Someday, the past year or so may be remembered as a bout of temporary insanity among a large share of the American people. This group refused to take basic precautions against a devastating pandemic, swallowed the lies of a president who had lost an election, and excused a violent mob that attacked the Capitol to prevent Congress from doing its constitutional duty.
Or maybe not. Maybe it will come to seem perfectly normal. Maybe this period will be known as the time when we lost our bearings for good, dooming us to a catastrophic national unravelling.
The rise in insanity is hard to overstate. A recent poll found that 20% of Americans — including half of those who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 — believe the inoculation implants a microchip that the government can use to track them. Nearly half of Republicans don’t plan to get vaccinated.
Even as the delta variant fuels a surge in infection, governors in some red states have rejected mask requirements in public schools, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vowing to “provide protections for parents and kids who just want to breathe freely.”
Right-wing politicians and their media allies have spread the preposterous claim that massive fraud deprived Donald Trump of reelection. A May Reuters-Ipsos poll showed that 61% of Republicans believe it. An April Reuters-Ipsos poll found that a majority of them agree that “the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol was led by violent left-wing protestors trying to make Trump look bad.”
It gets worse. A poll sponsored by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the lunatic QAnon movement has gained a significant following, with 23% of Republicans affirming that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado have praised QAnon.
Last week’s hearings on the Capitol insurrection were another reminder of the alarming radicalization of the Republican Party, something exploited and encouraged by Trump.
The mob set up a gallows, chanted, “Hang Mike Pence,” forced both Republican and Democratic members to flee for their lives and savagely beat police officers. But congressional Republicans now want to move on, treating it as a minor incident grossly exaggerated by Democrats and the media — rather than an extremist effort to block a legitimate transfer of power.
GOP senators blocked the creation of an independent commission to investigate the attack. House Republicans tried in vain to stock a House committee with Trump henchmen who could be counted on to disrupt the inquiry.
Many Republican politicians are too infatuated with Trump — or too afraid of him — to admit the terrifying scope of the danger the insurrection represents. The party’s elected officials have become a coalition of crazies and cowards.
It fell to a lonely pair of GOP conservatives, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, to join the House investigative committee and decry the events of Jan. 6 as a horrific attack on the nation and the Constitution.
Kinzinger did something else, debunking the pernicious claim that the Capitol attack was not as bad as the riots that erupted in cities last summer over the police murder of George Floyd.
“I was called on to serve during the summer riots as an Air National Guardsman,” he said. “I condemned those riots and the destruction of property that resulted. But not once did I ever feel that the future of self-government was threatened like I did on Jan. 6. There is a difference between breaking the law and rejecting the rule of law, between a crime — even grave crimes — and a coup.”
In last Tuesday’s hearing, Kinzinger struck a hopeful note: “Democracies are not defined by our bad days. We’re defined by how we come back from bad days.”
But the response of Republicans to the attack is even more ominous than the attack itself. The aftermath offered a moment for them to confront the cancer that has embedded itself in the party and act to cut it out. They refused.
The majority of GOP voters have insisted on rationalizing or defending the insurrection while staying loyal to the defeated president who did so much to incite it. By indulging them, Republican leaders are inviting more of the same — and worse.
What kind of democracy is defined by its bad days? A dying one.