What now for the GOP?
In the wreckage left by Trump, the path ahead for Republicans will be determined by, among other things, the Democrats' behaviour in office.
The Straits Times, Jan. 8, 2021
A 1952 short story called Der Tunnel by Friedrich Durrenmatt tells of a student-filled train plying the mountainous Swiss countryside only to suddenly start tumbling over itself ever faster into the void of space. The story seems an apt metaphor for the weird accelerated experience of the Republican Party over the past several weeks.
Let's briefly review what has happened since Nov 3, when an already curiouser and curiouser state of affairs in the affairs of state really began to accelerate into surreality.
President Donald Trump tried everything he could imagine to steal the election. He lied about the potential for fraud before the election, and spread evidence-free Big Lie conspiracy theories after it.
He bullied election officials at will and tried to intimidate the Department of Justice into fabricating evidence that did not exist: Attorney-General William Barr jumped ship rather than sail under that bridge and maybe go to jail for it.
Then Mr Trump's cronies rushed the courts as planned to overturn the results, and they failed in state courts, federal appeals courts and the Supreme Court. Ultimately even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, having been safely re-elected, peeled off from the President's line.
Next, Mr Trump insisted that state legislatures nullify the popular vote and, talking like a mafia boss, asked state officials, most recently in Georgia, to "find" him votes that didn't exist. Meanwhile, of course, a cascade of "pay-me-later" presidential pardons spewed forth, which Republican Senator Ben Sasse - also safe, thanks to recent re-election - termed "rotten to the core".
Then Mr Trump invited his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was granted one of those pardons, to a White House meeting where he suggested that the President declare partial martial law and rerun the election in several states he lost under military supervision.
Mr Trump was reportedly all too open-minded about the idea. This shocked even close aides and resulted eventually, at former vice-president Dick Cheney's initiative, in a powerful public letter signed by all 10 living former defence secretaries proscribing US military interference of any kind in American political dispute.
Mr Trump then tried to get Republicans in Congress to refuse certification of the election on Jan 6. Meanwhile, he storm-tweeted for his supporters to come to Washington that day, never mentioning the messaging of various radical right-wing groups that they should arrive armed.
Thirteen Republican Senators, led by Mr Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mr Ted Cruz of Texas, proved willing to pass this latest loyalty test, which amounted to support for a pseudo-legal coup. But from this group, dubbed the Sedition Caucus in Washington, even Trump loyalist, Senator Tom Cotton - he who once mooted the idea of invoking the Insurrection Act against anti-Trump protesters - refused to associate.
As a parallel last-ditch effort, Mr Trump supported the imaginative but plainly unconstitutional notion put forth by Representative Louie Gohmert of having Vice-President Mike Pence, presiding by law over the Jan 6 ritual, throw out the election results on his own dime.
Then on the morning of Congress' big day came news of the Democratic Senate victories in Georgia, in essence flipping the Senate to the Democrats. That daunted any Republican senator hoping to have any influence after Jan 20, and so kept the number of coup supporters from rising.
At that point, even Mr Trump must have known how it would end, yet he continued searching for scapegoats, with Mr Pence the final designated chump. Ultimately, Mr Pence peeled off, too: The Constitution, mercifully, gave him no choice.
So we see the pattern: As Mr Trump's desperation led to ever more brazen and manifestly unconstitutional tactics, Republicans either with principles (Mr Mitt Romney and Mr Sasse) or some practical sense of their own interests (Mr Barr, Mr McConnell and Mr Cotton) put distance between themselves and the growing surreality of Mr Trump's implosion.
Motive and money
Why did Mr Trump do this? And how have Republicans varyingly reacted as the macabre parade of berserk elephants left increasingly malodorous droppings on the nation's constitutional order?
The first question is easy to answer: for the money. Mr Trump, very deep in debt, raised more than US$200 million (S$265 million) in a mere trice after Nov 3 to fund a mythical legal campaign.
Everyone knows where most of the dough will end up; the only question is whether Mr Trump will actually pay the lawyers who eagerly did his bidding in court, not caring whether they won or lost so long as they could bill the hours.
The second, more complicated question remains a fast-moving target hard to get a bead on.
Soon after Nov 3, we witnessed the expected hedging behaviours from within a party that, with few exceptions, either aided and abetted Mr Trump's "middle-finger" approach to American political norms, traditions and law, or else kept supinely quiet about it.
Thus Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a vocal Trump critic in his own party (but usefully so in a "blue" state), went out of his way to endorse both Republican candidates in Georgia Senate run-offs. He was hedging towards the Trumpists to stay viable in a party in which his views remain unpopular.
Others like Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a more party-line Retrumplican, danced the backpedal for fear that the tide might soon flow Mr Hogan's way after Arizona flipped to the Democrats.
For two months after Nov 3, Republican politicians had only one thing on their minds: Would Mr Trump's reign over the GOP continue after his loss? Could he still leverage populist anger to remain party kingmaker?
Game changer in Georgia
Before the year turned, most thought so. Many Republicans wished Mr Trump's spell over the party would end, but most in prominent positions were afraid to act. Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson claimed a few weeks ago that publicly contradicting the President's mad rants would be "political suicide" for him. Now, a fair number of Wisconsiners want to impeach him.
What changed? The Georgia run-off elections, which the GOP lost, thanks largely to Mr Trump's toxic touch, and the sheer Washington mayhem of Jan 6.
There is still no telling where the GOP train will end up, however. The question still remains: Will South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham's May 3, 2016 prediction - "If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed... and we will deserve it" - prove ultimately true or not?
The cauldron of populist resentment in the US has not burned its last, or more than 74 million Americans would not have voted to re-elect a man not fit for office in the first place.
But that same datum also proves something that the American political centre must acknowledge: Just having an idealist view of the human nature and the best of intentions does not exonerate all forms of baseless self-regard, self-dealing, and self-indulgence. If right-wing populism continues to grow and to buoy up the former president's power with it, it will not be for no reason.
Way ahead for democrats
Much related, the Republican Party will go where it thinks the votes are, but that's an ongoing calculation that Democratic behaviour in office will influence.
If the Democratic brain trust continues to prioritise fighting rarefied culture war battles over, say, "transgender issues" involving minuscule portions of the population while ordinary people struggle to put food on the table or pay for their medications, votes will flow to populists left and right.
If it continues to countenance use of the "D" word - "deplorables" - to stigmatise any dissent from "woke" views based in myths of "foundational racism", votes will cascade in furies away from the Democrats. As they should, because those views are wrong.
If soon-to-be President Joe Biden is wise, he will follow his instincts to challenge Republicans to triangulate, Bill Clinton-style, to solve pressing national problems.
If they baulk, they will be blamed for obstruction. If they buy in, Mr Biden will benefit but they will forge a way to bring their party back to its senses. Those chances will rise if Mr Biden can keep his party's left wing from provoking Republicans to arc politically towards their populist support off "woke" red-meat offerings.
As things stand, depending on diverse local political landscapes, some Republicans think the solution to their troubles is "more Trump", in other words, more populist pandering. Others, especially in blue or bluish states, hope to insinuate into being a post-election GOP identity they can live and get elected with that bears little relation to what the Republican Party actually is right now.
How will they explain their past obsequious and evasive behaviour? Easy: They will say it never happened. The Soviets used to airbrush photographs. Some Republicans in this time of reality cyber-warping will seek to airbrush away entire years, and in the current American "bread and circus" spectacle environment, they might get away with it.
So intra-Republican tensions might careen around for a long while, with Mr Trump himself extending the ordeal by haunting the House and Senate from Mar-a-Lago. And that's a problem, because the next would-be authoritarian demagogue to come along might actually be competent, and so politically irresistible.
It's just too easy to imagine a future scenario where, with the courts full of tenured Republican appointees and both Houses of Congress in Republican hands, the craziness of a Louie Gohmert suggesting that one of the two elected members of the Executive Branch could decide for himself whether he and the President could remain in office could actually win the day.
The American constitutional order is now shown plainly to be less than foolproof, and there are just too many fools out there for comfort.
Adam Garfinkle is the founding editor of The American Interest and a distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.