SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Wednesday’s attack on the U.S. Capitol was over in a few hours, but the ripple effects of the unprecedented domestic insurrection will last much longer and likely change the political landscape, at least in the short term, according to Dr. Aaron King, a UNCW political scientist.
“These things don’t suddenly end on January 20,” King said Friday. “Whatever happens between now and then, President Trump continues to be a huge driver of opinions, both for him and against him.”
Republicans have had a love-hate relationship with Trump, embracing many of his accomplishments (a new conservative majority on the Supreme Court, heightened international economic independence, tax cuts and general deregulation are a few of the big ones) but also wincing at times when the no-holds-barred president has committed seemingly unforced political errors and made life harder for some politically vulnerable members of his party.
Even after Trump lost the election, his ability to rally his base remained a valuable asset to the GOP, and most Republicans remained faithful to the man who, even in defeat, still was the clear leader of the party.
Some of that support began to erode after Trump’s refusal to accept even the possibility that he had lost the election. Even after the Georgia runoff left Democrats in control of both Congress and the White House, Trump’s influence remained one of the GOP’s most potent political tools.
But that could be changing.
On Thursday, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Washington said Trump is among those being investigated for inciting the attack on the Capitol. Also on Thursday, the reliably conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board encouraged Trump to resign. Twitter permanently banned him from the platform. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that if the president did not resign, the House would begin impeachment proceedings, a move that some Republicans appeared open to.
A politically wounded Trump could be a blow to Republicans in future elections, King said, even in down-ballot elections.
“I think that he’s really put the Republican Party in a difficult spot,” said King, whose specialty area is Congress, the presidency and political parties. “Republicans (at all levels) needed the enthusiasm that the president had at the top of the ticket because that was so many supporters. Republican voters have been motivated by their support for President Trump, not necessarily the party itself.”
At the same time, King said, despite the outrage over what transpired Wednesday, Trump and his vision for America remain very popular among most Republicans, and Democrats risk overplaying their political hand.
“There are plenty of Democrats calling for the House to move toward impeachment,” King said.
There not only is the question of whether or not it’s warranted, there is the question of whether it’s the best move for Democrats politically at a time when the party is set to take control of Congress and the presidency, all amid a raging pandemic.
“Is this what Democrats want to focus on? I wonder if it’s politically not the most wise move for Democrats right now?” King asked. “President Trump has already put himself in a corner and I think there’s going to be many people that say enough is enough.”
King said if Democrats go after Trump, it may inspire his suddenly skeptical backers to double down on their waning support for the president. On the other hand, King said, a politically impotent Trump could give Republicans an excuse to distance themselves from the president and the negative baggage that goes hand-in-hand with his ability to get out the vote.
If Wednesday was an event that makes that sort of split between Trump and the GOP a little bit easier, impeachment could actually bolster the popularity of Trump and his wing of the party, King said.
“There’s a lot of different things going on.”
Will these recent political events impact the two-party system?
King pointed out the two major political parties are constantly changing and adapting.
“I think it’s a matter of short- and long-term,” he said. “Short-term, the Republican Party is in a world of hurt, right? You don’t have the White House, you don’t have the Senate. I think the sooner that the Republicans can get away from Trump the better.”
Wilmington’s Woody White doesn’t necessarily agree. Though no longer an elected official — he served in the N.C. Senate and three terms as a New Hanover County commissioner — White remains a well-known and influential local Republican. He also still supports Trump, though White’s quick to point out, it’s more for the president’s policies than his tactics.
“I am sad that many of them will be reversed,” he said.
White said there were enough legal questions surrounding the voting in some states during the 2020 election to merit scrutiny from Congress — specifically pointing to Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and even North Carolina.
“[These states] exploited the Covid pandemic to loosen their rules, and by doing so undermined the integrity of the process,” the veteran attorney said Thursday. “I supported the idea of a civil discussion, in front of the American people, of the irregularities and potential fraud that had been alleged. I did not believe that — at least to this point — sufficient evidence had been developed to formally object in the Senate chamber to the certification by the four states in question.”
Wilmington’s closest connection to the Capitol is David Rouzer, the Republican who represents the state’s 7th District in the U.S. House and voted against the motion approving the votes of the Electoral College. Rouzer said in a press release on Monday, Jan. 4: “Unfortunately, the electoral and judicial processes so far have not provided for a thorough vetting. Congress is the last forum for the arguments to be heard in the short-term.”
But after the insurrection on the Capitol took place during the Electoral College certification on Wednesday, Jan. 6, Rouzer released a letter on Thursday condemning actions of the extremist mob who violently occupied the Capitol.
“What we all witnessed this week in our nation’s capital was appalling and should be condemned,” he wrote.
It’s the first time the symbol of American democracy has been breached since it was burned down by the British during the War of 1812. Rouzer said interviews he saw of peaceful protesters showed many have “a deep-seated distrust of our government institutions.”
“This, by no means, excuses the thuggery and violence of those who participated in the assault on the Capitol,” Rouzer added. “They should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
(Port City Daily reached out to Rouzer’s office for comment and details, including his location and movements during the assault. His office had not responded as of late Friday afternoon.)
White was unequivocal in his condemnation of Trump’s actions Wednesday, too. He called his words “reckless.”
“They have been incendiary and, while not the only cause of the eruption we saw, certainly they were a contributing factor,” White said. “It is the absolute duty of every president, no matter how unfair they are treated or the extent to which they have been maligned, to always respect and be deferential to the basic functions of democracy. And this is true even when you feel like the other side cheated.”
At the same time, White was struck by what he said is a double-standard when compared to the reaction to the violence that flared over the summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
“It does not matter what is being debated or argued or what events led to violent protests,” White said. ”If peaceful gatherings ever erupt into violence and burning and looting, they should be universally condemned.”
“Order should always be restored,” he continued. “Yet, for the last four years, and more so the last few months, the left has been burning and looting and inciting riots and uncivil disobedience all over the country, some even right here in Wilmington. Often these ‘occupying’ events would rage for days on end before anyone did anything about it.”
As for the future of the GOP, which only holds the majority on the Supreme Court now, White said he expects Republicans will quickly pivot their focus to the 2022 election.
“Republicans offer the best policies for making the trains run on time, for giving people choices in their education, for upholding the rule of law and keeping people safe,” White said.
More often than not, he claimed, unaffiliated voters recognize that as a fact.
“I predict that America will resume its otherwise functional two-party system without much change,” White said.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo also is optimistic that leaders in Washington will get on with the business of governing — work especially vital for cities and states reeling from the impact of Covid-19.
“As the site of the only coup d’état in American history, Wilmington knows all too well what happens when extremism, empowered by inflamed rhetoric, overthrows the rule of law,” he said Friday.
“In the tragic violence that occurred at the Capitol this week, I think many people saw that our nation is in a very fragile place and that America would be best served by working together to unify the country and move us forward,” Saffo said. “I would expect that our representatives recognize their duty to demonstrate that kind of leadership.”
King called this timeframe for Republicans as a “period of reckoning” — to take stock of what’s lost and gained.
“And that’s one of the reasons why both the Republicans and the Democrats have been around for so long — they’ve been able to change and evolve,” he said. “Short-term, things are really bad for the Republicans, but for the long-term, this may be the medicine that they need.”
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