Thursday, January 6, 2022

January 6: Giving Insurrection a Bad Name

Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and is the author of, most recently, Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in 'It's a Wonderful Life' and Lincoln: The Ambiguous Icon.

Democracy in America may be dead. Yes, it continues to show signs of life (some competitive elections continue, for now anyway), but this does not mean that it has not been effectively killed (already). One party and one party alone—the Republican Party—in this country believes it has the sole right to rule. Anything done to prevent Democrats from governing is thus, by definition, permissible. Since democracy cannot reliably deliver the results Republicans desire, they are prepared to dispense with it.

There are some who recognize, at least to some extent, the danger American democracy faces, but most of them are incapable of considering, let alone doing, what might be necessary to save it from its domestic enemies. And make no mistake, America is beset by enemies of democracy. This is not a question of demonizing opponents. It is a matter of recognizing them—and their agenda—for what they are. This combination makes the threat to democracy twofold: its enemies will gladly destroy it; its friends will sit by and watch it happen, paralyzed by (liberal procedural) formalities.
Former President Donald Trump is the generalissimo of the American campaign to subvert American democracy. His credentials are impeccable. Trump weathered conspiring with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election and then successfully covered it up by obstructing the official investigation into it. The Muller probe provided Trump and his treason, in the end, with an official pass. Trump tried to enlist a foreign power to subvert the 2020 election and then did his best to cover it up, too. The subsequent impeachment process, thanks to Republicans, gave him a second pass. Trump (then) orchestrated a failed coup attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election he lost, the most legitimate national contest in American history. The impeachment process, again thanks to Republicans, gave him a third pass for his treasonous conduct.

The failed efforts to hold Trump accountable no doubt emboldened him and the Republican Party, both at the national and state levels. Though they have not yet eradicated it, they are working diligently, tirelessly, relentlessly to render American democracy’s meaningful exercise null and void. (This meaningful exercise revolves around the acceptance of political defeat and the peaceful transfer of power.) They do so not just to ensure that Trump, the purveyor and beneficiary of a cult of personality, will be returned to the White House in 2024 regardless of how the nation votes. They do so in service to a radical right-wing, anti-democratic ideology that is rooted in, among other things, white supremacy, white Christian minority rule, neoliberal capitalism, an extraction-based economy, indifference to catastrophic environmental crises, the elimination of workers’ rights, a war on scientific (and other forms of) expertise,  the worship of guns, a celebration of violence, contempt for opposition of any kind, antagonism to government and the common good, unthinking patriotism, toxic masculinity, and the control of women’s bodies: in short, the ugliest version of American exceptionalism.
Trump and his Republican minions wage their fascist campaign not behind the scenes with stealth maneuvers designed to keep the public in the dark, but out in the open for everyone to witness. Pace The Washington Post, democracy does not die in darkness. Their machinations, featuring various schemes to overturn adverse electoral results in the next presidential election, are meeting with little, if any, opposition. This means that what failed in 2020 could well succeed the next time around.

Meanwhile, many of the foot soldiers who participated in the January 6 insurrection are now receiving harsh sentences for their involvement in the violent coup to keep Trump in power. The claim that they were operating on his orders and doing his bidding has not protected them from serious jail time. Rightly so, but the man who has done (and continues to do) so much damage to American democracy pursues his campaign to destroy American democracy unhindered. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, which includes Liz Cheney, has made it clear that Trump committed crimes on January 6. He could thus find himself in legal jeopardy, however improbable that seems given the cowardice of the current Attorney General, who would be highly unlikely to make even a preliminary investigative move against Trump for the crime of treason absent pressure from a mass mobilization. For one thing, Garland would not have Biden’s backing. Biden, after all, said nothing when it was recently revealed that Trump went to the first debate having tested positive for Covid-19, a reckless act that could be construed as an assassination attempt of a would-be president.
 Trump’s January 6 crimes are specified in federal law (18 U.S.C. 1852 and 18 U.S.C. 2383): 1) “Whoever corruptly…obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.” Official proceedings include “a proceeding before the Congress”; 2) “Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.” Not all official proceedings are alike, of course, but Congressional ratification of the official transfer of power following a free and fair election for president is the first among equals, and its subversion tantamount to rebellion or insurrection.
Trump’s guilt is beyond reasonable doubt. He summoned and demanded that his myrmidons “stop the steal,” and the only way to stop the so-called steal was to stop the procedure confirming Biden’s presidential election victory on January 6. Since Mike Pence declined to participate, there were no options other than mob violence to implement Trump’s will to power. The mob did not disappoint him (lynching Nancy Pelosi would have been a bonus for Trump’s marauders), and Trump refused to call them off when  they stormed the Capitol.

At long last, what is to be done with Trump? Admittedly, no law, given its generality, is likely to fit perfectly all the cases it might cover. The laws applicable to Congress’ official proceeding on January 6 imagine fines and imprisonment as adequate responses (with rebellion or insurrection actually carrying lesser penalties). Yet Trump’s continual crimes against American democracy could be considered capital in character. After all, they entail the destruction of a people’s free way of life and the instantiation of permanent one-party domination. This country was founded on a violent rejection of tyranny (at least on one side but with the sanctification of slavery on the other.) Trump and the Republican Party want to resurrect tyranny and re-sanctify white triumphalism. It could be argued that Trump should have been dealt with years ago and the nation’s failure to protect itself from him (especially given his hold over the Republican Party, which is birthing more and more Trumps) reveals a country incapable of defending itself. Ultimately, it seems America’s democratic defenders would sooner sit by and watch their democracy destroyed than destroy, by whatever means contemporary politics might indicate and republican history might dictate, those who would destroy it.

What this means is that January 6, 2021, embodies a dress rehearsal for 2024. It was rightly condemned because Trump lost the election. The election was not in fact stolen. No amount of insistence to the contrary can alter this fact. No amount of fabricated evidence can alter this fact. The Big Lie may succeed, but this cannot make it true. Truth, however, can also be irrelevant. Lies can create their own reality. Trump may not be Hitler, but he is a pupil. The Big Lie thus may lead to an illegitimately overturned election in 2024. If so, what will democratic forces do then? Are they prepared to disrupt Republican-controlled statehouses hellbent on naming their own slates of electors to the Electoral College? Are they prepared to prevent a Republican-controlled Congress from installing as president someone who did not legitimately win the office? If so, how exactly? The John Roberts Supreme Court will be a partner in its crime. These are not fantastical scenarios. Republicans across the country are arranging them as I write. It’s one thing to condemn January 6 as a failed coup. It’s another thing to fail to prepare to take action to prevent a Republican-dominated Congress from initiating or ratifying a real coup that might take place on a future January 6. In other words, there’s potential danger in letting January 6, 2021, give insurrection a bad name. More than likely, it’s going to take democratic bodies bravely putting themselves in harm’s way in and around both state and national legislatures to save American democracy from its self-declared enemies, for those who falsely shouted “stop the steal” in 2020 and 2021 are now conspiring to execute the greatest heist in American political history. Get ready to Occupy the 2024 Election. 



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