Wednesday was a dark day in American political history, but it also was somewhat liberating for Arkansas’ congressional delegation.
These past four years, there were times they didn’t agree with President Trump on policy, his rhetoric or his tone. But they feared his popularity in Arkansas and among Republican voters everywhere. No Republican wanted to be on the wrong end of one of his tweets.
Meanwhile, Trump helped them achieve some of their goals, including appointing conservative judges, increasing military spending, and cutting taxes. Sen. Tom Cotton, who had extra motivation as a potential future presidential candidate, has been an especially loyal soldier who’s had Trump’s ear.
For all these reasons, for four years they’ve had to bite their tongues sometimes.
These past two months, they didn’t object as Trump cast doubt on the same American political system that also elected them. In fact, they either passively or actively raised those doubts.
As Wednesday’s votes to certify the election drew near, Cotton announced he would not contest the outcome. He expressed concerns about setting precedents while praising Trump and criticizing Democrats.
For that, he became the subject of a sharply critical Trump tweet.
But Wednesday changed things. Trump incited the mob that descended on the Capitol and then did little to stop it. Instead of acting forcefully while urging calm from the Oval Office as presidents normally would, he gently asked the rioters to please go home while repeating his claims about the election being stolen. He later defended the rioters by tweeting, "These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
Trump’s actions were the final straw for Cotton, who broke with Trump by releasing a statement saying, “It’s past time for the president to accept the results of the election, quit misleading the American people, and repudiate mob violence.”
More Republicans will feel emboldened to repudiate Trump now. That’s even more the case because Republicans this week also lost both Senate races in Georgia and therefore control of that chamber. If Trump – or anyone named Trump – tries to run for president in 2024, many in the party will try much harder to stop it than they did in 2016.
As for Arkansas’ congressional delegation, they’ll never say so, but I guarantee you some are relieved President-elect Biden won. They might hope they can again play the political game with the more familiar rules rather than the one with the rules Trump rewrote and then often broke.
However, even though Trump will soon be out of office, this much is certain: He’s not going away. He’ll be on your screen and on your social media feed as long as he is able.
And his influence will continue. That political game mentioned in that earlier paragraph? It’s changed permanently, and he’s the one who changed it.
First, he’s shown a person can be elected president and then govern by focusing entirely on base voters while stoking division, rather than trying to be the president of “all the people.”
Second, he’s changed the Republican Party. It’s now much more Trump’s than President Reagan’s. It’s more working class and less business class than it was, and it’s more grievance-based rather than reflecting Reagan’s vision of America as a “shining city on a hill.”
For decades, Republicans were elected while campaigning about cutting taxes and often vaguely about “family values.” They represented a rough coalition of wealthy business types and often-not-wealthy social conservatives. Their campaign donors were free-traders, but many of their voters weren’t. Their voters were struggling to make ends meet and didn’t like how the culture was changing around them. They were ready for some walls. Trump spoke their language.
Today’s Republicans – and to some degree, Democrats – will have to play the game Trump created. They can change some of his rules, but others they’ll have to follow.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, independentarkansas.com . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .