The great power in politics is to make people believe that something false is true.
As the digital revolution spawned a global black market of hackers, crooks and hate merchants, the spread of disinformation and ideological con games powered nationalist strongmen in Russia, Poland, and Hungary, bending the media to their will, making the European Union a survival drama before the 2016 U.S. election. Then came Donald Trump, showcasing bravura machismo at rallies, endorsing violence against critics, promising to restore America’s lost greatness.
“A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige,” George Orwell wrote in “Notes on Nationalism,” a prophetic1945 essay. “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakably certain of being right.”
In a swoon over Vladimir Putin, President Trump created havoc for the NATO allies and became a catalyst for white power groups at home. As major media outlets kept a scorecard on his lies, Trump called journalists “enemies of the people” and, bolstered by Fox News and mendacity media like Breitbart, galvanized hard-right thugs, encouraging violence against politicians he reviled, notably Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer whose security forces foiled a kidnap attempt. All that was prelude as Trump beckoned a mob to the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, sparking the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
A question stalks every demagogue: how long can you get away with it? At what point do the lies that fire the base blow back like an oil slick beneath your feet? A leader who depends on free elections has it tougher than a dictator with an army.
That’s Trump now, demanding fealty to the myth of a stolen election for candidates seeking his support. Exiled at Mar-a-Lago, “Trump’s Florida club was the temporary fortress of a strongman plotting his return to power,” write Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns in This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future (Simon & Schuster), a gripping narrative on how Trump lost and Biden’s struggle to achieve his agenda. They write of Trump, without Twitter:
His gilded Elba was a languid and decadent redoubt, befitting the persona of its primary resident. Even the security seemed unserious. At the entrance, a single security guard asked for the names of visitors and whether there were weapons in the car, waving vehicles through without further inspection. A nearby Secret Service agent looked bored until he flashed his machine gun when a passing cyclist repeatedly bellowed, “Fuck Trump.” The often-photographed interior of Mar-a-Lago was a shrine to the man himself, with framed magazine covers of the former president decorating even the men’s room… The model of Air Force One on a coffee table in the center of the same room was not the only melancholy touch. Trump longed to be the center of attention and missed all the aggrandizing symbolism and ceremony of the presidency. He hungered for any news from the capital now controlled by his political opponents. In an interview with the authors that lasted more than an hour, he turned nearly every answer to his delusion that the election had been stolen from him.
One amazing thing about Trump is the number of loyalists who keep going down, scorched-Icarus figures orbiting too close to the sun king. Michael Cohen the bagman for stripper Stormy Daniels’ hush money, went to prison; the 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort did time for bank fraud and tax evasion from his political consulting for an anti-NATO party in Ukraine. Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a Los Angeles investor who gave a nominating speech for Trump at the 2016 convention, posted a $250 million bail and awaits a criminal trial on charges of illegally lobbying the president on behalf of the United Arab Emirates and misleading federal agents about his work.
As Trump plans his comeback at Mar-A-Lago, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows—who was simultaneously registered to vote in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina—is in the crosshairs of the House investigation for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.
The House committee also sent subpoenas to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and five other Republican congressmen, including Alabama’s Mo Brooks, who gave a stemwinder at the rally before the invasion. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s point man on election fraud, had his New York law license suspended. In a feat of poetic justice, Trump’s disaffected ex-Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, faced the big man’s wrath after he went home to Alabama, hoping to regain his Senate seat, and lost to the former Auburn football coach backed by Trump. Ditto, David Perdue, after losing his Senate seat in Georgia in the 2020 election, challenged Gov. Brian Kemp for failure to get behind the lost election script and got buried in Tuesday’s GOP primary.
The overreach of his stolen-election script made Trump America’s biggest sore loser.
The federal investigation of Jan. 6 has netted 249 people who pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from the insurrection, and 150 convicted at trial. Imagine those Trump foot soldiers in bereavement counseling with Jeff Sessions.
It would be unfair to call Kevin McCarthy a villain in This Will Not Pass.
Martin and Burns resist a take-no-prisoners approach, as evinced by the many officials who spoke to them, furnishing cameos of people drawn into a crisis much larger than themselves. As the GOP House caucus scrambles to find higher ground after Jan. 6, an Arkansas congressman and banker by background with the marvelous name French Hill opines that if Trump would meet with Biden and concede, it would “save us a lot of pain and misery.” How true. If Trump had done the diplomatic departure to Mar-a-Lago and begun his show trials purely on the basis of loyalty, he would have become the party leader and its rudder. The overreach of his stolen-election script made Trump America’s biggest sore loser.
In counterpoint to French Hill, and other fretful GOP House members, McCarthy stands out as a portrait of banality, a cipher searching for cue cards. “I’ve been very clear to the president,” McCarthy tells the caucus on Jan. 11. “He bears responsibilities for his words and actions, no ifs, ands, or buts.”
But as events unfold, McCarthy becomes a center that will not hold.
Peter Meijer, a newly elected army veteran from a powerful Michigan business family, said Republican voters were being misled by party leaders. He voiced concern that using the phrase “election integrity” was a “dog whistle” for Trump’s claims of a stolen election. McCarthy sought to placate him without agreeing.
Many rank-and-file lawmakers were neither determined to punish Trump nor eager to defend him, but were instead desperately seeking a way out of what they saw as a political jam. One Florida Republican, the war veteran Brian Mast, suggested that the entire GOP conference could stand together on the Capitol steps and urge the rioters to turn themselves in.
Fat chance, that. Another paragraph down we get a glimpse of Liz Cheney, the Wyoming representative whose appearances throughout the book plant a quaint hope that democracy as we once knew it, a covenant of free elections undergirded by an objective rule of law, might one day, somehow, find an air supply.
The upcoming vote, she said, was “not one that I believe we ought to be in a position where we’re telling people how to vote based on partisanship. “If this is an attack against the Congress by the president, you know, that is a high crime and misdemeanor,” said Cheney.
Trump’s disastrous handling of the COVID pandemic crisis, and the ham-fisted attempt to strong arm the Georgia Secretary of State to change votes after that state’s election, backfired for many loyalists who lost their elections. “Republicans had lost the House, Senate, and White House—the first time a sitting president had lost all three in one term since Herbert Hoover,” the authors write. “And that was before a mob inspired by the president ransacked the country’s seat of government.”
As Kevin McCarthy bravely proposed a fact-finding commission and censure of Trump, who had less than two weeks left in office, Liz Cheney grew bolder, saying he “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” A siege mentality pervaded the Capitol before the Trump impeachment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered metal detectors installed at the entrance to the House floor, fearing that some Republicans might be carrying guns.
At month’s end McCarthy went to Mar-a-Lago and stood smiling with Trump for cameras, a move that angered key House Republicans.
Martin and Burns are just as hard on the Democrats, reporting that “former Obama adviser David Axelrod like to joke that Biden’s aides suffered from performance anxiety—the president performed, and they got anxious.”
Trump, not surprisingly, is a much more entertaining character in the narrative, scrambling to regain power, letting the authors listen on a speaker phone as he talks to Senator Lindsey Graham. Political journalists are like sportswriters in their focus on the tactics that win. Though Biden emerges as the affable, decent man his persona suggests, the authors don’t pull punches: “Despite his many vows not to repeat the mistakes of the Obama administration, Biden had recapitulated one of the overarching political errors of Obama’s first year: immersing himself in arcane legislative strategy at the cost of large-scale political salesmanship.”
As the White House struggled for consensus among the brawling, big tent Democrats on Biden’s massive reform bills, moderates Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia became pivotal votes in a Senate divided 50-50 on party lines. Manchin was the former governor of a state that had voted for Trump by 68.6 percent. Martin and Burns report how several Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, courted Manchin to switch parties. Manchin became a bete noir of the left. The authors treat Manchin as a reasonable dealmaker resisting the bait to jump parties.
“Only 11 or 12 percent of Democrats identify as progressive,” James Carville told Vox. “Joe Manchin is a Roman Catholic Democrat in a state in which not a single county has voted Democratic [for president] since 2008… Politics is about choices, and he’s up for reelection in 2024.”
Senator Kyrsten Sinema is cut from different cloth. A three-term member of Congress who moved up to the Senate, Sinema was “a former Green Party activist who reinvented herself as a Fortune 500-loving moderate,” the authors write.
One House Democrat with ties to Biden still marveled about an early interaction with Sinema after learning of the up-from-poverty personal story she unspooled on the campaign trail. When this lawmaker told her that he had heard a moving account of her biography on NPR, Sinema responded in a way that seemed to belittle voters for caring.
“Can you believe they go for all that bullshit?” she had replied, according to this Democrat.
Democrats knew, too, that Sinema had close relationships with Republicans on the Hill. Before her election to the Senate in 2018, she had enjoyed aisle-crossing friendships in the House and joked with Democrats about how easy it was to charm Republican men: Sinema, a fitness enthusiast who was thirty-six when she entered Congress, boasted knowingly to colleagues and aides that her cleavage had an extraordinary persuasive effect on the up-tight men of the GOP. She told one House Republican that while she would never switch parties, her father would be delighted if she did.
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill finally passed, in November, after six left-wing Democrats withheld support, including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, putting Biden’s working coalition at risk. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scrambled. Thirteen House Republicans broke with the party to support the legislation. “Had only Democrats voted for the bill it would have died on the House floor,” write Martin and Burns.
The infrastructure bill, and the Biden administration’s extensive vaccination program to counter the coronavirus, even as governors in deep red states fought masking and vaccination, gave the president a record worth defending before Russia invaded Ukraine and America headed toward the 2022 midterm elections. As the crisis in baby formula distribution, rising inflation, and gasoline exceeding $4 a gallon compounded problems for Biden, his approval rating hovered at 40 percent, Trump finished his presidency at 34 percent.
Liz Cheney as her party’s fearless critic regularly receives death threats, “many of them pouring in during the Fox News prime-time shows hosted by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham,”
Martin and Burns end with a cold assessment of the national condition: “The two-party system cannot function well unless at least one party is politically powerful, internally coherent and serious about governing.” They fault both Democrats and Republicans for falling short.
Trump’s bid to regain power on the stolen-election crusade is a psychodrama sure to meet more resistance. The Republican Governors Association, helped by former New Jersey chief executive Chris Christie, has been raising money for incumbents on the wrong side of Trump, notably Brian Kemp in Georgia. Christie, once a Trump loyalist, while washing his hands of the big man betrays a note of scorn.
“This is just not the best use of our money,” Christie told The Washington Post. “But it was made necessary because Donald Trump decided on the vendetta tour this year and so we need to make sure we protect these folks who are the objects of his vengeance… And that’s what a lot of these primaries are going to decide.”
In the final pages of This Will Not Pass, the reporters offer a more chilling take on the polarization on Capitol Hill that borders on surreal. Kevin McCarthy, positioning himself as the next Speaker—and third in line for the presidency—should Republicans retake the House, “had done nothing when Mo Brooks put out a statement expressing sympathy for a man who issued a bomb threat against the Capitol. During the same week Biden signed the infrastructure bill, the House minority leader was working to shield Paul Gosar, the extreme-right Arizona Republican, from official sanction after he posted a cartoon video on Twitter that showed a stylized version of Gosar murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
Liz Cheney as her party’s fearless critic regularly receives death threats, “many of them pouring in during the Fox News prime-time shows hosted by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham,” Martin and Burns write.
Yet the air of violence in American politics touched not only natural brawlers like Cheney but also scores of other legislators and candidates who had entered politics to govern and serve, and who had not envisioned political office as a kind of warfare.
One of those lawmakers, the young Illinois nurse Lauren Underwood, told the authors of this book midway through 2021 that the atmosphere in Congress was so toxic that the prospect of renewed violence seemed almost an inevitability.
Few of her colleagues could honestly have disagreed.
“Someone,” Underwood said then, “is going to get shot.”