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As long as Donald Trump is breathing, the odds are that he will run again in 2024. This has become clear not because his ambitions have changed — Trump is no longer concerned with his business except to prevent its collapse — but because Republicans are all in for Caesarism. The party as a whole now has one truth, which is whatever Trump says, even if it is different after breakfast than before.
The finality of Trump’s ownership became clear this week at the hearing into the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill. It is worth stressing how rapidly the party has evolved since then. In January, Republican leaders condemned the insurrection that was meant to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory and harm those presiding, including Mike Pence, the vice-president. Their disgust did not seem feigned.
Within a couple of weeks they had switched to saying that America should let sleeping dogs lie, especially since Trump was no longer president. Let the law take care of the most egregious offenders. Their next mental leap was to fan the conspiracy theory that the assault was infiltrated by leftwing groups, such as Black Lives Matter, with the help of the FBI, to besmirch the Republican name.
Finally, as we saw this week, the centre of gravity has moved to a purely Trumpian account of January 6: the hearings are a partisan witch hunt; aside from a few probably implanted miscreants, those involved were true patriots. Many of these accounts coexist. Trump’s gentler apologists say that half the country has lost faith in the integrity of the US election system and their voices need to be heard too. Others say Biden is a traitor. They are all on the same bullet train that is heading for Mar-a-Lago.
The hardest to overlook are those that know better. John Stuart Mill said: “bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Republicans can count in their ranks a widening margin of unhinged actors, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon populariser, who likened mask mandates to the yellow stars Jews were made to wear by Hitler; Paul Gosar, who says the US is in a civil war, “we just haven’t started shooting yet”; and Matt Gaetz, who is being investigated for possible underage sex trafficking.
As the hearings began on Tuesday, these were among six legislators protesting outside the US Department of Justice to release “political prisoners” arrested after January sixth. But they were performing to type. A passing familiarity with their stories shows a postmodern blend of tech-savvy attention seekers with troglodyte prejudices. Nothing different should be expected.
It is the enablers who change history. In 1956, John F. Kennedy came out with his “Profiles in Courage”, a book that celebrated American historical figures who had taken principled stands that damaged their careers. Today’s candidates would be Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, two inveterate conservatives who this week were described as “[Nancy] Pelosi Republicans” by Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader who within a fortnight went from condemning Trump’s role in the insurrection to visiting Mar-a-Lago to apologise. Cheney and Kinzinger have sacrificed any future in the Republican Party. By contrast, McCarthy might well attain his ambition of replacing Pelosi as Speaker of the House after next year’s midterm elections.
McCarthy is spoilt for company. Consider Mike Pence, whose increasingly frantic calls Trump refused to take even while insurrectionists were scouring the Capitol for his blood. Pence knows the character of Trump. Yet ambition forces him to keep that to himself. Pence has not uttered a word against the man whose supporters call him a traitor. Or J.D. Vance, a heartland conservative who made his name with an impassioned book, “Hillbilly Elegy”, about the collapse of moral responsibility in his community. Vance, who is running for the Republican Senate nomination in Ohio, once called Trump “reprehensible”. Now that Vance wants Trump’s endorsement, he has turned into his Greek chorus.
On Tuesday, Cheney asked: “Will we be so blinded by partisanship that we will throw away the miracle of America?” It was a rhetorical question that her party had already answered. Without accountability, Cheney warned, the lethal events of January 6 would become routine. Her colleagues responded with a sneer. The Republican Party has embraced nihilism as its creed.