WASHINGTON — Rick Perry tried to warn voters of the dangers of Donald Trump.
In a speech ahead of the 2016 Republican presidential contest in which both men would compete, the former Texas governor framed Trump as an unchecked demagogue and chose a striking historical image to illustrate his point: A mob attack on Washington.
Perry described an 1854 assault on the nation’s capital in which members of the nativist Know-Nothing movement accosted a guard and destroyed slabs of marble that were meant to complete the Washington Monument. Their goal was to thwart an imagined conspiracy about the Pope taking over the government.
“These people built nothing, created nothing. They existed to cast blame and tear down certain institutions. To give outlet to anger,” Perry said. “Donald Trump is the modern-day incarnation of the Know-Nothing movement.”
Trump, of course, was elected president that year and Perry would serve as energy secretary in his administration.
But like many of Trump’s former rivals, Perry seemed to know something like Wednesday’s deadly insurrection at the Capitol was a risk if Trump became president. We know they knew, because they told us so.
One by one, Republican after Republican warned not just that Trump was wrong on policy or personally immoral, but that he was fomenting violence and undermining democracy by dehumanizing his political opponents and encouraging attacks on protestors.
"I think a campaign bears responsibility for creating an environment," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said at the time. "When a candidate urges supporters to engage in physical violence, to punch people in the face, the predictable consequence of that is that it escalates.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who also competed for the nomination in 2016, offered a similar warning about the unique nature of the Trump threat.
"There’s only one presidential candidate who has violence at their events,” Rubio said. He warned that “words have consequences” and Trump was responsible for his supporters’ behavior.
As his own campaign ended, Rubio likened Trump to “third-world strongmen” and predicted a “reckoning” after the election.
“You mark my words, there will be prominent people in American politics who will spend years explaining to people how they fell into this,” he said.
Republicans who warned about scenarios like Wednesday’s siege on the Capitol have taken divergent paths since then.
Some, like Cruz and Perry, became enthusiastic Trump supporters: Cruz even led Trump’s efforts in the Senate to overturn the results of the 2020 election in various states Wednesday ahead of the normally perfunctory electoral vote count in Congress that marks the final step in a process codifying Joe Biden as the next president.
Others, like Rubio, have been more conditional in their support, sometimes offering at least mild criticism in line with their prior rhetoric. On Thursday, Rubio decried “some” who egged on the riot with false election conspiracies without naming the president or anyone else.
But even Rubio, who decried Trump’s effect on civic life in dire terms, spent the 2020 campaign cheering on the president. He particularly relished telling a fired-up crowd how Trump supporters in cars and trucks had surrounded a Biden-Harris campaign bus in Florida, forcing them to cancel events and prompting a federal investigation.
“Did you see it?” Rubio said. “All the cars on the road, we love what they did!”
Hypocrisy is obviously a normal feature of politics, from which no elected official is immune. Making alliances with rivals after a bitter campaign is as well.
But there’s not much precedent for a party packed with leaders who warned a rival is an immediate danger to democracy, decency, and truth itself and then got on board only to have some of them go on to profess shock that that figure did the very thing they warned all of us they would do.
Now, with Trump days from exiting the White House and a growing sense of outrage around the Capitol assault, an increasing number of erstwhile supporters are getting off the Trump train at the very last local stop.
"All I can say is count me out,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a speech during the electoral count on the Senate floor Wednesday night, updating the country on the latest step in his journey from Trump critic to ally and back. “Enough is enough.”
Mick Mulvaney, who was elevated to a variety of roles in the White House after serving three terms in Congress from South Carolina, resigned from a diplomatic post in Northern Ireland on Thursday in protest.
Trump was “not the same as he was eight months ago,” Mulvaney said. Left unanswered was whether Trump was the same person as he was four years ago, when Mulvaney called him a “terrible human being” whom he could barely bring himself to support.
Even Cruz seemed to be inching away. On Thursday night, he told Texas station KXAS that Trump "plainly bears some responsibility" and that "the president’s rhetoric and his language has been over the line." It was unclear when, exactly, the line was crossed during Trump's 65-day campaign to challenge the election results with Cruz's support.
Trump has posed many challenges to American democracy. He has been prodding his most ardent supporters with lies that the election has been stolen from them, some of whom are already convinced (with Trump’s tacit encouragement) that his opponents in both parties are part of a Satan-worshipping cult that eats children.
Such conspiracies would be difficult enough to contain on their own. But a major theme of speeches by Republicans opposing Trump’s efforts to overturn the election on Wednesday was about another toxic effect that he’s had on political discourse: Few believe that even some of his most prominent elected defenders are sincere in their support, which breeds cynicism and makes an honest debate over his record impossible.
While Trump himself has pushed an encyclopedia of debunked propaganda and conspiracy theories to justify his effort to overturn the election (you can listen to him try to sell Georgia’s Secretary of State on them), senators who did support his efforts, including Cruz and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., never acknowledged that the goal — as stated over and over and over by Trump — was to maintain his grip on power in defiance the will of the voters. Instead they pushed for a commission to study the issue further.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a Trump ally throughout his term, broke from the president and chastised colleagues who would “pretend” they were engaging in a “harmless protest gesture” by trying to thwart voters’ intentions.
Embedded in these critiques was a belief that their fellow Senators somehow “knew” better. And there were many reasons to doubt the pro-Trump convictions of his colleagues, beyond just their reluctance to repeat his more embarrassing phony claims. Cruz, for example, called Trump a “pathological liar” in 2016.
“He doesn't know the difference between truth and lies,” Cruz said at the time. “He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth.”
Cruz had reason to be angry then. Trump had spread outrageous conspiracy theories about the Cruz family, even implying that his father had been involved in the JFK assassination. Trump also refused to concede to Cruz in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, instead claiming his opponent had “illegally” stolen it.
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It’s easy to draw a direct line from those complaints by Cruz to the insurrection at the Capitol, just as it is from hundreds of other times Trump made comments undermining elections, demonizing his opponents (and broad groups of Americans) with false claims, and revving his followers up with violent revenge fantasies.
Whatever else you can say about Wednesday’s bloody rampage, it was one of the most overdetermined events in history. The final days of the 2016 election were also dominated by fears that Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful concession would lead to similar unrest, an issue that was rendered moot when he won.
How to repair the damage and get back to a productive debate over policy that affects Americans’ lives is an open question. Mulvaney, in announcing his resignation on CNBC, hinted at one possible route forward.
“The folks who spent time away from our families, put our careers on the line to go work for Donald Trump, and we did have those successes to look back at,” he said. “But now it will always be, ‘Oh yeah, you work for the guy who tried to overtake the government.’”