A political force propelled by irrationality and a dangerous lie, led by a man who tried to overturn a national election, who incited violence to block the peaceful transfer of power, and who has promoted the lunatic QAnon conspiracy theory and engaged in antisemitism, is poised to take control of the House of Representatives.
Though Republicans failed to crush Democrats across the land in the midterm elections—they lost most of the key gubernatorial and secretary-of-state battles and were defeated in critical Senate races—they appear likely to end up with a narrow majority in the House. (It may be days before the dust fully settles.) Democrats have cheered the overall election results; the widespread predictions of a GOP romp that included a massive win in the House did not come true. Yet even though many Trumpist challengers running in statewide elections lost, the House returns, as of now, suggest that a party fueled by anti-democratic election denialism and extremism can fare well in congressional districts and, with the help of gerrymandering, amass a slim majority of seats in the lower chamber. This means the Trumper extremists in the House are close to achieving a form of minority rule.
While Democrats are crowing about beating back a red wave, these election results indicate that millions of Americans do reside in a post-truth environment, in which fake plots are real, real news is fake, and Big Lie proponents and reality-deniers are afforded power. In this slice of America, there are no consequences for waging war on democracy and spreading conspiracy theories untethered to reality. House Republicans, in cahoots with their Dear Leader, tried to subvert the constitutional order with skullduggery that led to violence. They not only escaped punishment; they have been rewarded. This is the opposite of accountability. The enemies of American democracy—the election deniers who lost their baseless battle and who were disgraced by the mob on January 6, 2021—have gained control of a large part of the US government.
Pushing perilous conspiracy theories, spreading lies about elections, attempting a coup, fomenting violence, allying with extremists, and destabilizing the political system, all in service to a narcissistic and bigoted demagogue who yearns to rule as an autocrat—House Republicans seem to have gotten away with it. In the first congressional elections since Trump’s brownshirts attacked Congress, the House GOP, if the current numbers hold, will pay no price for the attack on the Capitol or for the Big Lie—or for continuing their embrace of Donald Trump, who has vowed he will pardon the domestic terrorists who brutally assaulted Capitol law enforcement officers if he regains the White House. In fact, they will be empowered to cause more damage.
House Republicans did underperform in the election, given historical trends and the present worries about the economy, but their apparent narrow victory is still a crisis for the nation. A group committed to not accepting the legitimacy of elections it loses—and one that is also trying to rig the rules and laws governing the voting system in its favor—will be in charge. In the horror show ahead, the call will be coming from inside the House.
There is, of course, nothing new about Republicans sweeping into power in the House in the first midterm elections of a Democratic presidency. That’s the pattern. In 1994, Rep. Newt Gingrich, exploiting a tide of angry conservative voters pumped up by the hateful rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh, led a successful and vicious assault on the Democrats and won the House for the GOP. Sixteen years later, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) harnessed the vitriol-spewing and batcrap-crazy tea party to fuel a Republican takeover of the chamber.
In each of these episodes, the public discourse was debased. Gingrich’s winning strategy included demonizing and dehumanizing Democrats. His political action committee disseminated a list of words and terms that GOP candidates should use “to define our opponents,” including traitors, radical, sick, anti-child, anti-flag, betray, bizarre, pathetic, lie, steal, disgrace, and they/them. The tea partiers went further, claiming that President Barack Obama was a secret Kenya-born Muslim socialist who had a devious plan to destroy the American economy so he could impose a totalitarian regime. (Death panels! Concentration camps!) And yet, each of these extremist political projects wrapped their demented accusations in the veneer of policy and ideological aims. Gingrich maintained he was a visionary bent on transforming the welfare state into a dynamic “opportunity society.” Many commentators depicted the tea party as being part of a long populist tradition driven by resentment of Washington and the desire for less intrusive government.
Those Republican victories caused devastation. The GOP’s Limbaugh caucus in the House forced a costly and unprecedented government shutdown, sliced social programs, and embarked on an unpopular impeachment crusade against President Bill Clinton. The House tea partiers sparked a debt ceiling crisis, blocked climate change action, and mounted multiple Benghazi hearings targeting then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In each of these eras, Republicans engaged in their usual efforts to limit or suppress voting.
But what’s different now—and it’s a critical difference—is that the triumphant Republicans have directly assaulted the foundation of American democracy with their baseless contention that Trump was robbed and Joe Biden is not the real president. This rejection of democracy, this refusal to accept reality, has become the party’s raison d’etre.
For many voters, a GOP win in the House will legitimize Trump’s phony claim to the throne and the underhanded Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the violence of January 6. Not every House Republican candidate explicitly championed the Big Lie or dismissed the significance of the seditious raid on the Capitol. But the party as an entity has accepted this falsehood, and it treats Trump, who incited and who continues to encourage political violence, as its de facto leader. What once seemed the Lost Cause of the Republican Party is no longer lost. It is winning—at least, it appears, in the House.
What will it mean to have this tribe of democracy deniers in power? The impact on future elections could be profound. On the morning after Election Day, GOP secretary of state candidates in crucial swing states who were QAnonish election deniers were losing or had lost. Ditto for GOP gubernatorial contenders in that camp, most notably Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania. (The contest in Arizona between denialist Kari Lake and Democrat Katie Hobbs was too close to call.) Yet House Republicans who had schemed with Trump to try to upend the results of the 2020 election or supported his effort to negate the popular will and toss aside the votes of millions of Americans now are heading toward controlling half of Congress. What constitutional chaos might these Trumpists wreak in 2024?
Beyond undermining democracy, House Republicans have promised other disruptions in addition to the inevitable scuffles over such policy issues as climate change, taxes, gun safety, and immigration. They have signaled their intention to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and provoke another debt ceiling battle that could trigger a global financial meltdown. The imposition of further restrictions on reproductive rights is part of their agenda. They will shut down the January 6 committee and launch multiple impeachments (of Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas) and a long line of combative investigations. Probable targets: Hunter Biden, the 2020 election, Hunter Biden, the Mar-a-Lago raid, Hunter Biden, the National Archives, Hunter Biden, the January 6 committee and its members (watch out Adam Schiff, Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and Jamie Raskin!), Hunter Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Hunter Biden, the Russia investigation, and much more— including possibly the much-cherished golden oldies of Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails. And government shutdowns, anyone?
Revenge and spite are two of Trump’s primary motivations. In recent weeks, he has savagely assailed judges who have ruled against him, New York state Attorney General Letitia James, and political reporters, even sharing a fantasy of imprisoning reporters and subjecting journalists to jailhouse rapes. Trump has reportedly called Republicans and asked them how many times they will impeach Biden. (Trump presumably wants Biden impeached more than the two times he was impeached.) His thirst for vengeance will push House Republicans to extreme and unprecedented lengths. The lower chamber under GOP control will become Trump’s very own weapon of retribution.
Some of these probes likely will be led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the bellicose Trump toady and Trump-Russia denier who is expected to chair the Judiciary Committee. (Jordan was one of Trump’s co-conspirators in the clandestine plots to capsize the 2020 election.) Top House Republican Kevin McCarthy has said that in a GOP Congress Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), the QAnoner and white nationalist ally who was kicked off House committees for spreading loony conspiracy theories and boosting a social media post calling for the assassination of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will be allowed to sit on committees. She has been pushing for a spot on the Oversight Committee, which will be in charge of various anti-Biden investigations. Imagine a gavel in her hands. (As election results came in, the New York Times tweeted, “Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories put her on the fringes of the Republican Party when she was first elected two years ago, was re-elected on Tuesday and is poised to play a more central role in the next Congress.”)
With Republicans ruling the roost in the House, deniers of reality—QAnonish crackpots—will be wielding subpoenas, holding hearings, and hurling allegations, all the while providing red meat for the Trump-loving right-wing media machine. It will be an orgy for Fox. Democracy and sanity will be at risk. Some Democrats have chortled that McCarthy, with such a thin majority, will face a mess of trouble becoming the speaker and then corralling the caucus. (With a tiny majority, a couple of insurgent extremists can easily issue demands that cause problems for McCarthy or whoever becomes speaker.) Yet within a chaotic caucus, extremist members could be further emboldened and more dangerous for democracy. Crazy will rule.
It’s not tough to predict the turmoil ahead—and the day after Election Day, there was a slight chance the Republicans could fall short of grabbing the House. Sure, Republicans have wreaked havoc in the past, and the nation survived. What’s more troubling now is that (once again) House Republicans may have successfully exploited fear, grievance, tribalism, resentment, and paranoia but this time to aggressively pursue an anti-democratic agenda and to support and bolster a thuggish leader whose goal is to return to power and attain some degree of authoritarian rule. Worse, despite Democratic gains elsewhere, their win in the House would convey an ugly and terrible lesson with dire consequences: Lying, cheating, sabotaging elections, whipping up groundless conspiracy theories, and arousing hatred and violence—these actions, individually and collectively, are not automatically disqualifying in American politics. If the party of January 6 has prevailed in what’s long been called the People’s House, American democracy will remain just as under assault as it was on that horrific and bloody day in 2021—perhaps even more so.