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A Coup for All Seasons
As I started to write this, it was the two-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s insurrection to remain in the White House. I spent the day watching the U.S. House of Representatives try to elect a speaker. A core of right-wing extremists had been blocking Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid, and McCarthy only prevailed in the 15th round of voting because he promised to embolden the most extreme members of the Republican caucus.
While it was somewhat amusing to watch the party repeatedly demonstrate its inability to govern, for the next two years, we’re still going to have to live with the chaos it’s come to embody.
And while Trump’s influence has waned since he left office following his second impeachment, the reactionary grievances that drove him and his supporters are still motivating a significant portion of the Republican Party. That isn’t good for us as a society or as a nation.
The Republicans have already indicated what we can expect over the next two years: endless hearings on anything they think will give them a political advantage in the 2024 elections. House leadership has already created a subcommittee to “investigate the investigators” leading the Justice Department’s investigation of Trump’s attempted coup. That committee is likely to include several representatives who may have been involved in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election, including the new House Judiciary Committee Chair, Rep. Jim Jordan.
On the policy front, most of the Republican wish list items—eliminating Social Security, for example—won’t survive the Democrat-controlled Senate or President Biden’s veto. But there’s still potential to do a lot of damage. Rep. Scott Perry, originally one of 20 holdouts in the speaker vote, told CNN Friday that one of the conditions McCarthy agreed to was to not allow a “clean” vote on increasing the U.S. debt limit.
This is exactly the stunt the Republicans tried to pull in 2011 (and 2013 and 2015) when they wanted to extract concessions from the Obama administration on must-pass legislation. Increasing the debt limit is necessary to allocate the funds that Congress approved in its budget. Without doing so, the government will be unable to pay its debts, risking both the national and global economy, which are still largely dependent on the stability of the U.S. dollar.
The public doesn’t yet know all of what McCarthy has promised the party’s right-wing hardliners. But the new speaker’s desperation for the gavel is only matched by his lack of any principles of his own, and he seems to have approved the extremists’ demand for a one-vote threshold to call for a new speaker election. The result is clear: House Republicans—and the speaker himself—will be driven by the priorities of the party’s most rabid extremist (not to mention white supremacist) wing.
In the first days of the 118th Congress, the new GOP majority removed the metal detectors set up after the Jan. 6 ransacking of the building and introduced a motion to stop the IRS from hiring any new staff. The rule package also includes a plan to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics and remove fines against Congress members who don’t abide by mask mandates. And McCarthy looks like he’s planning revenge on several Democrats in the chamber, including stripping committee assignments from Reps. Ilhan Omar, Adam Schiff, and Eric Swalwell.
Against that backdrop, it’s a bit difficult to look to the next two years and find silver linings. But they are there.
It’s true that divided government is a recipe for paralysis. Movement on the Democrats’ agenda will slow to a crawl, and what passes will be watered down significantly. But this also means that Republicans will be unable to do as much damage as they’d like to. Their principal bludgeon will be the ability to stall the legislative process—which does have negative ramifications (pity the inevitably furloughed federal workers), but is less likely to result in a full legislative slide into fascism.
Further, tactics like holding the debt limit hostage through government shutdowns typically backfire. This political stunt becomes a game of chicken: The Republicans hope the Democrats cave on key issues before the real-world ramifications of their actions start to undermine their approval rating. Given the tiny majority the Republicans have in the current House, that political pressure will be all the more acutely felt.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have a majority in the Senate, which means President Biden will be able to fill federal appointments, especially vacant judge seats at all levels. Given how far rightward the Supreme Court has drifted, it will be vitally important that any federal judiciary openings be filled promptly.
The staying power of the Supreme Court’s Trumpian right-wing majority is an open—if opaque—question, as Supreme Court justices typically keep their personal intentions and health out of the public view. As such, it’s hard to estimate whether the oldest justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, are anywhere near retiring.
And probably most important for the health of the country, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed special counsel Jack E. Smith to oversee the myriad federal investigations into Trump, in addition to the nearly 1,000 criminal cases the Department of Justice has brought against the insurrectionists. The House’s Jan. 6 committee wrapped up its work with a thousand-page report detailing a comprehensive plan to overturn the election. Unlike former special counsel Robert Mueller III, whose work was stymied under pressure of a Republican president and attorney general, Smith has shown that he’s already making rapid progress—and he now has the full body of work and criminal referrals of the Jan. 6 committee to add to his cases. There’s a good chance that justice of some sort lies in the not-too-distant future.
The other arena to watch (especially if Congress grinds to a halt) will be in the statehouses and state court systems. The states are ground zero for battles over abortion rights, voting rights, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and more. Consider these three examples in just the past week:
The Pennsylvania legislature, where Republicans had a temporary two-seat majority due to absences, nonetheless elected Democrat Mark Rozzi to be speaker, who promised not to caucus with either party, announcing, “I pledge my loyalty to the people of the Commonwealth.”
On Jan. 5, the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned that state’s fetal heartbeat bill, which had effectively banned all abortions after six weeks’ gestation. (Prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, South Carolina had a 20-week ban.) That won’t stop anti-abortion forces from having another go at it, but in a preemptive move against bans or increased restrictions on abortions, the Department of Justice issued a ruling that the Post Office can deliver prescribed abortion medication even in states that have banned the procedure, and therefore cannot be sued.
And a special grand jury has wrapped its case examining Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in Georgia. (Under Georgia law, the grand jury must send its recommendation to another grand jury for filing charges.)
But it’s not all good news at the state level. Increasing numbers of cities are enacting new rules criminalizing homelessness, for example, which may make the problem worse, or violate individual rights. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has released a sweeping plan for involuntarily committing people deemed “severely mentally ill” to hospitals until a plan for their care is created. And while voters in Sacramento in November passed an initiative that requires the city to provide shelter beds for its homeless population, the measure also makes it a criminal offense to camp in public.
None of this is happening in a vacuum. A global movement toward authoritarianism and fascism hasn’t abated. Brazil just had its own version of Jan. 6, as a right-wing mob invaded government buildings demanding the reinstallation of former president Jair Bolsonaro—who conceded his electoral loss to Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, and was recently spotted in Florida.
Brazil’s coup attempt matters not just because of the ideological similarities between Bolsonaro and Trump, but because many of the same people appear to have connections to fascist movements around the world—for example, former Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Jason Miller, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk, who’s been busy restoring the accounts of Jan. 6 insurrectionists. And behind it all, the shadowy influence of Russian intelligence services. With all this, sunshine continues to be the best disinfectant. The show on the House floor during the speaker elections illuminates the ongoing Republican assault on democracy, just as we continue to see new and emerging connections to global fascism emerge. If there’s one positive to emerge out of Trump’s destructive administration, it’s that the most radical actors have come out of the shadows. Standing up to them is on us.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.