Some look back on the events following Trump’s 2020 election loss and think we dodged a bullet: There was a coup attempt and thankfully it failed. Others believe that the whole thing has been overblown: Some pathetic LARPers scaled the Capitol and wandered around, but there was zero chance that they would affect the certification of Biden’s victory that took place, if a little belatedly, that night. Even as evidence piles up that the coup was far more extensive than siccing a mob on the Capitol, those two takes seem unshaken.
But there is another way to look at what happened: The coup is ongoing. With every new revelation about how extensive Trump’s efforts to overturn the election were—and they are arriving on an almost daily basis—the flaccid response of Republicans makes the next coup that much more thinkable.
Trump, we now know, paged through the federal departments and agencies looking for willing insurrectionists. He explored the possibility of having the Justice Department seize voting machines in swing states (Bill Barr shot down the idea), and then considered installing Jeffrey Clark as attorney general in Barr’s place (a threatened mass resignation stayed his hand). He then turned to the military and considered using his emergency powers under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to permit the Pentagon to seize voting machines and other records. Things had gone as far as the drafting of a presidential “finding” about nonexistent fraud. Trump also tested the waters at the Department of Homeland Security, asking Rudy Giuliani to see whether the (unlawfully appointed) acting deputy secretary, Ken Cuccinelli, would seize the voting machines under that department’s auspices. Cuccinelli begged off.
This comes on the heels of revelations about phony slates of electors. Eighty-four Republicans from seven states signed bogus documents claiming that Trump had won their states and sent these fake Electoral College certificates to Congress and the National Archives.
Trump was busier attempting to undo the election than he had ever been as president. He summoned the leaders of the Michigan legislature to the White House after the election to convince them to certify that their state, which voted for Biden, had voted for him. He cajoled and threatened Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” 11,780 votes. He phoned local election officials to pressure them to say they found fraud, buzzed the Arizona governor repeatedly even up to the minute he was signing his state’s certification, and strong-armed the vice president to, in Trump’s own words, “overturn the election.”
Trump’s open admission of the coup attempt in a statement over the weekend—he said that Pence had the power to overturn the election and should have—made fools of the Jan. 6th minimizers who have claimed that the event that disgraced America before the world was Antifa or a tourist visit or an FBI plot (or somehow some combination of the three). Then again, if Trump’s enablers were worried about looking like fools, they would have debarked long ago.
A little-noticed feature of the stories about Trump’s thus-far unsuccessful efforts to stage a coup is that even among the MAGA crowd, some things were considered beyond the pale. Barr was willing to swallow a lot, but he couldn’t go along with lying about imaginary vote fraud. The high-ranking lawyers at the Justice Department were Trump appointees, but they would resign en masse rather than see Clark subvert the department for plainly unlawful ends. Brad Raffensperger voted for Trump but refused to lie for him. Cuccinelli was Trump’s loyal immigration hawk, but he couldn’t see his way to using his Homeland Security post to confiscate voting machines and commit fraud. And though Mike Pence, pressed hard by Trump for the last full measure of devotion, wavered (he phoned Dan Quayle for advice), in the end, he did what he knew was right.
A healthy body politic, like a healthy physical body, needs antibodies. It needs certain automatic defenses. The actions of those Republicans were the vestigial antibodies of a healthy democracy. The people who made those crucial decisions were acting out of a sense that anything less would be dishonorable and would be perceived as such by the whole society.
But would they make the same decisions today? Will they or their equivalents make the same calls in 2024?
Every single time a Republican suggests in any fashion that what Trump did and attempted to do was anything less than a five-alarm fire, they are weakening our immune system.
Sen. Susan Collins, who voted for impeachment and doesn’t face the voters again until 2026, was asked a simple question over the weekend: In light of Trump’s invocation of mob violence, promise of pardons for Jan. 6th defendants, and admission of attempting to overturn the election, could she support him in the future? She said the election was a long way off and she couldn’t possibly say.
Just think about what message that sends to the rank and file about what is beyond the pale and what isn’t. If Collins might even support Trump, maybe it’s not such a big deal. Why should I, of the local canvassing board, make a fuss? Why should I put a lot on the line, risk harassment or worse, when Collins implies that it’s not important?
On the anniversary of Jan. 6th, Florida governor Ron DeSantis sneered at what he called “nauseating” remembrances. “You’re going to see the D.C., New York media, I mean, this is their Christmas, January 6, okay? They are going to take this and milk this for anything they could to try to be able to smear anyone who ever supported Donald Trump.” He added that “it’s an insult to people when you say it’s an insurrection.” Another blow to the concept that something truly awful happened that must never be repeated.
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, some people’s idea of the perfect vehicle to take the GOP into a post-Trump future, has not hesitated to appear on the John Fredericks radio show since his inauguration. Fredericks was the host of a rally in October headlined by Steve Bannon that featured the Pledge of Allegiance to an American flag that had been carried at the “peaceful” Jan. 6th protest. Fredericks also ladles out big helpings of election falsehood to his listeners. Youngkin’s willingness to normalize him eats away at our natural defenses against authoritarianism.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has announced a new podcast, hosted by Sen. Rick Scott, to help 2022 GOP senate candidates. First scheduled guest: Donald Trump.
A list of influential conservatives from organizations ranging from the Family Research Council to the Club for Growth has signed an open letter calling upon the House Republican Conference to expel—no, not Marjorie Taylor Green or Madison Cawthorn—Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. Among the signatories are Gary Bauer, Ed Meese, Ginni Thomas, Jim DeMint, and Alfred Regnery, Jr. Because Cheney and Kinzinger serve on the House Jan. 6th Committee, they stand accused of being complicit in a “partisan political persecution that brings disrespect to our country’s rule of law, legal harassment to private citizens who have done nothing wrong, and which demeans the standing of the House.”
It was not just an attempted coup. The steady sapping of republican virtue continues.