January 6 was a catastrophe for America. An angry mob, spurred on by the president, some carrying confederate flags, ransacked the Capitol during a joint session of Congress. Lives were lost. Indelible and humiliating images of a desecrated seat of government were burned into the nation’s consciousness and broadcast around the world. Any comfort taken in the notion that this might all have been avoided with appropriate security measures is offset by the horrifying realization that the outcome also could have been much worse.
I often compare President Trump to an earthquake—a costly disaster, but one that exposes structures outdated or sloppily built and provides the opportunity to improve upon them in the rebuilding process. We are living now through the final tremors, which can do most damage because they shake foundations already weakened by what has transpired. Trump’s actions and inactions in the election’s aftermath and especially in the last week are impeachable offenses, but the Congress’s decision whether to proceed is political and prudential in character rather than legal, and impeachment and removal is more complicated than tweeting “Impeach. Remove.” I believe he should be removed as soon as possible on principle, as precedent, and because the benefits outweigh the costs, but I must confess to having weak confidence in that third judgment and I also find persuasive Philip Klein’s argument that a slow, post-inauguration process might be most appropriate. Regardless, I consider intemperate the suggestion that this is an easy decision or that only one plausible position exists. A fine example of a healthier politics would be an acceptance on all sides that “remove the president in the week his term ends” is a proposition on which reasonable people might differ.
My own work focuses on the post-Trump project of rebuilding, and there the effects of last week remain to be seen. One possible, desirable outcome would be for Trump to lose standing on the right-of-center and in the GOP. Having already lost his party the White House, the House, and (in especially pathetic fashion) the Senate and abdicated all responsibility for leadership during an unprecedented pandemic that is killing more Americans daily than were killed on 9/11, he has now broken a centuries-long tradition of outgoing presidents conceding defeat and transferring power peacefully. We will see whether this counts for anything with his supporters.
Another effect is that some guardians of the pre-Trump status quo will redouble their efforts to define any alternative to the GOP’s outdated market fundamentalism as “populism,” which they will equate with lunatics storming the Capitol, as if skepticism about supply-side tax cuts or enthusiasm for industrial policy are just steps down the slippery slope to insurrection. This won’t save their bad ideas in the long run, but it may impose a toxic tribalism on the sides of what should be a constructive policy debate. An old guard defining its challengers as immoral will be especially resistant to change even as its position erodes. Many reformers, coming under attack as radicals, will find common cause with radicals in defending themselves.
This last phenomenon is one I see already underway, to my great distress. Younger conservatives especially, who will shape the contours of America’s right-of-center in the decades to come, feel keenly the effort to paint attacks on Trump with a broad enough brush to cover them as well, and respond by retreating behind his own defenses. They are of course responsible for their behavior, and the harder path of suffering unfair attacks while distinguishing and defending their own views is open to them. A core element of American Compass’s mission is to blaze that trail and provide a platform and identity for a genuine conservatism that must be grappled with on its merits. We will continue that effort and strive, as our mission statement outlines:
to embody the principles and practices of a healthy democratic polity, combining intellectual combat with personal civility. We welcome converts to our vision and value disagreement amongst our members. We work toward a version of American politics that remains inevitably partisan and contentious but operates from a common commitment to reinforcing the foundations of a healthy society.
My hope is that other institutions on the right-of-center will join us in that commitment. The alternative is not quiet resumption of the pre-Trump status quo, but a far uglier turn in our politics and the alienation of many promising leaders.
Finally, against the advice of people more politically savvy than I am, I want to say something about Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. American Compass has no formal relationship with either, but we cite Hawley regularly as a leader in efforts at reforming conservatism and we were pleased to host him for an event in August. Anyone who doubts his sincerity in wanting to move the right-of-center beyond market fundamentalism should read his essay, “Rediscovering Justice,” from the Winter 2012 (yes, 2012) issue of National Affairs.
The senators were wrong to object during the counting of the electoral votes. As with all the Republican efforts to humor President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of fraud, grant him his day in court, and even sign on to legal challenges that would obviously fail, the symbolic objections planned for January 6 were obnoxious and self-serving, undermined vital norms, and played with a fire that in fact raged out of control. While neither Hawley nor Cruz (nor scores of other objectors) expected or intended for last week’s catastrophe to occur, our notions of both politics and justice assign them a measure of accountability and they should pay a steep political price. They were not in fact the proximate cause of what transpired, and their exact same actions would be judged less harshly had no conflagration ensued. But the entire premise of norms is to constrain actions that in isolation might seem minor but collectively pose unacceptable risk. The “guardrails” metaphor is an especially good one in this instance: They are necessary precisely because some people will drive irresponsibly, and because accidents happen. You cannot yank up a support post alongside others all doing the same and then, when the guardrail collapses and fatalities ensue, disavow responsibility because it wasn’t your post’s absence that caused the collapse, or because the guardrail wouldn’t have mattered if the driver had been more careful.
Still, I don’t agree that the objectors should be expelled from public life. Stating an intention to object, under a legally established process, in the same manner done after previous elections, does not make one a “seditionist.” What Hawley and Cruz were trying to do, and what they actually did according to all available evidence, does not rank among the worst offenses ever perpetrated by American officials. They should acknowledge their failure of judgment, affirm the election’s validity, and demonstrate a commitment to constructive leadership in the next Congress. Sadly, their statements since the riot have not offered much cause for optimism. But I am hopeful that they can earn the opportunity to remain participants in future debates and I believe America would be better for it.
It seems appropriate to conclude these somewhat scattershot reflections the same way I concluded a comment on then-candidate Trump’s rise through the GOP in 2016:
Conservatives should be developing good policy and a compelling message, not something-that-would-have-stopped-Trump. No one knows what would have stopped Trump, and arguments from that premise are both disingenuous and a poor approach to planning for the future. Those who hate conservatism can indulge their schadenfreude while it lasts. Conservatives will just have to get back to work.