The Republican coup did not begin on January 6, 2021. That is only the day it no longer became possible to deny its existence. The Republican impulse to overthrow the American government has existed for years, as a counter-movement formed around concerns that the New Deal, Great Society, and civil rights were moving the country to “socialism.”
Conservative objections to these programs were many, but they generally formed around two main premises. First, they were generally targeted at the lower classes, which conservatives believed would remove incentives for those classes to provide their labor for cheap wages. This argument has taken many guises over several decades of modern conservative thought, from the “welfare queens” of the Reagan era to the “makers and takers” rhetoric that doomed the Romney/Ryan campaign in 2012.
Second, conservatives—particularly scholars—had long railed against what they called the “administrative state.” Having its genesis in the nation’s post-Civil War reconstruction efforts1No coincidence here., it was formalized in Chester Arthur’s rejection of the “spoils system” and codified in the progressive 20th-Century presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Republican presidential candidates have long made feinting attacks against the administrative state. Reagan famously broke the air traffic controllers’ strike early in his term. But even then, Reagan never questioned the premise of having federal air traffic controllers—his position was that they couldn’t use their importance in the federal system to wring concessions from the bargaining process. A debate of degree, not of first principles.
Indeed, the truth was that Republican presidents never did much about the administrative state because, well, they needed it to govern. The non-ideological Eisenhower ran as a Republican in large part because he was concerned that after 20 years of Democratic rule, America have a viable two-party political system. He further feared that abandoning Republicans to the likes of the Bob Welch, Joe McCarthy, and the John Birch Society all but assured the failure of the Republican Party as an institution. Once in office, he governed as a steady pair of hands.
While Richard Nixon rose to prominence for his role in exposing Alger Hiss as a Russian spy—an actual communist as opposed to McCarthy’s hallucinations—Nixon was never so committed to conservative principles as he was to cementing his historical legacy. Whatever the reason for the Watergate break-in and its subsequent cover-up, Nixon’s fall never appeared to carry any ideological purpose. They were purely political sins, not ideological ones.
Gerald Ford was appointed as Vice President after Nixon’s electoral running mate, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign. Ford never won a presidential race, and is more remembered for Chevy Chase’s klutzy portrayal on Saturday Night Live than for any ideological program.
Undoubtedly, the most ideological of the Republican presidents was Ronald Reagan, but even his presidency is misunderstood. Certainly, Reagan’s embrace of “trickle-down economics” was laced with “welfare queen” class warfare rhetoric.
But with regard to the scope of government, Reagan’s most significant policy initiative was the Cold War. This overarching priority made it impossible for Reagan to attack the administrative state. For one thing, Reagan’s need to fund his priorities required compromise with a Democratic Congress, which meant that even as party leaders debated their budget priorities, eliminating administrative departments and programs was rare. Indeed, these programs remained popular with the many remaining Southern conservative Democrats of the era, producing a coalition less concerned with the size of government than the allocation of its resources.2Reagan’s own experience as a younger FDR-supporting Democrat further softened in practice the harder edges of his rhetoric.
Before Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Reagan was the last Republican not named Bush to win a presidential election. George H.W. Bush’s single term was beset by the highest of highs—Bush hit record approval records in the wake of his handling of the Soviet Union’s fall and the Gulf War. He also saw the lowest of lows—a subsequent 1991-92 recession led to his defeat with only 38% of the vote. His son’s more controversial tenure was beset by similar highs and lows—popular after 9/11, but increasingly unpopular after the Iraq occupation dragged on and then his second term ended with the collapse of the housing market. In any event, Bush II presided over unprecedented increases in the scope of administrative government—the Patriot Act, TSA, the Homeland Security Department, Medicare Part C prescription drug coverage—all Bush initiatives implemented with Republican support.
Setting their ideologies aside, these men all ran the American government. They understood that their presidencies had been preceded by over 200 years of history, lawmaking, and tradition, and that their legacies would largely be determined by how their ability to merge their personal and ideological purposes with the flow of history. Historians have determined that Eisenhower and Reagan succeeded, regularly ranking them among the Top 10 presidents of all time. George H.W. Bush and Ford usually find themselves in the middle. Nixon and W generally hold places in the bottom third.
Unlike any of these men, Trump did not run for President for a place in history, an ideology, or even a public legacy. Trump ran for President because his post-Apprentice profile was lagging, and he needed free media to raise it.
With that decision, Trump became a tabula rasa for the Republican Party. Trump has no conception of American history or government. His concept of “civil service” is the “deep state.” The two-party system and its theoretical purposes mean nothing to him. He doesn’t venerate the Constitution—he doesn’t know what’s in it. Laws, norms, rules, constraints, and traditions—all could be discarded simply because Republicans had finally found a candidate who not only didn’t care about discarding them, but never knew they existed in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, it was one of the more broken and vestigial parts of America’s constitutional system—the Electoral College—that elevated Trump to high office. But that victory further untethered Trump’s administration from accountability. All normal candidates would rather receive more votes than fewer. It was hard to argue with Reagan’s whopping 59% in 1984, or Bush’s subsequent rout of Michael Dukakis in 1988. Whatever their flaws, those Republican candidates adopted policies that got them far past where the median American stood politically.
Trump never cared where the median American stood politically, because it didn’t matter—he never needed to win that voter. He only needed to win the right voters.
And so the Destroying Angel seized upon the American government, doing that which Republicans had long dreamed about, but could never seriously undertake.
The risks of this strategy were not unknowable. If you reduce government merely to the diffident whims of a single individual, there are few (if any) limits on the damage one can do to the existing civic order. Destroy it all, and the man yet stands,—seemingly stronger than before, since he has outlasted his own destruction.
Of course, in order to carry this off, one must have collaborators—individuals with similarly empty minds and hearts. The first half of Trump’s term was littered with individuals that presumably believed Trump was elected to govern, and so set out to assist. Jim Mattis, John Kelly, H.R McMaster, Rex Tillotson, Gary Cohn, even John Bolton—say what one will about these men, they intended to go about the business of governing.
But after a number of fits and starts, suddenly the choices clicked into place. If Trump didn’t care to govern and Republicans didn’t care to have a government—who would be hurt by the exchange?
And so, in entered the liars and frauds. Kayleigh McEnany kept her promise never to lie to the press, in some sense. If there is no truth, there can be no untruth. Republicans and Democrats spent decades building up in bipartisanship America’s national security and defense apparatus, all so the President of the United States and other officeholders have sufficient information to make decisions. After Trump’s more serious and qualified appointees finally quit in despair, Trump turned these positions over to a succession of vacuous male models whose sole purpose was to stop that flow of information. Information is actionable, and the last thing Americans needed in the Trump era would be a reminder of why government matters.
Louis DeJoy destroyed the Post Office. CDC was hijacked and gutted—in the middle of a pandemic, no less. The EPA has been turned over to a succession of figureheads instructed only to dismantle it. The list goes on and on. The only surviving Trump cabinet members—appointees such as Ben Carson at HHS and Betsy DeVos at Education—were so hopelessly out of their league that their departments all but shut down for the entire term. Mission accomplished.
As an ideological cover story, all these agencies have been assigned the epithet the “Deep State,” and Republicans preach its destruction. But the truth is far less dramatic. The American people have over the course of 150 years made an endless series of political, legal, and societal decisions about the proper form and function of their government. If Republicans intended to change it, they should have been willing to have that debate. Instead, they promoted the idea of a strong man to eliminate the government all by himself.
The terrible consequences of that decision were brought to bear on the Capitol last week, an event that proves the thesis in every relevant way. For decades, Congress has been ceding power and authority to the Executive Branch in return for being left alone to raise campaign money and pander to special interests. After decades of ceding its coequal status to the Executive, the Capitol building—the house of the Legislative Branch of the federal government—was besieged by an armed mob incited by the President of the United States himself, and all for the purpose of illegitimately retaining his office. Trust me, it takes no imagination at all to know what the Founders would do to a President that attempted such a scheme.3Hint: Trump may not be so excited by the federal death penalty if he understood. The Capitol stood woefully underprotected, in large part because those with charge to protect it are under the command of…the same President who incited the original attack. These are all the considerations a real president steeped in the history and tradition of the American experiment would stop to consider before acting. Not Trump.
And yet, Congress’ first response to Trump’s attack was to call on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump from office. In other words, Congress first plead with the Executive Branch to clean up its own mess.
But the 25th Amendment itself demands that a sufficient part of the Executive Branch exist in order to trigger its provisions. It no longer does. Many cabinet members are gone. Those left are mere figureheads. While Speaker Pelosi’s gambit may be for appearances’ sake, it also raises the specter that she and the rest of Congress still have not come to terms with the reality that Congress must defend itself.
In her defense, approximately 150 Republicans in the chamber are in on the scheme. The Founders did not conceive of a partisan legislature, though they understood that allegiances and alliances would unfold in a deliberative body. But they never could have predicted that legislators would not only fail to react to an attack from the Executive Branch, but actually welcome it.
Still, even with House Republicans in on Trump’s fix, the Constitution provides at least two direct options for policing Trump’s failed inter-branch attack. The first is impeachment, which the House intends to vote on tomorrow. That vote will undoubtedly pass, but will require the Republican Senate to muster the courage its House counterpart lacks. If it is to arise now, it would be the first time in quite some time.
The second option is the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision permitting Congress to bar those that have abetted insurrection from holding federal office. Triggering this provision requires only a majority vote—majorities that Democrats will soon hold after their twin Senate victories in Georgia.
Either way, Republicans almost got away with it. They milked from one four-year term the return of overt racism, a massive corporate tax cut, a desultory regulatory effort and, perhaps most importantly, significant inroads to control over the judicial branch. And in 2024, they wouldn’t need Trump to do it all over again.
But though Republicans may have been done with Trump, he was not done with them. Republicans underestimated Trump’s fear of irrelevance and need for attention. As their version of King John, Trump excelled—he could pretend to be president, be on (and watch) tv all day, and never worry about the government, simply because the whole point was to do nothing. Turning his figurehead role over to someone else was unthinkable. It was Trump’s idea in the first place, right?
Trump’s predecessors had just assumed (or learned) that the government was designed to govern. So they did. Trump’s insight—if one could call it that—was that Republican voters would reward him for its overthrow.
Trump unlocked this valuable Republican cheat code, but understood its ultimate consequences: Republicans are not short on incompetence. Two Georgia Senate seats hung on Republicans convincing Georgia voters that Republican senators were needed to block Biden’s first term agenda. Trump snapped. If he couldn’t have the Republican Party—if he couldn’t have the Presidency—no one could. What had once been an electoral coup became a real one, because Republicans know the truth. The return of Democrats to Washington means the restoration of government to working order. And this is why Republicans are taking up arms.
The Republicans’ cynical plot was dangerous enough for normal times and seasons, but in Donald Trump’s hands it is enough to destabilize America. When he and his acolytes believe he is the sole and literal embodiment of one-man rule—even if it is non-rule—well, that is authoritarianism by anyone’s reasonable definition. Even if the authoritarian is only inclined to watch tv.
In any event, a new era has begun. America has one Democratic Party, and only one democratic party. A sobering reminder that history can happen here too.