The Thin Veneer of Normalcy
Squint the right way and things look almost normal. The barriers around the Capitol are gone. People are taking off their masks and going out. The Nats and Orioles are in the basement. Most of all, politics is boring again.
That’s not to say Washington is working well, mind you. Consider this week’s negotiations between President Joe Biden and Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, a Republican, over infrastructure spending—a priority that both parties (theoretically) support but one that has nonetheless been stuck in purgatory for months. Things are broken in the most normal of ways, though: Mindless partisan deadlock is the sort of dysfunction Americans have long accepted. Last Monday, The Washington Post published an entire story about how dull and workaday Biden’s prior week had been.
But this appearance of normalcy is a thin veneer. Just below the surface, the United States faces a set of perilous, unresolved threats. The former president refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the election he lost. His party’s leaders are abandoning their commitment to democratic majority governance, and its voters insist that he won. Domestic terrorism threatens the nation’s tranquility, and ordinary violent crime is on the rise too. Relaxing about the state of the country feels irresistible, but doing so would be unwise.
A series of reports has shed light on the bizarre situation of the Old Pretender as he continues to stew over the election. The journalists Maggie Haberman and Charles C. W. Cooke report that Donald Trump is saying, and perhaps truly believes, that he will be “reinstated” as president this summer, after it becomes clear that he rightfully won the election; perhaps some Republican senators defeated in November will come back with him. The Post adds that Trump has become convinced that “audits” in Arizona and elsewhere will prove that he actually won.
Several barriers will prevent this: Trump didn’t win, no evidence can prove otherwise, and there’s no constitutional mechanism for such a reinstatement. Many losing candidates have griped about election results, and insisted that they were cheated. Stacey Abrams never conceded the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race. John Kerry reportedly remains skeptical of the 2004 presidential-election results in Ohio. But the current situation is unprecedented: No former presidential candidate, much less president, has ever so flatly refused to accept the results or expected to be reinstalled. Samuel Tilden, after being shut out of the White House in 1876, told his supporters, “Be of good cheer. The Republic will live.” Trump, by contrast, exhorted his backers on January 6, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Reality has never constrained Trump’s statements. The problem is how far this thinking has spread beyond him. Large portions of the Republican electorate purport to agree in opinion polls that Trump rightfully won the election, and the on-again, off-again Svengali Steve Bannon claims that staying in lockstep with Trump will be a “litmus test” for future GOP candidates. “There will not be a Republican that wins a primary for 2022—not one—that doesn’t take the pledge to get to the bottom of November 3,” he recently told NBC News.
Meanwhile, exercises like the count in Arizona, which purport to rebuild confidence in elections, are actually likely to only further undermine Trump partisans’ trust. As I wrote this week, opposition both to majority rule and to the notion that Democrats can win elections fairly is on the rise in the Republican Party. These rejections of the system’s basic tenets have consequences. In March, FBI Director Christopher Wray (a Trump appointee) warned, “January 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon.”
Republicans in many states have proposed legislation that could block voters from casting ballots or even let officials ignore their will entirely. And as my colleague Ronald Brownstein writes, different philosophies of governance are driving red and blue states even further apart, resulting in an ever-less-United States.
The early months of the Trump administration birthed a new mantra. “This is not normal,” resistance types warned, sometimes ad nauseam. They hoped to prevent Americans from being lulled into a sense that the Trump presidency’s abuses and lawlessness were somehow typical and acceptable. But even then, despite the constant flow of outrages, it was hard to ever feel like anything was normal, and any nascent complacency was shattered by the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. Now that the nation has begun to move past some of that, the temptation to relax is stronger. But below the veneer, this too is not normal.