actual fascism. But it didn’t, partly because enough of our elected officials held firm and prevented it from happening, partly because the mob was so incompetent. As Snyder writes, “It is hard to think of a comparable insurrectionary moment, when a building of great significance was seized, that involved so much milling around.” And yet we now know that some elements of the mob were prepared to take hostages and perhaps worse.

The other useful observation Snyder makes is that the Republicans are dominated by two toxic factions — the “breakers” and the “gamers.” The breakers are led by Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who were (and presumably remain) prepared to tear it all down in order to empower themselves. The gamers are exemplified by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was perfectly happy to exploit the chaos created by the likes of Hawley and Cruz — and, of course, Trump himself — in order to carry out their agenda of tax cuts for the rich and right-wing court appointments as far as the eye can see.

It will be fascinating to see whether the gamers are able to move on and or if instead they have damaged themselves beyond repair. I would love nothing better than for prinicipled Republicans who are neither breakers nor gamers split away and form a new conservative party.

But do they have enough of a critical mass to make a difference? I count senators like Mitt Romney Ben Sasse, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski as well as governors like Charlie Baker, Larry Hogan and Phil Scott. You may have their differences with all of them (I certainly do), but, to their credit, they have refused to align themselves with the breakers or, except on occasion, the gamers.

Snyder offers a chilling look at what we may be in for during the next four years:

For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.

The Trump presidency has been awful in ways that we couldn’t have imagined four years ago — and I’m saying that as someone who expected it would be pretty awful. More than anything, we need to take advantage of the pending Biden presidency and Democratic control of Congress to make sure we don’t continue spinning out of control. As currently constituted, the Republicans should never control the levers of power again. We will see whether they have the capability or the willingness to reform themselves.

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