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After Trump: A Time for Choosing

Trumpism won’t go away on its own. It will have to be actively repudiated.
January 20, 2021
After Trump: A Time for Choosing
He’s departing the White House—but will conservatives part ways with him? (Photo by Al Drago / Getty)

The events of January 6 made clear a growing evil that should have already been obvious to all. Democracy, it turns out, wasn’t dying in darkness. A right-wing insurrection attempted its murder in broad daylight.

A Trumpist horde stormed the U.S. Capitol, brutalized and killed one police officer, and injured scores more. A bastard son of the Confederacy strode the halls of the Senate bearing the battle flag of race hatred, terrorism, and treason. The lies of a demented and violent minority inspired the majority of the House Republican conference to object to the verification of a legitimate election. Their champion in the Senate raised a closed fist in salute, creating an iconic image so infamous that it ought to doom any hope he once entertained of rising to the presidency.

And the fever has yet to break. The dark dream lives on and continues to dominate the debates within the Republican party and to haunt its partisans and its opponents, not to mention millions of bystanders. In polls conducted since the attack on the Capitol, only around 20 percent of Republicans said they disapprove of Donald Trump’s job performance and support his conviction in an impeachment trial, while 28 percent of Trump voters say that Trump’s actions on January 6 actually reinforced their decision to vote for him, and 75 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that Joe Biden “did not legitimately win enough votes to win the presidency.”

Sadly, this is a party still in the grip of its fever dreams—in thrall to a defeated and disgraced president, and deeply delusional about reality.

How can conservatives regain their footing, their sanity? How can they wake up?

I am not a conservative, but I am someone who, for the sake of our republic, would like to see a grand alliance of liberals and progressives with moderates and conservatives who all abhor authoritarian rule and mob tactics.

With Donald Trump leaving office today, this is now, as conservatives were once fond of saying, a time for choosing.

In one direction are the liberal democratic ideals and practices that, however imperfectly we may have lived up to them, are our rightful inheritance as Americans.

In the other direction is illiberal authoritarianism. Trumpism, with or without the man himself, with a dark sequel (Don Jr., perhaps?) in the offing. A willingness to benefit from, and even to stoke, conspiracy theories and lies that can drive people toward distrust and destructiveness.

A chance to take a first step down the path toward liberal democracy is quickly approaching. Senate Republicans must vote to convict Trump of the obviously impeachable offense of inciting insurrection. And they must go further, rejecting the president as a person.

Then conservatives must also reject the faux-populist politics that fueled Trump’s rise and that led to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. That means actively rejecting the lie that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the election. It means pushing back against the false narratives that the vast conservative media complex will construct. It means quashing conspiracy theories instead of indulging the people who propagate them.

This turn against Trump and Trumpism won’t be easy, and it won’t come naturally. Reform-minded Republicans should help to construct a tent beneath which all people of good will can stand. It’s the direction the Biden presidency is pointed, but it cannot be successful unless a substantial majority in Congress turns his way, including conservatives who understand the stakes. The first test is the impeachment trial, but there will be other votes that also matter—to confirm President Biden’s cabinet, advance the fight against the coronavirus, and invest in an economic recovery to benefit all Americans. We should be united on these fronts, too.

President Biden’s call to “build back better” is a sloganized way of calling for “Reconstruction,” a word with more elegance and historical resonance than a mere campaign tagline, particularly for Republicans who celebrate the party’s genuine heritage. Reconstruction was one of our nation’s great failures, not because it went too far but because it did not go far enough to dismantle a white supremacist oligarchy and protect the nascent democratic institutions of the South.

Now is the time to complete that project, to rebuild a country in an image much closer to our ideals. Now is the time to sideline the zealots and philistines, the ideologues and apparatchiks, and elevate the champions of love, decency, and democracy. To do otherwise, to vote to acquit or absolve Donald Trump or to support anyone who does, is to forgive the unforgivable, to appease an open enemy of legitimate self-government. But another path is possible, which leads to a truly multiracial democracy that recognizes the civil rights and the dignity of all Americans. Let’s walk it together.

Eric Genrich

Eric Genrich is the mayor of Green Bay, Wisconsin and a former member of the Wisconsin state legislature.