From the Capitol attack to the House speaker debacle: Two years of political crisis in the United States

Trumpism is once again casting a shadow over Congress, with the lower chamber paralyzed due to a group of dissident Republicans, who believe the 2020 election was stolen

Scene outside the Capitol after Trump supporters breached the building in Washington, District of Columbia
Trump supporters, during the assault on the Capitol, on January 6, 2021.Bonnie Jo Mount (The Washington Post / Getty)

“We all look like domestic terrorists now.” That’s what Hope Hicks, a Donald Trump aide in the White House, said when the former president’s supporters overran the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. The message was revealed on Monday by the House Committee investigating the assault on Congress. On the second anniversary of the attack, the Capitol is once again dominating the news. This time, it is not because Trump supporters are laying siege to the building, but because the Republican hard right is paralyzing the House by refusing to support the party’s nominee for speaker.

But there is a common thread between the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and the current infighting in the Republican Party. The attack was sparked by Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in the 2020 presidential election against Democrat Joe Biden. In one of the emails made public this week, a senior White House official reveals that Trump even wanted to trademark “rigged election” just days after the vote. Evidence presented by the House Committee shows that the former US president was well aware that he had lost the election, but was willing to do anything to undermine the results, including pressuring his vice president, Mike Pence, to refuse to certify the electoral votes.

Now, two years on, House Republicans who back Trump’s false claims of voter fraud are blocking the election of Kevin McCarthy as House speaker. On Thursday, the Republican candidate suffered another humiliating defeat, losing an eleventh vote to be elected, despite making several concessions.

The results of the 2020 presidential election were not even close. Biden won the popular vote by more than seven million and secured 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. There is overwhelming evidence that Trump was defeated, and all attempts to challenge the results have failed. But, despite the evidence, the former president not only continues to argue that the 2020 election was stolen, he has convinced most Republican voters as well.

Trump’s failure to recognize the results and his role in inciting the violence on January 6 would have ended anyone else’s political career, but the former US president remains the party’s most influential figure. He played a key role in the midterm elections: nearly all the Republicans who supported the impeachment vote against him lost their primaries. And it seems that neither the House Committee into the Capitol assault or revelations that he kept top-secret documents at his Mar-a-Lago home have been able to stop him.

That said, many hard-right Republican candidates, backed by Trump, failed to defeat their Democratic opponents in the midterm elections. The red wave didn’t materialize, and the Republican Party was unable to regain control of the Senate, while in the House, they secured a much smaller majority than expected: 222 to 213. This was the worst midterm election result for an opposition party in 20 years.

This narrow majority is due in large part to the fact that voters rejected the Republican Party’s most extreme candidates. But ironically, because of this thin majority, the party’s fringe are now in a position of power. McCarthy needs the votes of the hardliners to be elected speaker, and they are using this as leverage to impose their demands. They are not even listening to Trump’s calls for unity. But 21 pro-Trump congresspeople continue to boycott McCarthy’s candidacy, opting to vote for different fringe candidates in 12 different rounds. Not since 1859 has it taken so many rounds of voting to find a consensus – that year, it took 44 attempts to elect a speaker. In the eleventh vote, one of the Republican hardliners, Matt Gaetz, proposed that Trump be elected as speaker. The motion only got one vote, and some laughs. The House will convene again Friday at noon.

The Republican infighting has paralyzed the House, which cannot properly function until a speaker has been elected. Members cannot be sworn in, all legislative activity is on hold, and there are doubts about what would happen in an emergency. The situation has also highlighted the deep-running divisions in the Republican Party, and raised questions about its ability to manage their House majority.

Meanwhile, the wounds left by the Jan. 6 attack have still not healed. The House committee recommended that Trump be barred from running for president again, and voted unanimously to charge him with four crimes: conspiracy to give false testimony, obstruction of an official procedure of Congress (the vote to certify the victory of President Joe Biden), conspiracy to defraud the American government, as well as inciting and assisting an insurrection. But it remains to be seen whether Trump will be prosecuted.

Adam Kinzinger, an outgoing Republican congressional representative, made it clear in an interview on CNN that Trump should stand trial: “If he is not guilty of a crime, then I frankly fear for the future of this country.”

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