At 4am Thursday AEDT, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be inaugurated as president and vice president of the United States, replacing Donald Trump and Mike Pence. What follows is a discussion of US political events over the past two weeks.
On January 5, Democrats won the two Georgia Senate runoffs. Raphael Warnock (D) defeated Kelly Loeffler (R) by 2.0%, and Jon Ossoff (D) defeated David Perdue (R) by 1.2%.
After November’s elections, Republicans held a 50-48 Senate lead, so these results enabled Democrats to tie the Senate at 50-50, with Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote. Democrats gained a net three Senate seats from the pre-November Senate.
On January 6, pro-Trump rioters stormed Congress as it met to certify Biden’s Electoral College victory. The rioters were clearly influenced by Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. Despite the riots and the courts’ resounding rejections of Trump’s claims, two state certifications were contested: Pennsylvania, which Biden won by 1.2% and Arizona (Biden by 0.3%).
Seven Republican senators out of 51 objected to Pennsylvania’s certification, as did 138 Republicans in the House of Representatives, with smaller numbers objecting to Arizona. The House objectors included House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy.
Just 64 House Republicans opposed the objection, so of those who cast a Yes/No vote on objecting to Pennsylvania, 68% supported the objection. Democrats were unanimously opposed.
It is not just Trump or the rioters, but also these Republicans in Congress who objected to the certifications on baseless election fraud claims who deserve to be condemned for anti-democratic behaviour.
I had two articles for The Poll Bludger about Georgia and the anti-democratic nuttiness of Trump and Republicans. The first was a preview, while the second was a live blog on the Georgia results and the events in Congress the next day.
In response to the riots, on January 13 the Democrat-controlled House impeached Trump for the second time by a 232-197 margin. All Democrats and ten Republicans supported impeachment. It requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict. Trump’s Senate trial will not start until after he leaves office.
Since the riots, social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have blocked Trump’s accounts. But for two months after the election result was called by the media, Trump was able to use his Twitter account to rant that the election was stolen from him.
It is not surprising Trump’s supporters believe him: in a recent poll for the US ABC News and the Washington Post, over 70% of Republicans do not believe Biden was legitimately elected.
In the wake of the riots, Trump’s ratings have slumped. In the FiveThirtyEight aggregate, 38.5% approve of Trump’s performance and 57.9% disapprove, for a net approval of -19.4%. His net approval has dropped nine points since the riots. Trump’s net approval is his worst since December 2017.
FiveThirtyEight has charts of presidential approval since Harry Truman (president from 1945-53). Two previous presidents (Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy) did not reach Trump’s four years as president. Of those who had at least four years, Trump’s final net approval is worse than all except Jimmy Carter at this point in their terms.
In a Marist poll, 47% thought Trump would be remembered as one of the worst presidents, while 16% thought he would be remembered as one of the best.
After results are finalised, I have published a detailed report on every US presidential election since 2008. My 2008 and 2012 reports are at The Green Papers here and here, and my 2016 report is at The Conversation. My 2016 report had a massive surge in views in October and November last year.
My 2020 election report, published December 11, is at The Poll Bludger. Here are the highlights:
Biden won the Electoral College by 306 to 232, but he only won the tipping-point state (Wisconsin) by 0.6%. The tipping-point state is the state that puts the winning candidate over the magic 270 Electoral Votes needed to win.
Biden won the national popular vote by 4.5% or just over 7 million votes. So the tipping-point state was 3.9% more pro-Trump than the popular vote.
Trump’s vote held up well with the non-University educated whites who had given him his upset 2016 win. Biden owed his Electoral College victory to gains in the suburbs, where there is a higher amount of university education.
Trump improved greatly from 2016 with Hispanics, leading to large swings in his favour in diverse places like Miami-Dade county, Florida and New York City.
There was disappointment for Democrats relative to expectations in Congressional races, although the Georgia runoff results have improved this.
Insurrection Arrests and Related News
Donald Trump Impeachment
In a historic vote today, Donald Trump became the only US president to be impeached twice.
By a margin of 232–197, the Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives voted to charge Trump with “inciting violence against the government of the United States” for his role in encouraging the insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol last week.
When Trump was impeached by the House last year for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, no Republicans joined the Democrats in the vote.
This time, however, ten members of Trump’s own party supported the effort to remove him from office.
Now that the House has voted to impeach Trump, a trial will be held in the Senate, though the timing of this is unclear at the moment.
For Trump to be convicted, 67 senators need to vote in favour. If all 50 Democrats and independents vote to convict Trump as expected, then at least 17 Republicans would need to join them.
So far, only three (Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey) have indicated they would do so. Mitt Romney, a vocal Trump critic, will probably join them, and Susan Collins is a possibility.
Even though the most powerful Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, is said to be privately supporting the impeachment effort (and publicly said he hasn’t decided how he will vote), the numbers required to convict Trump will likely still fall short.
Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, has said the president “will be remembered as an aberration” when he leaves office after noon on January 20.
Nevertheless, the Republican Party will go on. And it will need to find its identify in the post-Trump era.
Do they continue with the arch-conservatism of the past decade that gave rise to the Tea Party and Trump, or do they return to the more traditional Republican politics associated with George W. Bush, John McCain and Romney?
While some Senate Republicans have loudly declared their allegiance to Trump, others appear to be suddenly on the fence.
Lindsey Graham, who went from being one of Trump’s most outspoken opponents to his staunchest backer in Congress, last week broke with Trump over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. However, Graham is strongly opposed to impeachment.
If you’re McConnell, you want to be remembered for defending the Senate and the institution.
The most prominent Republican to join the impeachment effort in the House is Liz Cheney.
The daughter of former US Vice President Dick Cheney has only been in Congress since 2017. After just two years, however, she was elected chair of the House Republican Conference, the third-most senior Republican position in the House after minority leader (Kevin McCarthy) and minority whip (Steve Scalise).
A rising star in the party, Cheney surprised many when she said she wouldn’t run for the open Senate seat in Wyoming last year, opting to stay in the House.
With both McCarthy and Scalise voting against impeachment today, Cheney’s move suggests she is positioning herself as a leader of the anti-Trump faction in the party, with eyes on perhaps becoming the first female Republican House speaker.
It must be noted that a significant portion of the American electorate still supports Trump and his policies. According to FiveThirtyEight, about 42% of Americans do not support impeachment. And among Republicans, just 15% say they want him removed from office.
Whoever leads the Republican Party post-Trump will need to consider how they will maintain the rabid support of his “base”, while working to regain more moderate voters who defected from the party in the 2020 election.
The reason McConnell is reportedly said to be considering voting to convict Trump is that is would make it easier to purge him from the party.
But purging Trump will be difficult. Even without Twitter, the power Trump wields is immense. The fear among many Republicans is that he can encourage primary challenges to any incumbents he feels have wronged him.
He’s done this many times before. In 2018, Trump strongly endorsed Brian Kemp in his successful campaign for governor of Georgia, but when Kemp rejected his claims of election fraud in November, Trump announced he was ashamed of having supported him. Trump loyalists are already looking for a primary challenger to him.
Trump doesn’t appear to want to go away quietly, which is also a cause for concern from a security standpoint.
This week, a leaked internal FBI bulletin warned that armed protests are planned for all 50 states and Washington DC in the days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
Some state capitol buildings have begun boarding up their doors and windows, while 15,000 National Guard troops have been mobilised for deployment to the nation’s capital ahead of expected violence and unrest.
This is an unfortunate sign of how many expect Trump’s supporters to respond to both his impeachment and Biden’s inauguration — even with Trump finally urging against further violence and unrest.
Most presidents aim to leave office with the nation better off than when they entered, but Trump’s legacy appears to be cementing a more divided country, where his brand of aggressive “conflict politics” may be the new norm.
This is a no-win situation for the country. And Republicans are still trying to figure out which side of history they want to be on.
When a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and stopped Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the nation’s next president, it was scary – and fatal for at least five people.
But it did not pose a serious threat to the nation’s democracy.
An attempt at an illegal power grab somehow keeping Donald Trump in the Oval Office was never likely to happen, let alone succeed. Trump always lacked the authority, and the mass support, required to steal an election he overwhelmingly lost. He didn’t control state election officials or have enough influence over the rest of the process to achieve that goal.
Nevertheless, over his term as president, he repeatedly violated democratic norms, like brazenly promoting his own business interests, interfering in the Justice Department, rejecting congressional oversight, insulting judges, harassing the media and failing to concede his election loss.
However, as scholars who study democracy historically and comparatively, we predict that the biggest threats to democracy Trump poses won’t emerge until after he exits the White House – when Biden will have to face the Trump presidency’s most serious challenges.
Trump never really threatened a coup, which is a swift and irregular transfer of power from one executive to another, where force or the threat of force installs a new leader with the support of the military. Coups are the typical manner in which one dictator succeeds another.
A coup displacing a legitimately elected government is quite rare; prominent examples from the past 100 years across the world include Spain in 1923, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Greece in 1967, Chile in 1973, Pakistan in 1999 and Thailand in 2006.
A military-backed takeover was not going to happen in the U.S. Its armed forces are extremely unlikely to intervene in domestic politics for regime change, especially not in favor of a president who is historically unpopular among its ranks.
Even if Trump’s most ardent supporters believe he won, there aren’t enough of them to credibly threaten a civil war. Despite their ability to breach a thinly defended Capitol, a sustained insurrection would be easily quashed by law enforcement.
Trump couldn’t even stage an “auto-coup,” which happens when an elected executive declares a state of emergency and suspends the legislature and judiciary, or restricts civil liberties, to seize more power. There have also been very few of those perpetrated against democratically elected governments over the last 100 years. The most prominent examples are Hitler’s Germany in 1933, Bordaberry in Uruguay (1972), Fujimori in Peru (1992), Erdoğan in Turkey (2015), Maduro in Venezuela (2017), Morales in Bolivia (2019) and Orbán in Hungary (2020).
A U.S. president can’t dismiss the legislative or judicial branches, and elections are not under his control: The Constitution declares that they are run by the states. And the declaration of election results is also well outside the power of the president (or vice president). It doesn’t matter whether the losing side formally concedes; the new president’s term begins at noon on Jan. 20.
The attack on the Capitol may have threatened the lives of federal legislators and Capitol police officers, but the most it achieved was to interrupt, briefly, a ministerial procedure. Within hours, both the House and Senate were back in session in the Capitol, carrying on their certification of the electoral votes cast in 2020.
By objecting to the outcome of the election, Trump highlighted aspects of the process that many Americans were previously unaware of, ironically ensuring the public is better informed about the mechanics and details of American elections. In that way, he may have, paradoxically, made American democracy stronger.
And it was fairly strong already. There was no evidence of any sort of widespread fraud or other irregularities. Major media organizations continue to explain and document the facts regarding the election, contradicting the president’s disinformation campaign. In 2020, voter turnout was higher than it has been for a century. Despite the pandemic, Trump’s rhetoric and threats of foreign tampering, the 2020 elections were the most secure in living memory.
But beyond elections, Trump has threatened America’s other bedrock political institutions. While there are many seemingly disparate examples of his disregard for the Constitution, what unites them is impunity and contempt for the rule of law. He has committed numerous impeachable acts – including potentially the incitement-to-riot on Jan. 6. He is facing a criminal investigation in New York state, and may be looking at federal inquiries both about possible misdeeds he committed in office and from before he became president.
The framers of the Constitution feared many things they designed the U.S. government to defend against, but perhaps one anxiety eclipsed all others: a lawless president who never faces justice, and was never held accountable during or even after leaving office. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “if the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution.”
There’s very little time left to hold Trump to account during his term. After the events of Jan. 6, he now faces public backlash from longtime congressional allies and resignations from his Cabinet. He has also been locked out of Facebook and Twitter.
But the question of real, lasting – and legal – accountability will fall to Biden, and his nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland. They will decide whether to continue existing investigations and potentially start new ones. State attorneys general and local prosecutors will have similar powers for the laws they enforce.
Newly elected leaders can often face strong incentives – and encouragement – to prosecute their predecessors, as Biden does now. But that approach, often called restorative justice, can also destabilize democracy’s prospects if lame-duck executives anticipate this and decide to hunker down and fight instead of conceding defeat. Consider Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, toppled by Western military intervention and killed by his people in 2011. He refused to flee or seek asylum for fear that both foreign governments and his own successors would prosecute him for human rights violations.
Perhaps counterintuitively, it is when outgoing presidents in transitioning democracies enshrine protections against their prosecution directly before leaving office that the democratic system is more likely to endure. This was the case in Chile with dictator Augusto Pinochet, who left power in 1989 under the aegis of a constitution he foisted on the country on his way out.
By contrast, after-the-fact pardoning of crimes – as Gerald Ford did of Richard Nixon – runs the risk of creating a larger threat to democracy: the idea that rogue leaders and their henchmen are above the law. If Trump finds a way to pardon himself, he may reduce his legal vulnerability, but he can’t erase it entirely.
If prosecutors or Congress let Trump off the hook, they may be the ones breaking new and dangerous ground, truly shattering the rule of law that underpins American democracy.
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James D. Long, Associate Professor of Political Science, Co-founder of the Political Economy Forum, Host of “Neither Free Nor Fair?” podcast, University of Washington and Victor Menaldo, Professor of Political Science, Co-founder of the Political Economy Forum, University of Washington
Can you be fired for joining a violent mob that storms the Capitol?
Of course you can.
Among the jarring images of white insurrectionists who broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was a man marching through the building holding a Trump flag with his work ID badge still draped around his neck.
It didn’t take long for internet sleuths to zoom in on the badge and alert his employer, Navistar Direct Marketing, a Maryland direct mail printing company.
The company promptly fired the man and contacted the FBI, issuing a statement that “any employee demonstrating dangerous conduct that endangers the health and safety of others will no longer have an employment opportunity.”
Even though the Capitol Police let all but 14 of the rioters walk away, the FBI and District of Columbia police have begun tracking them down. Other companies have also taken action against employees identified in the many photos from inside the Capitol. Even the CEO of a data analytics firm found himself without a job following his arrest.
Based on my experience as a law professor and lawyer specializing in employment law, I doubt that Navistar management is losing sleep over whether its decision was legally justified.
It’s not even a close case. Non-unionized workers in the United States – about 90% of all workers – are employed at-will. That means you can be terminated at any time, without notice, for any reason. It doesn’t even have to be a good reason. Unless the company has guaranteed your job in writing, or there is a specific law that protects your conduct – such as laws protecting union organizing or whistleblowing – your fate is up to them.
The law is more protective when it comes to unionized workers and government employees. These workers may have the right to be terminated only for cause, and they might get a hearing process prior to being disciplined. Government workers are also protected by the First Amendment, particularly when it comes to free speech in their capacity as citizens rather than speech related to the workplace.
That’s why the teachers and off-duty police officers spotted at the Capitol have only been suspended pending investigations, rather than fired outright. For these workers, their fate may depend on whether they were peacefully participating in the day’s earlier rally – an activity that would be considered protected speech – as opposed to engaging in violence or joining the capitol invasion, which would be unprotected illegal conduct.
Things get murky if these government workers were displaying white supremacist symbols, like a confederate flag, at the rally. Courts have recognized limits on the public speech of police officers to uphold public confidence, community relations and department morale.
But as the Brennan Center, a liberal-leaning law and public policy institute, observed in an August 2020 report, “few law enforcement agencies have policies that specifically prohibit affiliating with white supremacist groups.” The absence of such policies could make it harder for departments to later discipline off-duty police officers for their role.
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State lawmakers who participated are a different matter. Because they were elected by the people, they can’t be removed like ordinary employees. That might require a recall election or a state impeachment process.
But for most of the folks who snapped selfies in the Capitol – or ended up in someone else’s – if they don’t get a knock on the door from the FBI, they may soon be getting one from HR.
One of the many horrifying images from the Jan. 6 rampage on the U.S. Capitol shows a long-haired, long-bearded man wearing a black “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, and under it the phrase “work brings freedom” – an English translation of the Auschwitz concentration camp motto: “Arbeit macht frei.”
Another image, more subtle but no less incendiary, is of a different man whose T-shirt was emblazoned with the inscription “6MWE” above yellow symbols of Italian Fascism. “6MWE” is an acronym common among the far right standing for “6 Million Wasn’t Enough.” It refers to the Jews exterminated during the Nazi Holocaust and hints at the desire of the wearer to increase that number still further.
These and related images, captured on television and retweeted on social media, demonstrate that some of those who traveled to Washington to support President Donald Trump were engaged in much more than just a doomed effort to maintain their hero in power.
As their writings make clear to me as a scholar of American anti-Semitism, some among them also hoped to trigger what is known as the “Great Revolution,” based on a fictionalized account of a government takeover and race war, that, in its most extreme form, would exterminate Jews.
Calls to exterminate Jews are common in far-right and white nationalist circles. For example, the conspiracy theorists of QAnon, who hold “that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump,” traffic in it regularly.
The anonymous “Q” – the group’s purported head who communicates in riddles and leaves clues on message boards – once approvingly retweeted the anti-Semitic image of a knife-wielding Jew wearing a Star of David necklace who stands knee-deep in the blood of Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Ukrainians and asks with feigned innocence, “Why do they persecute me so?”
Images of long-nosed Jews dripping with the blood of non-Jews whom they are falsely accused of murdering have a long and tragic history. Repeatedly, they have served as triggers for anti-Semitic violence.
More commonly, including in recent days, QAnon has targeted Jewish billionaire philanthropist and investor George Soros, whom it portrays as the primary figure shaping and controlling world events. A century ago, the Rothschilds, a family of Jewish bankers, was depicted in much the same way.
QAnon members also mark Jews with triple parentheses, a covert means of outing those whom they consider usurpers and outsiders, not true members of the white race.
Another website popular in white nationalist circles displayed photographs of Jewish women and men, downloaded from university websites, so as to help readers distinguish Jews from the “Aryan Master Race.” “Europeans are the children of God,” it proclaims. “(((They)))” – denominating Jews as other without even mentioning them – “are the children of Satan.”
The website justifies rabid anti-Semitism by linking Jews to the forces supposedly seeking to undermine racial hierarchies. “White genocide is (((their))) plan,” it declares, again marking Jews with triple parentheses, “counter-(((extermination))) is our response.”
Members of the Proud Boys, another group that sent members to Washington, likewise traffic in anti-Semitism. One of the group’s leaders, Kyle Chapman, recently promised to “confront the Zionist criminals who wish to destroy our civilization.” The West, he explained “was built by the White Race alone and we owe nothing to any other race.”
Chapman, like many of his peers, uses the term “white genocide” as a shorthand way of expressing the fear that the members of the white population of the United States, like themselves, will soon be overwhelmed by people of color. The popular 14-word white supremacist slogan, visible on signs outside the Capitol on Wednesday, reads “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
Composed by David Lane, one of the conspirators behind the 1984 assassination of Jewish radio host Alan Berg, this slogan originally formed part of a larger document entitled “The White Genocide Manifesto.” Its 14 planks insist that Jews are not white and actually endanger white civilization. “All Western nations are ruled by a Zionist conspiracy to mix, overrun and exterminate the White race,” the manifesto’s seventh plank reads.
While influenced by the infamous anti-Semitic forgery known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the document goes further, blaming members of what it euphemistically calls the “Zionist occupation governments of America” for homosexuality and abortion as well.
QAnon followers, the Proud Boys and the other far-right and alt-right groups that converged on Washington imagined that they were living out the great fantasy that underlies what many consider to be the bible of the white nationalism movement, a 1978 dystopian novel, “The Turner Diaries,” by William Luther Pierce.
The novel depicts the violent overthrow of the government of the United States, nuclear conflagration, race war and the ultimate extermination of nonwhites and “undesirable racial elements among the remaining White population.”
As opinion writer Seyward Darby pointed out in The New York Times, the gallows erected in front of the Capitol recalls the novel’s depiction of “the day of the rope,” when so-called betrayers of their race were lynched. Unmentioned in The New York Times article is that the novel subsequently depicts “a war to the death with the Jew.”
The book warns Jews that their “day is coming.” When it does, at the novel’s conclusion, mass lynchings and a takeover of Washington set off a worldwide conflagration, and, within a few days “the throat of the last Jewish survivor in the last kibbutz and in the last, smoking ruin in Tel Aviv had been cut.”
“The Turner Diaries”’ denouement coupled with the anti-Semitic images from the Capitol on Wednesday serve as timely reminders of the precarious place Jews occupy in different corners of the United States. Even as some celebrate how Jews have become white and privileged, others dream of Jews’ ultimate extermination.
In the wake of the mob incursion that took over the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, it’s clear that many people are concerned about violence from far-right extremists. But they may not understand the real threat.
The law enforcement community is among those who have failed to understand the true nature and danger of far-right extremists. Over several decades, the FBI and other federal authorities have only intermittently paid attention to far-right extremists. In recent years, they have again acknowledged the extent of the threats they pose to the country. But it’s not clear how long their attention will last.
Clearly the U.S. Capitol Police underestimated the threat on Jan. 6. Despite plenty of advance notice and offers of help from other agencies, they were caught totally unprepared for the mob that took over the Capitol.
While researching my forthcoming book, “It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the U.S.,” I discovered that there are five key mistakes people make when thinking about far-right extremists. These mistakes obscure the extremists’ true danger.
When asked to condemn white supremacists and extremists at the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump floundered, then said, “Give me a name.” His Democratic challenger Joe Biden offered, “The Proud Boys.”
Not all far-right extremists are militant white supremacists.
White supremacy, the belief in white racial superiority and dominance, is a major theme of many far-right believers. Some, like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, are extremely hardcore hate groups.
Others, who at times identify themselves with the term “alt-right,” often mix racism, anti-Semitism and claims of white victimization in a less militant way. In addition, there are what some experts have called the “alt-lite,” like the Proud Boys, who are less violent and disavow overt white supremacy even as they promote white power by glorifying white civilization and demonizing nonwhite people including Muslims and many immigrants.
There is another major category of far-right extremists who focus more on opposing the government than they do on racial differences. This so-called “patriot movement” includes tax protesters and militias, many heavily armed and a portion from military and law enforcement backgrounds. Some, like the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Boogaloos, seek civil war to overthrow what they regard as a corrupt political order.
Far-right extremists are in communities all across America.
The KKK, often thought of as centered in the South, has chapters from coast to coast. The same is true of other far-right extremist groups, as illustrated by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map.
Far-right extremism is also global, a point underscored by the 2011 massacre in Norway and the 2019 New Zealand mosque attack, both of which were perpetrated by people claiming to resist “white genocide.” The worldwide spread led the U.N. to recently issue a global alert about the “growing and increasing transnational threat” of right-wing extremism.
Far-right extremists include people who write books, wear sport coats and have advanced degrees. For instance, in 1978 a physics professor turned neo-Nazi wrote a book that has been called the “bible of the racist right.” Other leaders of the movement have attended elite universities.
Far-right extremists were early users of the internet and now thrive on social media platforms, which they use to agitate, recruit and organize. The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville revealed how effectively they could reach large groups and mobilize them into action.
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have recently attempted to ban many of them. But the alleged Michigan kidnappers’ ability to evade restrictions by simply creating new pages and groups has limited the companies’ success.
Many people associate far-right extremism with the rise of Trump. It’s true that hate crimes, anti-Semitism and the number of hate groups have risen sharply since his campaign began in 2015. And the QAnon movement – called both a “collective delusion” and a “virtual cult” – has gained widespread attention.
But far-right extremists were here long before Trump.
The history of white power extremism dates back to slave patrols and the post-Civil War rise of the KKK. In the 1920s, the KKK had millions of members. The following decade saw the rise of Nazi sympathizers, including 15,000 uniformed “Silver Shirts” and a 20,000-person pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1939.
Far-right extremists often appear to strike in spectacular “lone wolf” attacks, like the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995, the mass murder at a Charleston church in 2015 and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018. But these people are not alone.
Their messages speak of fear that one day, whites may be outnumbered by nonwhites in the U.S., and the idea that there is a Jewish-led plot to destroy the white race. In response, they prepare for a war between whites and nonwhites.
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Thinking of these extremists as loners risks missing the complexity of their networks, which brought as many as 13 alleged plotters together in the planning to kidnap Michigan’s governor.
Together, these misconceptions about far-right extremist individuals and groups can lead Americans to underestimate the dire threat they pose to the public. Understanding them, by contrast, can help people and experts alike address the danger, as the election’s aftermath unfolds.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published Oct. 30, 2020.
President Donald Trump is extremely unlikely to capitulate to pressure to resign in the final days of his presidency. And his Cabinet is equally unlikely to force him out by invoking the 25th amendment of the Constitution, despite calls from the Democrats to do so.
So, in the wake of last week’s insurrection at the US Capitol, which left five people dead and the Trump White House in free fall, the final option available to lawmakers who want to punish the president for his role in encouraging the rioters is impeachment. Again.
The House Democrats introduced an article of impeachment against Trump today for “inciting violence against the government of the United States”. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Democrats “will proceed” with impeachment proceedings this week if Vice President Mike Pence does not respond to a separate resolution calling for the Cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment.
This will no doubt be a complicated task in the waning days of the Trump presidency. No US president has faced impeachment twice. And there are many questions about how the process will play out, given Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the US in just nine days.
This is how the impeachment process works under the Constitution. (Trump will be familiar with this since he’s already been through it before on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.)
Impeachment requires both chambers of Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate — to act. The House has the “sole power of impeachment” for federal officials, and all that is required is a simple majority to initiate proceedings. The House essentially takes on the role of a prosecutor, deciding if the charges warrant impeachment and a trial.
The Senate is where the actual trial takes place. Under the Constitution, the chamber acts like a court, with senators considering evidence given by witnesses or any other form deemed suitable.
Impeachment managers appointed by the House “prosecute” the case before the Senate and the president can mount a defence. The chief justice of the Supreme Court acts as the presiding officer.
While these proceedings have many of the trappings of an actual court, it is important to bear in mind that impeachment is a political process.
Under the impeachment clause of the Constitution, a president may be removed from office “on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
This language has been the source of considerable debate, with some legal experts, like Trump’s first impeachment lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, arguing that impeachable offences are limited to actual crimes. Others (correctly) disagree.
Conviction requires two-thirds of senators — a deliberately high threshold to prevent politically motivated impeachments from succeeding. No previous impeachment of a president has ever met this bar: Andrew Johnson (1868), Bill Clinton (1998) and Trump (2019) were all acquitted.
Even though some Republican senators have indicated they would vote in favour of impeachment — or at least be open to it — the number is likely nowhere near enough for conviction.
With only days left before Trump leaves office on January 20, time is of the essence.
The Constitution does not mandate any particular timeline for the proceedings to take place. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated a Senate trial could not begin before January 19, as the Senate is in recess until then.
Moving that date up would require all 100 senators to agree — an unlikely prospect.
But this may not be an obstacle to starting the process. The Constitution is silent on the question of whether a Senate trial can be held after a president has left office. The 1876 impeachment of War Secretary William Belknap for graft after he left office may serve as precedent.
So, if the House votes to impeach Trump before January 20, a trial could theoretically happen after that date. The maths also change slightly in the Democrats’ favour on that day. The Democrats will take back control of the Senate, albeit on a 50-50 split with incoming Vice President Kamala Harris casting any tie-breaking vote.
Democrats are pushing for impeachment because the Constitution not only allows conviction, but also provides for barring Trump from holding federal office again. This would thwart his ambitions to run for president in 2024 — a prospect not lost on Republicans with the same goal.
The Constitution does not stipulate how many senators need to vote in favour of disqualifying an impeached official from holding office again, but the Senate has determined a simple majority would suffice. This tool has also been used sparingly in the past: disqualification has only occurred three times, and only for federal judges.
The bigger hurdle, however, is that it still requires Trump to first be convicted of impeachment by a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
Biden has remained lukewarm at best to suggestions of a Senate trial after January 20. Such proceedings would allow Trump to style himself a political martyr to his followers even more than is already the case.
This would distract from the critical goals Biden has for his first 100 days and beyond: tackling spiralling COVID infection numbers and the country’s lagging vaccination program, providing immediate financial relief to struggling families, rejoining international climate action efforts and repairing the damage done to the fabric of government by the Trump administration. Last, but not least, it would make confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet picks more difficult.
Achieving these goals while Trump sets off the political fireworks he so cherishes is implausible.
The Democrats have floated the idea of impeaching Trump before January 20, but not sending the article of impeachment to the Senate for trial until weeks later — or even longer — to give Biden a chance to get started on these initiatives. But a distraction is a distraction no matter when it happens.
Democrats would also do well to remember that political fortunes can change. It’s understandable to want to punish Trump for his actions, but
rushing into a political trial in the Senate, which Democrats are bound to lose, may have unintended consequences for the future.
What’s to stop the Republicans from pursuing impeachments of future Democratic leaders they disagree with, even in the face of certain defeat in the Senate? This could poison the political atmosphere even further.
Democrats may also want to consider the fact that Trump could face federal charges for allegedly inciting the violence at the Capitol or state charges for urging Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat to Biden.
While this outcome is far from certain, the chances of conviction in a court of law would likely prove to be less toxic politically for both Democrats and Republicans alike.
This story has been updated to add Democrats formally introducing an article of impeachment on January 11.