There are relatively few sources for the last time a centuries-old republic decayed into autocracy. After all, Julius Caesar did not livetweet the crossing of the Rubicon, and the Gracchi did not rouse the Roman plebeians through viral videos. Instead, historians of the ancient world have to rely on a handful of written sources preserved through the centuries by happenstance, the simple luck of archeological conjecture, and what can be determined through artifacts and fragments. Yet for those budding classicists who find this unsatisfying and are desperate to try to capture the internal calculations and compromises of politicians at a time when traditional institutions are under siege, they would do well to consult This Will Not Pass, by the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns.
The book reconstructs key events of 2020 and 2021 in painstaking detail while capturing the thinking of major political leaders as they dealt with the pandemic and the attack on the Capitol. In a rarity for this kind of book, it is amply sourced on both sides of the aisle. While the reporting on the Democrats is compelling — ranging from how Kamala Harris deftly shivved many of her rivals for the vice-presidential nod only to repeatedly bungle the job once she took office to Kyrsten Sinema’s refusal to even entertain switching parties because she has a girlfriend — it lacks the compelling sweep and dramatic arc of its insights into the right, where the stakes are so much higher.
While the usual suspects on the Twitter left have decried Martin and Burns for not sharing some of the details they had at the time, the broad outlines of a number of their most shocking revelations were not only known but printed in the Times. The details are shocking, but none of it should have been surprising. Donald Trump, at least, has always been himself. He announced his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the United States live on cable television during his primary campaign and egged on the attack on the Capitol in 280-character increments via his Twitter account. None of this was ever secret. But what hadn’t been made clear were the explicit political calculations and self-justifications of those who knew better but went along with it or, at the very least, did not vocally protest.
The McCarthy approach is to simply surrender to Trump. While Martin and Burns drove headlines for their reporting that McCarthy explored asking Trump to resign in the immediate aftermath of January 6, 2021, they chronicle in detail how the House Republican leader mostly spent his time trying to appease the former president, who brushed off McCarthy as simply having “an inferiority complex.” In fact, in late December 2020, as Trump was pushing his false claims of a stolen election, a top Trump aide went so far as to describe McCarthy as Trump’s “de facto political director.” As Martin and Burns note, it left the top House Republican cast “in the role of a dutiful staffer rather than an independent force.” It’s not just McCarthy who takes this tack. The book also chronicles figures such as Jim Banks, a rising star in the House Republican Conference who texted Karl Rove praise for an anti-Trump op-ed in The Wall Street Journal while publicly heaping praise on the former president. But McCarthy becomes the avatar for those who tie their fortunes to Trump.
In contrast, Cheney is the model for those few Republicans who explicitly reject Trump after January 6 and are willing to stake their careers on opposing the GOP’s leader. She is depicted as being ready to impeach Trump right away, telling Democrat Tom Malinowski of New Jersey she was ready to “impeach the son of a bitch” while the attack on the Capitol was ongoing. It was a stand she continued even at great political cost for the next year, losing her position in Republican leadership and resulting in strange new respect from all sorts of Democrats.
The synthesis, of course, is McConnell. The Senate minority leader celebrated Trump’s apparent disgrace early on the morning of January 7 to one of the authors. The Kentucky Republican thought Trump had finally gone beyond the pale. “He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Couldn’t have happened at a better time.” McConnell went on to describe himself, only hours after rioters had ransacked the Capitol, as “exhilarated” that Trump “finally totally discredited himself.” Then again, he held back from supporting Trump’s conviction in the impeachment trial and has struck a restrained note on the former president since then. Martin and Burns depict a figure perplexed by Trump’s continued political relevance but unwilling to risk conflict with him, instead obliquely undermining the former president whenever a foothold presents itself without offering a direct challenge.
It’s this color and detail where Martin and Burns excel. They give the scenes and add the specificities of the moments and meetings where Republicans calculated that it was best to yield to Trump. These are the moments when moral virtue and civic interest yield to pure opportunism. Trump’s worst enablers are entirely aware of who he is and what animates him. They have just decided that the fight is not worth it and that rewards of conscience are less desirable than those of remaining in power. As McConnell told a friend about casting a pro-Trump procedural vote on the eve of the second impeachment trial, “I didn’t get to be leader by voting with five people in the conference.”
We don’t know the ugly calculations made by most historical figures in their moments of crisis. After all, history preserves relatively little, and often it comes down heavily edited — no one wants posterity to view them as a moral coward. Yet Martin and Burns have been able to capture these machinations.
It is still uncertain how what the two authors describe as “an existential battle for the survival of the democratic system” will end. But whenever future historians chronicle the final result, they won’t need to engage in any guesswork or speculation. They can simply open the pages of This Will Not Pass and discover who met the moment and who fell short.