For the past few years, it’s become a political truism to speak of two Americas—the Red America of Donald Trump, the Blue America of Joe Biden—and their parallel, nonintersecting realities, which shape everything from party preferences to belief in the basic principles of science. The pandemic has tragically reinforced this narrative. One need only look at a map charting the latest spikes in cases, which show up as bright-red splotches across Republican-leaning states in the South and Midwest where Trump remains remarkably popular. Biden is President now, but there are no real signs that his lower-key leadership and appeals to national unity are measurably closing the national divide. In fact, the latest Associated Press/NORC poll, out this week, shows that, today, sixty-six per cent of Republicans believe Trump’s Big Lie—that Biden was not legitimately elected—which is a percentage point more than in February.
In Washington, the partisan divide now extends to matters large and small, determining not only how politicians vote but even where they live, eat, and shop. There is another, even older divide that persists in the capital, however, and it, too, seems to be growing wider. I speak, of course, of the House and the Senate, which share a building but often little else. (“Republicans are the opposition, but the Senate is the enemy,” Representative Al Swift, a Democrat of Washington, apparently joked once, appropriating a line that is probably as old as the Republic.) In the House these days, Trump and Trumpism remain the dominant reality, and the polarizing grievance that he has inspired seems to be sending the place ever closer to all-out conflict between the parties. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi presses forward with an investigation of the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol on January 6th, calling the inquiry a “patriotic duty,” virtually the entire House Republican Conference has elevated Trump’s conspiracy theories about the “rigged” 2020 election and the “peaceful people” who participated in the insurrection to the level of party catechism. In the Senate, many Republicans are no less outwardly Trumpist, reflecting the fact that they represent a thoroughly Trumpified Republican electorate. But there remains a significant G.O.P. faction, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell himself, that seems to hope the Party might finally be moving on from its truculent master. Or at least not be talking about him so much.
The week’s events in Washington seemed designed to underscore this difference in approach, if not in ideology. On Tuesday, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol convened for its first hearing, with a membership solely appointed by Pelosi, following her rejection of two Republicans who voted not to certify Biden’s victory. This was an unprecedented move by the House Speaker, and it seemed to reflect her willingness to proceed, Republican outrage be damned. The hearing featured shocking video footage and moving testimony from four police officers who fought in what history will surely come to call the Battle of Capitol Hill. It was gripping, tearful, irrefutable, and enraging. Who will forget the officer Harry Dunn recounting the horrible moment when he had the N-word hurled at him for the first time while in uniform? Or the officer Michael Fanone, shaming Republicans for their “disgraceful” treatment of the police who defended them? But the hearing was also—and this is the tragedy of our political moment—almost certainly most moving to those viewers who least needed to be moved: the large audience of Americans who are already deeply concerned about the damaging January 6th attack on our democracy. The ratings seemed to confirm this: the viewership for the hearing on Fox News dropped off precipitously when confronted with unpleasant facts about Trump and what he had inspired; the Trump-haters watching on MSNBC seemed to relish it.
The two Republicans on the committee, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, have been shunned by their conference; they are, in fact, the only two House Republicans who even voted to open the investigation. In recent months, many of their Republican colleagues have appeared to double down on publicly supporting the former President and amplifying his most outlandish lies. The House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy—who on January 6th telephoned Trump with a desperate plea that he help call off the mob—publicly said, back in January, that Trump “bears responsibility” for the riot. Now he blames Pelosi for the violence—a bizarre new claim, one which McCarthy repeated on Thursday. Even when not explicitly touting Trump, House Republicans are acting ever Trumpier, embracing division and the performance art of confrontation wherever possible. When the attending physician at the Capitol issued new guidance this week requiring, once again, that masks be worn on the House floor, several Republican members ostentatiously refused to comply, courting Pelosi-backed fines in search of Trump-approved headlines.
Over on the Senate side, meanwhile, a rump group of Republicans this week was actually doing something that passes for remarkable in 2021: sitting down and cutting a deal with their Democratic colleagues on a major piece of legislation. By Wednesday evening, the bipartisan Senate negotiators, led by the Republican Rob Portman and the Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, had announced enough progress on Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that it passed a major Senate procedural hurdle with seventeen Republican votes, including that of McConnell. The Minority Leader has not committed to actually supporting the measure, but given that he was quoted earlier this year as dedicating himself a “hundred per cent” to working against Biden’s agenda, it seemed a significant step indeed.
Certainly, McConnell has taken a different approach than McCarthy to the dilemma of post-Trump Republicanism. McConnell has not spoken with Trump since December, when he belatedly recognized Biden’s victory. On January 6th and afterward, McConnell was unequivocal in blaming Trump for the attack. Ever since, he has practically refused to say Trump’s name in public. Although he voted against convicting Trump in the impeachment trial prompted by the insurrection, and blocked plans for a bipartisan commission to investigate January 6th, McConnell seems to have done so not out of some slavish devotion to the former President. Instead, it appears to be in keeping with his political assessment that Republicans are better off without Trump’s cult of personality if they can avoid it.
As if to underscore McConnell’s point, Trump put out a statement just before Wednesday’s Senate vote urging Republicans to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure deal, without making even the slightest pretense of having any substantive objections to the bill other than the fact that his name is not on it. Trump said that working with Democrats “makes the Republicans look weak, foolish, and dumb,” and threatened primaries against those who opposed him on it. Soon afterward, nearly twenty of them went against Trump and voted for it anyway.
It’s a fair question to ask whether any of this will actually matter. For the past four years, Republicans in both the Senate and the House have been remarkably willing to enable Trump, thus keeping the rest of us trapped in an endless doom loop of his destructive lies and conspiracy theories. One bipartisan bill stuffed with popular spending on bridges, trains, and tunnels is not going to change that. Trump remains such a power in his party that he has persuaded millions of Americans not only to believe that Biden did not legitimately win the election but even to refuse to wear a mask and get vaccinated during a deadly pandemic.
Still, it has long struck me that the Trump Presidency was very much a House-style Presidency, just as Biden’s politics have undoubtedly been shaped by his thirty-six years in the Senate. Performative politics, edgy partisanship, and lots of shouting have long been in the House’s DNA. Remember the Benghazi hearings? For much of his time in office, Trump was literally surrounded by veterans of the most extreme House Republican faction: the Freedom Caucus. That group produced two of Trump’s four White House chiefs of staff: Mark Meadows and Mick Mulvaney. John Boehner, the former Republican Speaker of the House who quit under pressure from the Freedom Caucus, called them “political terrorists” in his recent memoir. In recent years, they have largely not legislated, spending their time instead politicking via press conferences and Fox News hits. The current chair of the group, Andy Biggs, of Arizona, was one of those who showed up at a protest in front of the Justice Department on Tuesday, the first day of the January 6th hearing—a protest in favor of the arrested insurrectionists, now rebranded as “political prisoners.” That is as Trumpy as it gets.
Biden, in contrast, is offering America a Presidency that draws from his years in the Senate. He speaks of old-fashioned notions such as bipartisanship and comity, even at the cost of angering the more confrontational House-style progressives in his own party, who crave more partisan rhetoric. As the Senate infrastructure negotiators were nearing their agreement, on Wednesday, Biden offered a statement on the process that could have served as a mantra for his Administration. “I’m working with Democrats and Republicans to get this done, because, while there’s a lot we don’t agree on, I believe that we should be able to work together on the few things we do agree on,” he said.
In the perennial war between the House and the Senate, between Trump-style confrontation and Biden-style consensus, of course, there are no permanent winners. And there are already many losers. Trump-inspired January 6th denialism and vaccine denialism are ripping the country even wider apart. In a speech about the worsening pandemic, on Thursday afternoon, Biden practically begged Americans not to succumb anymore to this destructive cycle of division. “This is not about red states and blue states,” Biden said. “It’s literally about life and death.” It was certainly not lost on anyone in Washington that Mitch McConnell was among those whom Biden praised for their efforts to overcome the partisan vaccine divide. The gentleman from Delaware is President now, but he will always be a man of the Senate.
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