It began on the steps of the Capitol four years ago with a declaration of an end to “American carnage.” It is scheduled to end on those same steps on Wednesday in the aftermath of — if not carnage — then certainly chaos.
Donald J. Trump may have had one of the most consequential single-term presidencies in American history — although not in the way he or anyone else expected and with a legacy that’s in doubt.
“Trump’s conduct has very likely harmed his personal reputation, which was already unfavorable,” said Brad Bishop, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Norton who specializes in Congress, the presidency and the American political system. “Historians of the presidency will probably give him very low marks.”
Nevertheless, Bishop says, it’s not clear that the events of the past few days will permanently damage the Republican brand.
“It’s important to recognize that most people don’t pay a great deal of attention to politics, so by the time we reach the next election cycle, most will be more focused on the controversies and personalities associated with that time,” he said in emailed comments to The Sun Chronicle. “Only the minority of people who are very attentive to politics will draw upon their memories of earlier presidencies when judging Democrats and Republicans in 2024, 2028, and beyond.”
Trump, a real estate mogul and reality TV host, beat the odds to become the Republican nominee for president in 2016. He was elected as the nation’s 45th chief executive as a norm-shattering, precedent-smashing populist who pledged to remember the “forgotten” Americans.
In the course of his tumultuous four years in office, Trump reshaped the American judiciary to the liking of conservatives, cut a wide swath through an array of government regulations that business saw as burdensome, and slashed income taxes while increasing the budget deficit.
Some of the things the administration saw as achievements — dropping out of the Paris climate accords, rejection of a nuclear deal with Iran — were seen by opponents as ultimately bad for the United States.
But even on his own terms, there were goals the president failed to reach. Obamacare, which he had promised to replace, is still the law of the land. North Korea remains a nuclear-armed thorn in America’s side and a trade war with China did not prove easy to win. He had only limited success in completing a wall on the southern border — nor did he have Mexico pay for it. Finally, his administration’s halting response to a pandemic that swept the nation over the past year, killing hundreds of thousands, drew widespread scorn.
Trump’s popularity never rose above a lukewarm mid-40s in most opinion polls, but he commanded the support of a fervent base via friendly news media outlets and, of course, Twitter, which he used to bypass those networks and newspapers he castigated as “enemies of the people.”
So when he lost both the popular and Electoral College vote in November after a bitter, insult-riddled 2020 campaign, it wasn’t surprising that he would turn to that base, including a solid majority of Republicans, and complain of a “rigged” and stolen election. There was no proof for his claims, which were dismissed by court after court, including the U.S. Supreme Court, where a conservative majority — bolstered by Trump appointees — twice rejected appeals.
Still, it appeared that the president would leave office — his repeated claims that he won by a “landslide” notwithstanding — as a force to be reckoned with in the party and the nation as he raised funds and planned a new presidential campaign for 2024.
In the meantime, Trump tweeted in an almost offhand way last month that his supporters should come to Washington for a rally Jan. 6, the day Congress would vote to certify the electoral votes making Joe Biden president.
“Will be wild,” he said.
Trump spoke to thousands of supporters at that Save America rally and — while saying they should “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” — he also told them they would have to “fight like hell.”
Raffella Feinstein, a retired teacher and chairman of the Republican Town Committee in Foxboro, traveled to the Washington rally and said Trump gave an inspiring speech to an audience of ”all ages, races and ethnic groups.”
“There were people from all over the country, and not just conservatives, who had concerns about election integrity,” said Feinstein, who told The Sun Chronicle that she’s still a staunch supporter of the president.
She headed back to her bus after the president’s speech and says she saw no signs of violence.
But other supporters of the president followed his urging to march on the Capitol.
The resulting deadly storming of the nation’s seat of government shocked America and the world. In the aftermath, the president has faced a second impeachment by the House of Representatives, including votes from 10 Republican congressmen. Twitter, his favored way of communicating with his most ardent supporters, has banned him, as have other social media networks, on the grounds he was fomenting violence.
Financial supporters are fleeing Trump and his private business brand. Banks that have underwritten his business loans are saying they won’t deal with him.
And New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a longtime friend and supporter, declined the offer of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in the wake of an uproar.
Dismay following violence
Even some staunch supporters of the president in his own party, including a handful of members of Congress who have voiced support for impeachment, have reacted with dismay following the violence at the Capitol.
Bruce Wessel, a North Attleboro resident who has frequently supported the president in letters to the editor and who had defended his response to the coronavirus pandemic, told The Sun Chronicle in the wake of the rally that the president’s actions were “reprehensible.” He said Trump “was literally part of that inciting, instead of calming people down.”
While Wessel condemned what he called Democrats’ divisive rhetoric, he said, “There comes a time when you know it’s over with. Biden’s going to be president.”
But the president retains a deep core of support in the GOP. An ABC/Washington Post poll this week found he continues to enjoy strong support from Republicans nationwide, “among whom a clear majority agree with his false claims about what happened in November, oppose his removal from office and believe Republican elected officials should continue to follow his lead in the future.”
(The same poll had news for the president that was less hopeful. Overall, 70 percent of those surveyed said Trump bears at least some responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and a majority favors efforts in Congress to bar him from holding elected office again.)
While the Massachusetts Legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic and the state is known as solidly blue, there has historically been a solid corps of Republican lawmakers in the 10 communities covered by The Sun Chronicle, even though Democrats have chipped away at that number in recent elections.
The newspaper reached out to several prominent members of the state GOP for this story on the president’s legacy and the future of the party.
Not all were willing to speak directly to the topics.
State Rep. Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, has served in the House since 2011 and was recently re-elected without opposition to another two-year term.
In an email response, Howitt said, “The people of my district elected me to focus on the issues that matter to them right now right here in Massachusetts, such as the pandemic, the economy, education and jobs. I am fully focused on those issues and getting the district thru COVID, and not thinking a lot about the GOP and playing politics. “
Less reticent was state Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, a four-term member of the House who recently tried to unseat Jim Lyons, the chairman of the state Republican Party.
Dooley, who gets high marks from conservative groups, had offered himself as a more moderate alternative to Lyons, who is an unwavering Trump supporter, while still pledging to take the election fight to the state’s Democrats in 2022. Dooley lost in his bid, but narrowly.
After the events of Jan. 6, in a heartfelt post on his Facebook page, Dooley wrote: “I cannot tell you how horrified, saddened, and frightened I am for our nation. I’m ashamed of our President for encouraging this behavior and I feel guilty for not condemning more of his nonsense in the past. This is not how leaders behave. This is not how Americans behave. And this is not a trait the Republican Party — a party I have loved and served my entire life — should tolerate for a second.”
He added, “And if this is who we are, having completely abandoned the principles of Lincoln, and the steady hand of Reagan, I honestly do not know what I am going to do. I feel adrift, a man without a country — and by the dozens of calls and emails I have received today, I am not alone.”
But he also exemplifies the struggles of the rest his party in the aftermath of the riot. Dooley told the Boston Herald this week — and repeated on his Facebook page — that the impeachment effort would only add to divisiveness in the nation, though he still holds the president accountable. (He added he was going to stop commenting on national affairs.)
State GOP committee member Jay Barrows of Mansfield has been a state representative since 2007. Barrows, a local businessman, says the events Jan. 6 left him at a loss for words and praying for an end to divisiveness.
In a statement emailed to The Sun Chronicle, he said, “I am saddened and angered by what has happened, and the continuation of hateful rhetoric and actions on display for the world to see.
“This IS NOT who we are in Massachusetts and as the United States of America. It is an attack on ALL of us. There is no reason why these actions would EVER be acceptable, and I certainly condemn them, and the statements that went along with them.”
Barrows said he expected the issues around the turmoil in Washington would be raised at the next meeting of the state committee on Jan. 27.
Despite the distress expressed by some in his own party — and the hopes of some of his most ardent supporters — the long-term impact of Trump and “Trumpism” may be limited.
“Trumpism may be remembered as a distinct phenomenon. It is a populist movement in terms of its distrust of traditional sources of authority and expertise, and in this respect it is quite different from the Republican Party’s messages in earlier decades,” Bishop, the Wheaton professor, said.
“Trumpism is also distinct in its nativism and international isolationism,” he continued. “Scholars will probably identify it as the period that ended the traditional economic class-based divisions that used to structure partisan competition in the United States. Income is no longer predictive of the vote in American politics, and that development is partly attributable to Trumpism.”
Nevertheless, the future of the GOP is not all bleak if historical trends hold true.
“The GOP is likely to win control of both the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, and many observers will interpret that result as evidence of recovery for the Republican Party from the Trump Presidency,” Bishop said. “However, Republicans do face significant challenges in the years ahead.
“The party is very unpopular among Americans under about 40 years old, and as the younger generation becomes a larger share of the electorate, Republicans will have to find a way to win votes from that cohort. The GOP also needs to broaden its appeal beyond its rural, white base, which is projected to comprise a smaller share of the electorate in the years ahead.”
As for the incoming administration, Bishop said Biden begins with great opportunities and also faces major challenges. The new president “is very fortunate to be joined by a Democratic majority for his first two years in office.
“This majority will allow him to establish a cabinet and appoint judges to fill federal vacancies, and there may be some opportunities for legislative change.”
But any kind of fundamental restructuring is unlikely, he said, “as the party’s narrow majorities in the House and Senate mean Biden’s legislative agenda can move no farther left than the preferences of the Democratic Party’s most moderate members.
“It is unlikely that the Republican Party will collaborate with the Biden administration on major controversies such as climate change, immigration, health care, or the country’s growing budget deficit.”
The area’s newest legislator Adam Scanlon, 24, a Democrat from North Attleboro, was more optimistic. In November, he managed to flip a seat that had been solidly Republican for nearly 40 years.
“I am looking forward to the formation of a new administration in our nation’s capital,” he said in a statement emailed this week. “As states and municipalities continue to struggle to meet their budgetary needs, I am confident that the incoming administration will take the necessary steps to address these shortcomings.”
He’s also looking to new partners in Congress, like Democratic freshman U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss, who represents The Sun Chronicle area, to help steer more federal aid in the direction of communities struggling with the impact of the pandemic.
“I think we are finally starting to see that light at the end of the tunnel, but we will not stop fighting until we get the additional relief that our communities need,” he said.