Analysis

Trump’s Collapse Is Biden’s Triumph

Amid the Capitol chaos, the U.S. president-elect is entering office already empowered, and Trump is "damaged goods" for 2024.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Thousands of Donald Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building
Thousands of Donald Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington on Jan. 6. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With Republicans deserting U.S. President Donald Trump in droves and talk of impeachment in the air, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in Jan. 20 in a charged atmosphere of desperation, anger and hope that is almost reminiscent of when Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man Biden says he wants to emulate, took office in 1933.

Biden himself appeared to sense his opportunity, delivering a double whammy to Republicans on Thursday, the day after violence engulfed the Capitol building, by announcing Merrick Garland as his nominee for attorney general—the same man whom Senate Majority Leader (soon to be minority leader) Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings for when President Barack Obama nominated Garland to the Supreme Court.

And in what could be called a screw-you-Donald speech, Biden made plain what the attorney general’s job was—which was not to protect the president. “You won’t work for me,” Biden said. “You are not the president’s or the vice president’s lawyer. Your loyalty is not to me. It’s to the law, the Constitution.”

With Republicans deserting U.S. President Donald Trump in droves and talk of impeachment in the air, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in Jan. 20 in a charged atmosphere of desperation, anger and hope that is almost reminiscent of when Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man Biden says he wants to emulate, took office in 1933.

Biden himself appeared to sense his opportunity, delivering a double whammy to Republicans on Thursday, the day after violence engulfed the Capitol building, by announcing Merrick Garland as his nominee for attorney general—the same man whom Senate Majority Leader (soon to be minority leader) Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings for when President Barack Obama nominated Garland to the Supreme Court.

And in what could be called a screw-you-Donald speech, Biden made plain what the attorney general’s job was—which was not to protect the president. “You won’t work for me,” Biden said. “You are not the president’s or the vice president’s lawyer. Your loyalty is not to me. It’s to the law, the Constitution.”

Meanwhile, as Biden seized the moment to pledge a restoration of American values, the Republican Party appeared to be falling to pieces. According to Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist, the events of the last few days have dramatically changed the calculus for 2024.

“Before this happened, people’s expectation was that Trump would get out and immediately announce he was running again. And that with his popularity with the rank and file and money in bank, he would dominate. That no longer will be the case. He’s damaged goods.”

Indeed, the riots were a “scared straight” moment for many Republicans, with McConnell metaphorically linking arms with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over the threat to democracy posed by Trump. Even the stalwartly conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page called for Trump to step down immediately.

“If Mr. Trump wants to avoid a second impeachment, his best path would be to take personal responsibility and resign,” the editors wrote. “This might also stem the flood of White House and Cabinet resignations that are understandable as acts of conscience but could leave the government dangerously unmanned.” 

Also apparently scared straight was Trump himself, who, after being warned by aides that he faced impeachment and that even fellow Republicans in his administration were discussing removal by invoking the 25th Amendment, delivered the closest thing he has given to a concession speech.

“Now Congress has certified the results,” Trump said in an obviously heavily scripted video recorded at the White House. “A new administration will be inaugurated on Jan. 20. My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”

Following the violence incited by Trump at a White House rally Wednesday, a slew of former Trump loyalists resigned, led by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos tweeted a sharp rebuke of her former boss, warning her colleagues to “set a better example” for the nation’s children.

As for those who went along with Trump and supported his unfounded claims of vote fraud, such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley—who were plainly trying to curry favor with Trump’s base ahead of 2024—they appeared more alone than ever. And many Republicans were asking where the 74 million voters who picked Trump last year will land in 2024, especially if the man himself is impeached or indicted and unable to run. After Trump’s speech, even many of his most devoted followers deserted him, with some tweeting that he had thrown them “under the bus.”

 “The party as a party is obviously dead,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a conservative pundit and foreign-affairs specialist. “I don’t think you can name a single principle that is a denominator of ‘Republicanism,’ in domestic or foreign affairs. A Republican Party where Donald Trump triumphed and where Sean Hannity is a cultural force is a party without intellectual rigor and roots.”

The immediate question becomes whether Biden will be able to exploit the moment now that Democrats have control of the Senate, or whether the Republicans will quickly reunite to obstruct him.

“I think coming to office right after a disaster like this does give him an opportunity to unify and get some bipartisan support,” said Black.

Since the siege on the Capitol, the progressives in Biden’s party have remained mostly silent. But some Democratic pundits and experts believe the new president will, if anything, face even higher expectations for more dramatic action on such issues as tax increases for the wealthy and stimulus.

“I don’t think this has much impact on progressives,” said Elaine Kamarck, the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. “The more salient fact is that the majorities are so narrow in each house that he will have to avoid turning off the Joe Manchins and Conor Lambs of the world.” Manchin, a West Virginia senator, is a leading Democratic centrist who sometimes votes with Republicans, and Lamb, a Pennsylvania congressman, plays a similar role in the House.

Even so, by taking control of both houses of Congress in the face of the Republican meltdown, a worsening COVID-19 crisis, and new job losses, Biden may be in a better position than ever to enact an activist first hundred days by invoking Roosevelt, who said in a speech during his 1932 campaign: Take a method and try it. If it fails … try another. But above all, try something.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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