The phrase “detached from reality” vied with the word “unhinged” as the most memorable description of Donald Trump by his former aides and officials at recent congressional hearings.
Donald Trump’s scheming attempts to stay in power and false claims of a “stolen” or “rigged election” have been well-documented. The recent accounts by former administration officials have added depth and alarming detail to our impression of his post-election behaviour, particularly during the riots of January 6, 2021. Beyond the headline-grabbing accounts of the president refusing for hours to pacify rioters and throwing his food, a more sinister question emerges: will the 2024 presidential election put an even greater strain on US politics?
The more that Trump was told there was no evidence to prove a “stolen” election, the more he listened to fantasists. One Justice Department official suggested that the Chinese changed American ballots by using thermostats. Another fever-dream scenario was that an Italian defence contractor used a satellite to switch Trump votes to his opponent. The pretence that victory remained possible extended beyond the insurrection. In a video outtake aired by the congressional committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, Trump is shown the following day amending a script.
“I don’t want to say the election’s over,” he interjects. “I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election’s over, OK?” To this day, the former president rebuffs any suggestion that the election is settled. A couple of weeks ago, he contacted Robin Vos, Republican speaker of the Wisconsin legislature, to see if he would be willing to change that state’s 2020 results in Trump’s favour.
Considering all the stunts, ruses and enduring efforts, former federal judge J Michael Luttig noted in one committee hearing that “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy”.
He went on to say that “the former president, his allies and supporters pledge that, in the presidential election of 2024, if the former president or his anointed successor as the Republican Party presidential candidate were to lose that election, that they would attempt to overturn that 2024 election in the same way that they attempted to overturn the 2020 election, but succeed in 2024 where they failed in 2020”.
One of the most compelling witnesses during the hearings was Cassidy Hutchinson, an assistant to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. The 26-year-old recalled what she had seen and been told about Trump wanting to lead armed supporters to the Capitol on January 6 and his repeated refusal to quell the violence once it started.
She also quoted a remark Trump allegedly made about vice-president Mike Pence. As president of the Senate, Pence was in charge of the congressional ceremony that day to certify the Electoral College ballots. Trump pressurised him to reject the results from key battleground states.
With rioters calling for Pence to be hanged — a gallows had been erected on the Capitol grounds — Trump, according to what Hutchinson was told by Meadows, said his two-time running mate “deserved” to be hanged for refusing to comply with his wishes.
Hutchinson’s testimony produced the greatest number of jaw-dropping moments. Her descriptions of food dripping from a White House dining room wall and of an enraged president trying to wrest control of his limousine’s steering wheel from the secret service to drive to the Capitol sounded credible. The Washington Examiner, a conservative newspaper, published an editorial that argued her testimony “ought to ring the death knell” for Trump’s White House ambitions. The editorial bluntly stated: “Trump is unfit to be anywhere near power ever again”. After the most recent hearing, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal concluded its editorial viewpoint about the session, saying: “Character is revealed in a crisis, and Mr Pence passed his January 6 trial. Mr Trump utterly failed his.”
Those sentiments, however, are not widely shared among the vast Trump faithful. A mid-July survey by The New York Times and Siena College found that 76pc of Republicans thought that the president was “just exercising his right to contest the election”. Other polls show that within the GOP, Trump is the overwhelming White House favourite in 2024 and the party’s unquestioned leader.
Although he will be 78 in two years, the likelihood of a political comeback is too tempting to someone seemingly addicted to attention.
An early announcement of his intentions might complicate any potential indictments developing from his actions after the 2020 election or the legal inquiries into his earlier business practices. He is the subject of almost a dozen federal, state and local investigations, and having the status of a declared presidential candidate could easily blunt any charge of illegality as being politically motivated.
A poignant moment occurred during the second-to-last hearing. Stephen Ayres, one of more than 850 people arrested after the insurrection, told the panel he decided to go to the Capitol because the president said “he was going to be there with us. I believed it”.
His unquestioning allegiance resulted in Ayres being criminally charged, losing his job and selling his house. Reflecting, he said he felt like he was wearing “horse blinders” about everything he consumed related to Trump before the insurrection. He added: “The biggest thing for me is to take the blinders off, make sure you step back and see what is going on — before it is too late.”
Too late? There’s growing and serious worry across America that January 6 was just the prelude to a more perilous future.
Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and adjunct professor at Dublin City University. A new edition of his book ‘The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from the New Deal to the Present’ will be published this autumn