How in the world did we get here? I could cite no shortage of structural factors. The collapse of the legislative process means that most members now play a more performative role in Washington than a substantive one, which incentivizes outlandish or viral behavior over more durable accomplishments. A decade of extreme partisan gerrymandering created districts in which the party primary is the real competitive race in numerous House elections, hamstringing moderates and encouraging extremists. Conservative media outlets, especially in the Trump era, have created an alternate universe where the press’s role in keeping elected officials accountable breaks down entirely.
But the most immediate problem is with Republican members of Congress themselves. Many of them have consciously chosen to embrace Trump and his most toxic views about American democracy. They have chosen to describe their fellow lawmakers as radical extremists, regardless of their actual beliefs or stances. (Look no further than the common conservative belief that President-elect Joe Biden, of all human beings, is about to carry out a communist revolution.) They have chosen to traffic in corrosive lies about American elections, weakening public confidence in elections when that confidence is more imperative than ever. It’s an open question whether some of these lawmakers actually believe in democracy, or would favor something more malign in its place.
While Democrats in Congress receive the lion’s share of this attention, they aren’t the only recipients of it. Colorado Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat, told NBC this week that he had spoken with multiple House Republicans who wanted to vote in favor of impeachment but were afraid that Trump’s supporters would murder them and their family, citing death threats they had received over the past few days. It’s a remarkable coda to the post-9/11 era, when “not giving into terrorism” was put forward as a basic principle of American life. That any member of Congress would be coerced into a vote instead of resigning or following their conscience is also a dark sign for the future of American civic life.
What’s most striking about all of this is that it shows no signs of abating. One would think that some of these lawmakers would be more cautious in avoiding further incitement after a riot in their own workplace. If anything, some of them seemed more interested in staying the course. “I don’t know why there aren’t more uprisings all over the country,” Texas’s Louie Gohmert remarked during the impeachment debate on Wednesday. “These Democrats are the enemies to the American people who are leading the impeachment witch hunt against President Trump,” Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has espoused support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, wrote on Twitter that morning. “They will be held accountable.” Whether that meant through a legitimate democratic process or by more diabolical means, she did not specify.