First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
There’s something’ due any day;
I will know right away
Soon as it shows
It may come cannonballin’
Down through the sky
Gleam in its eye
Bright as a rose!
It’s only just out of reach
Down the block, on a beach
Under a tree
I got a feelin’ there’s a miracle due
Gonna come true
Comin’ to me!
Could it be? Yes, it could
Something’s coming, something good
If I can wait!
Something’s comin’, I don’t know what it is
But it is
Gonna be great!.…”
– “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story”, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
The last act of the most recent presidential election has played out and Joe Biden will be the next president. But a mob, literally taking over the Capitol Building as the electoral votes were being certified, with the direct encouragement of the president, overshadowed the Democrats’ double victory in two Senate elections in Georgia. The Democrats now control the Senate and the House of Representatives – and will hold the White House within two weeks. When that happens, Donald Trump will be an ordinary private citizen, regardless of what he thinks about it.
Until Wednesday morning, you could almost forgive Democrats for breaking into song over the events of the past week. (Just as long as you could manage to forget how West Side Story actually ends.) Over the weekend, a full audio recording of an extraordinary telephone conversation was released. That call was more like a therapy session, the Festivus “airing of grievances” and a Trumpian juvenile temper tantrum than a normal human discussion among adults.
In that encounter between the president and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (with Donald Trump doing nearly all the talking), the president alternatively flattered, cajoled, verbally abused and eventually threatened Raffensperger to find some way to reverse the duly certified outcome of Georgia’s presidential vote (after three recounts) and thus its 16 electoral votes in Joe Biden’s column. But Raffensperger, despite being a staunch Republican officeholder, held his ground, reiterating that the president’s conspiracy theories were simply not true. They were false. Fake. Made up. Pure fantasy.
As Politico noted on Wednesday, even as the final results of the two special runoff elections for the two Senate seats were still being totalled up, “In four years, Trump has lost his presidency, and the House and the Senate for the GOP.
“But while Trump has a phoenix-like ability to rise from the ashes of his norm-shattering outrages, others just become ash. The intraparty blame game is already burning within the GOP, although most are criticising Trump anonymously. That is, most Republicans are unlike Gabriel Sterling, the Republican attack dog for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who went right after the president before the final votes were tallied Tuesday.
“‘When you tell people, your vote doesn’t count and has been stolen, and people start to believe that, then you go to the two senators and ask the secretary of state to resign and trigger a civil war in the Republican Party when we need to unite, all of that stems with his decision-making since the November 3 election,’ Sterling told CNN.” Just so, the diagnosis.
Almost as soon as The Washington Post had reported this newest Trump telephone call, outrage welled up among Democrats, but, ominously, also among some influential Republicans, even if they were not yet prepared to put their names on such statements. Most Republican office holders found themselves incapable of responding to telephone calls or requests for comments about the president’s actions. Increasingly, for some Republicans, that outrage would come to the surface a few days later.
Crucially, this telephone conversation undercut any sense the president was at one with the values and traditions of his party. Instead, it set out in graphic detail he would do pretty much anything he could to any Republican who refused to abet him in his quixotic quest to retain the presidency, despite the election. No one knows how many other calls the president has made to Republican secretaries of state in other states, but without success.
On Monday 4 January, President Trump was in Georgia, ostensibly campaigning for the two Republican candidates – Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue – in the runoff election on Tuesday to determine who would control the Senate. Loeffler is a well-known Republican campaign contribution bundler and sports team owner (in the WNBA) who had been appointed to fill the remaining part of the term of Senator Johnny Isakson, who had resigned because of ill health. Perdue, a businessman responsible for some major outflows of jobs abroad, was seeking re-election.
Loeffler was facing Rev Raphael Warnock, pastor of the renowned Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta. Warnock’s church was previously headed by Rev Martin Luther King Jr, as well as Rev Martin Luther King Sr before him, and Warnock is a leading figure in religious circles, as well as among the broader African-American community in his home state and beyond. Loeffler did herself no favours by trying to paint Warnock as some kind of contemporary communist Willie Horton and radical church leader. Jon Ossoff is a 33-year-old Georgia native, a former congressional aide (including time in the late Congressman John Lewis’s office), and a filmmaker and journalist. In his campaign, he sometimes ended up debating an empty chair when Perdue declined to participate in debates and then was quarantined because of Covid exposure.
Trump’s own campaign rhetoric in these Senate races largely focused on his never-ending grievances and he attacked Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state for failing to manufacture votes for Trump in the recounts that came after the November general election. The message confusion between Trump’s persistent claims that the general election had been rigged and that “they” stole the wins clearly collided awkwardly with his support of Loeffler and Perdue.
Ultimately, in a stunning result, the election became a repudiation of Donald Trump, the Republican Party and the two incumbent senators from Georgia, as Rev Warnock and Ossoff both won. Besides the chaotic behaviour of the president, neither Republican senatorial candidate managed to deliver their own convincing rationales for re-election. By contrast, Warnock was helped enormously by the appeal of his life story and what it represented, and by multi-year efforts by Stacey Abrams to get African-Americans and young people to register to vote and then to actually vote when elections come around. In Warnock’s victory speech early on Wednesday morning, he had said: “The other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.” And he added: “The improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America could only happen here.”
Abrams was the former speaker of the house of the Georgia state legislature and then, after losing a close race for the state’s governorship, devoted considerable energies and talents to her voter education effort. It has clearly paid off, helping to elect the first-ever black senator from the South as a popularly elected Democratic candidate. (Several black Americans had been senators from the South during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, but those had been selected by state legislatures before the Constitution had been amended to make all senators popularly elected. A black Republican has been elected from South Carolina in recent years as well.)
These triple wins by Joe Biden, Rev Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff speak to an evolving Georgia.
Meanwhile, even as the vote counting in Georgia continued into Wednesday morning, and the ceremonial certification of electoral votes for the presidency, thousands of bittereinder (bitterender) supporters of Donald Trump gathered in Washington, DC for a raucous rally, itching for a fight. Some of those people provoked confrontations with police on Tuesday evening.
Then, on Wednesday, near midday, Donald Trump made an appearance that helped rile up his crowd further, telling them: “We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved… We won this election, and we won it by a landslide. This was not a close election… And Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. And if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our Constitution.” Previous speakers such as Rudy Giuliani had already egged on the raucous crowd to get ready to rumble.
Speaking of the president’s comments, The Washington Post described a defiant Trump who had “told supporters Wednesday that he would ‘never concede’ and that he had just spoken to Pence, whom he has urged to block the counting of Electoral College votes of several states won by Biden. ‘I hope Mike is going to do the right thing,’ Trump told a crowd gathered on the White House Ellipse. ‘I hope so. I hope so, because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election…’”
Eventually, a large mob reached the Capitol Building, scaled the outside of the building and stormed the steps in what became a violent, chaotic – and increasingly dangerous – situation, bringing to a sudden halt the joint session of Congress that was only partway through the certification process. It took agonising hours for police to evacuate the building and for the National Guard to be activated (at Vice-President Mike Pence’s decision), in order to bring things back to a semblance of order so that the certification process could begin again. Four people died in the confused melee, doors and windows were smashed, offices were looted. Security plans for the Capitol will need to be massively overhauled for the future. And somebody among the police probably isn’t going to get their performance bonus.
Up until those moments of dangerous chaos, in the House of Representatives chamber, the newly elected Congress had been in a joint session for final confirmation of the presidential election. Normally this is a ceremonial final recording of electoral votes. This time has been anything but that.
Donald Trump’s increasingly desperate strategy had been to get a group of Republican congressmen and senators to object to the final certification of the electoral votes for various states, thereby forcing separate debates in the Senate and House of Representatives. The law stipulates any objection must be made by a senator and congressman jointly, but that any objections are voted up or down by the two respective houses after a short debate. No objection prevails unless both houses, acting separately, agree. Given that the House is controlled by the Democrats and that in the Senate some Republicans had publicly refused to agree to any objections, the objections ultimately did not prevail, despite the yelling and arm waving by members and the rioting by the mob.
Donald Trump’s final play was to press Vice-President Mike Pence, the man who chaired the joint session, to rule that he refused to certify electoral votes supposedly in dispute and then send them back to the various state legislatures for a re-something-or-other. That would have sent the presidential selection into a Never-Neverland of litigation and squabbling before the declaration of Joe Biden as the new president.
Although it felt like eons, the vice-president finally rose to the challenge of adhering to the nation’s laws and Constitution. Pence said in a letter that he did not believe, as Trump claimed, a vice-president had the unilateral power to reject Electoral College votes. Bottom line? As Pence wrote: “It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electors’ votes should be counted and which should be not.”
Among Republican members of the Senate and House, in response to the Georgia election results, and most especially following the rioting mob trashing the Capitol, some intended objectors (but not Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz) may have felt sufficiently chastised and backed down from participating in the pointless charade. Joe Biden was finally confirmed as the next president. In the end, Donald Trump’s office issued a mealy-mouthed concession message, claiming the best presidency ever and insisting he had won the election. The statement read in part, “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th.” Whatever. Finis.
And so, what happens next? First, there must be an immediate reckoning about what to do with Donald Trump’s remaining two weeks in office. Is it to be a warp speed impeachment and conviction for treason or some other charge under the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanours”? Or, will the incumbent vice-president and cabinet finally locate their spines and invoke the 25th Amendment of the Constitution to deal with Trump on grounds of presidential (mental and psychological) disability? (Reports are circulating that just such a discussion has finally begun…)
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take their oaths of office on 20 January, but probably with more police and military presence in downtown Washington than originally planned in order to forestall any further acts of domestic terrorism. Donald Trump will become plain Mr Trump again, regardless of his predilections or delusions. And the New York State prosecutors can then have their way with him concerning a whole filing cabinet’s worth of pending felony investigations.
With the Senate now split 50-50 and with Vice-President Kamala Harris serving as president of that body, the Senate’s majority leader will be Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, succeeding Republican Mitch McConnell. Schumer will now control the Senate’s calendar and how confirmation hearings and proposed legislation are to be handled.
That means Biden nominees for cabinet secretaries and other key positions will more likely face friendlier audiences in their confirmation hearings – even supposedly controversial appointments such as Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget. (The American national legislature does not operate on the kind of strict, lockstep party obedience as in a parliamentary democracy, but, given the animosities in politics now, a strong degree of party loyalty on such votes can be expected.)
As a result of the Georgia elections, the Biden administration has a chance for a steadier start, despite all the obstacles created by the incumbent president, and even if the grave challenges of a nearly disastrous Covid vaccine rollout and chaotic national Covid strategy, the challenges of a flaccid economy and the ongoing issues of racial redress will all demand enormous attention, right from day one. Beyond those challenges, all of the myriad international issues confronting the new Biden administration – including ones the Trump administration has made that much worse – will also jostle for attention simultaneously. In the next two weeks, Joe Biden and company better be resting up seriously for the challenges ahead.
Oh, and there will still be a continuing angry insistence from dank corners of Trump world that “we wuz robbed” – and that some kind of direct action must be taken to set things right. Louts like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley will be vying for their loyalties. One sad legacy from all this is that it is going to take some serious work to rebuild faith in American political traditions – domestically and abroad – as well as any belief that America’s form of democracy can offer any useful lessons for anybody else, anywhere else, around the world. Joe? Kamala? Rev Warnock? Jon? Your country needs your energies and efforts more than you can imagine. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
"A bit of trash now and then is good for the severest reader. It provides the necessary roughage in the literary diet." ~ Phyllis McGinley