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Politicians Playing With Matches

U.S. Capitol building at sunrise.
photo by Doug Hubley, courtesy Bates College, licensed under CC BY-SA

Something is bound to catch fire if you play with matches long enough.

With any luck at all, Wednesday’s debacle at the U.S. Capitol will incinerate the political dreams of Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, along with other elected Republicans who cynically went along with President Donald Trump’s delusion that there remains something to investigate about the election he lost on Nov. 3.

Trump dispatched a phalanx of supporters to Capitol Hill to protest as lawmakers gathered for the ceremony – and it is merely that – of announcing and recording the Electoral College votes submitted by the states. Those votes will put President-elect Joe Biden in the Oval Office on Jan. 20. By statute, yesterday was the day this was to occur. It ultimately did, late last night, in spite of the mob.

Cruz, Hawley and their fellow travelers sought to capture Trump’s discontented supporters by challenging electoral votes from several swing states the incumbent lost by narrow margins. The stated goal was to trigger a 10-day congressional “audit” of those states’ elections. Congress has no authority to conduct any such audit of state-certified votes, nor to choose its own electors at its conclusion.

Courts are available to resolve election disputes; Trump’s advocates availed themselves of litigation some 50 times. Their litigation failed because there was nothing substantial to litigate. There was no massive conspiracy to deprive Trump of a second term. He just lost. This is a fact neither he nor some of his die-hard supporters wanted to accept.

So, shockingly but not entirely surprisingly, a sizable portion of his erstwhile rally crowd stormed the halls of Congress, overwhelming Capitol Police and forcing their way into the building. They interrupted the proceedings just as the two houses began deliberating the first electoral challenge, raised by Cruz and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona to that state’s votes. Lawmakers and staffers were hustled out of the complex to other locations where they could wait out the events in comparative safety. One intruder was shot and later died. Three additional people died from medical emergencies, D.C. Metro police reported.

Democracy comes with a fair amount of pageantry, from inaugural swearings-in to legislative adjournment “sine die” at the end of a session. The pageantry is just glittery wrapping. Beneath the trappings of power there is a process that our leaders must be conduct reliably and respect faithfully, even when it isn’t perfect.

The ultimate cure for an imperfect election is the next election. It is not a mob bull-rushing a legislative body. It is not a vice president asserting powers he does not have (as Trump fruitlessly urged Vice President Mike Pence to do). It is not grandstanding by politicians who gum up democracy’s machinery just to score points with disappointed voters.

Yet with an eye on future White House campaigns, Cruz and Hawley positioned themselves as carriers of the Trump torch, only to have a fireball blow up in their faces. They can’t say they were not warned. As the electoral vote counting got underway, shortly before the mob stormed the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a final plea for reason from his own caucus.

“The voters, the courts and the states have all spoken,” McConnell told his Republican colleagues. “They've all spoken. If we overrule them, it will damage our republic forever.”

I am not as pessimistic as the gloomy senior senator from Kentucky. America’s global standing undeniably suffered a black eye yesterday, but bruises heal. I don’t think the country is forever damaged, and I certainly don’t agree with overblown comparisons of yesterday’s events to Pearl Harbor or 9/11.

There was never, not even for a moment, any chance that the results of the presidential election would be changed, or even deferred, because of anything that happened yesterday. Federal and local law enforcement, including National Guard troops, quickly rallied to remove the interlopers and allow Congress to resume its business. The assault on the Capitol had zero support from anyone in the political or military establishment. Even as it happened, and more so when it ended, it rendered Trump more isolated and irrelevant than any lame duck in memory – and my memory includes Richard Nixon on the eve of his resignation.

By evening there was serious talk about deploying the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from power, or about another impeachment to remove him from office with less than two weeks remaining in his term. It probably won’t happen, but it could – and it would have significantly more support than the impeachment articles that failed a year ago. This would stand as precedent for any future American president who refuses to accept a verdict delivered by the voters.

Whether Trump serves out his few remaining days in the Oval Office is less important, however, than whatever happens to the lawmakers who legitimized his post-election misbehavior for their own ends. When Congress reassembled to finish its business last night, House members objected to results in Georgia, Michigan and Nevada, though they did not secure any senators’ support. Yet Hawley followed through on an earlier promise to object to the result in Pennsylvania, a complaint initially brought by that state’s Rep. Scott Perry. Hawley’s choice to double down triggered two hours of debate that ended around 3 a.m.

The GOP has had its contingent of never-Trumpers ever since he announced his candidacy in 2015. Most Republicans, however, agreed with a majority of the president’s policies in office, even if they did not approve of his conduct. His enthusiastic supporters loved both, as is their democratic right.

But their rights did not extend inside the Capitol’s doors. The anti-democratic rioters, who were tacitly encouraged by a president who did not criticize them even when he told them to go home, may have a rebound effect after Trump leaves office. I suspect embarrassment over what transpired yesterday may turn a lot of former Trump supporters into never-again-Trumpers. It may even turn some into never-supported-Trump-in-the-first-placers. People like to rewrite their own story when it is inconvenient.

I don’t expect Cruz and Hawley, or the other Republicans who supported their foolishness, to be able to rewrite theirs. At least I hope they can’t. They helped light the pyre, and if it consumes them, they will have only themselves to blame.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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