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Reflections on Sedition, Political Courage and Self-Governance

When I was a youngster in perhaps fifth grade, I recall reading and being entranced by John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. First published in 1956, Kennedy had written it in 1955 with the assistance of Ted Sorensen while in Chelsea Naval hospital as he was recovering from an unsuccessful back surgery. As Robert Kennedy recalled in a foreword to a commemorative edition of the volume written less than a month following President Kennedy’s murder in 1963, the book reflected his brother’s values well,

Courage is the virtue that President Kennedy most admired. … That is why this book so fitted his personality, his beliefs. It is a study of men, who at risk to themselves, their futures, even the well-being of their children, stood fast for principle.[1]

The various chapters of the volume tell the stories of specific leaders in American history faced with difficult choices that arrayed political expediency against national or Constitutional interests.[2] Often at considerable personal and political cost, the protagonist in each case chose the latter.

Profiles in Courage has come to mind frequently during the years of Donald Trump’s term of office and especially as I watched him refuse to acknowledge his loss in November’s national election. While his stance concerning the election and his fabrication of wild conspiracy theories for why he “won” were in keeping with his narcissism and pattern of lies about everything, what was much harder to understand and to countenance were GOP congresspeople and senators professing to support his baseless claims. But they did, and many continued to do so up to this week’s storming of the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters, egged on by the President, in a very public act of sedition broadcast live on television and media websites.

Those who rioted, defaced and paraded through the Capitol carrying Trump and, especially egregiously, Confederate flags, interrupted the necessary process of congressional acceptance of the certified Electoral College vote. Five people died as a result of the melee and Congress had to be evacuated and could not reconvene until hours later to complete its task, whereupon 139 GOP House members and eight Senators continued to dispute the count and to insist that Congress overturn the election results in two states on the basis of no empirical evidence whatsoever.[3] That is, adopting the President’s completely empty and senseless stance, they argued that Congress should selectively (for they did not challenge the electoral outcome in all of the states, only Arizona and Pennsylvania) be able to overturn the express will of the people in those states to put into office an individual of their choice. Put plainly, this small group, led most prominently and infamously by senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and Josh Hawley (Missouri), embraced controverting the results of the election, as certified by the governments of all 50 states, in a self-evidently anti-democratic act.

Geoffrey R. Stone, a legal scholar at the University of Chicago, suggested soon after the mob’s seizure of the Capitol that sedition, “Normally, refers to speech that advocates action or beliefs that are designed to overthrow or undermine the lawful processes of government.”[4]  By this widely accepted definition, Trump and all of those officials and domestic terrorists who supported this malevolent lie gone violent who chose to follow his direction to undermine Congress’ lawful attempt to conduct its business are prima facie guilty of sedition.

In many ways, the sad spectacle on view in Washington on January 6 was the predictable result of Trump persistently telling his supporters lies and suggesting that they were justified in turning to violence to address their real and imagined grievances. He has, after all, celebrated Neo-Nazis marching at the University of Virginia, applauded armed militia members who went to the Michigan statehouse to threaten lawmakers concerning a COVID-19 public health quarantine, called often during his “rallies” on attendees to commit violence against those who might have different views and also asked for weeks that his supporters come to Washington, D.C. to disrupt the peaceful transfer of presidential power to Joseph Biden and to march on the Capitol, among other examples that might be cited.

With Trump and most of the GOP congressional caucus patently guilty of sedition and breach of their oaths of office, at least four central questions arise. First, how could this have happened? Second, should Trump be removed from office or impeached for his actions despite the short time remaining in his term? Third, will the mob takeover of the Capitol change the political dynamic that led to such servile GOP official support for an obviously corrupt, incompetent and unfit leader as Trump? And last, what can be done to begin to address the conditions that led to this crisis?  I have written about these very complex topics in previous commentaries and will touch on each only briefly here.

First, it seems clear that this horrific attack on the nation’s governance occurred because Trump was enabled by elements of talk radio and entertainment television, social media, the institutional machinery of the Republican Party and, for too long, many in the mainstream media, to lie with impunity and to attack the legitimacy and integrity of the rule of law and the Constitution. He has assailed freedom of speech and of the press and the very idea of truth, seeking to bend all public conversation to his whim, the very definition of autocracy. Trump has garnered a relatively small but vocal public’s support to do so by mobilizing on the basis of racism, hate and othering and by providing businesses and wealthy individuals major tax reductions and short-term policy supports. His Party enabled him in these actions because it has plied such a strategy since at least the mid-1960s in order to redistribute income and wealth upward by playing on the prejudices and social and economic anxieties of voters. Trump has openly sought to add white nationalists and racist, conspiracy-oriented and militia individuals and groups to the party’s coalition.

Second, as noted, Trump personally is guilty of sedition, which is an impeachable offense. As additional details of the January 6 attack have emerged, they point to a wider conspiracy than initially thought, in which Trump was central. The Speaker of the House and Minority Leader of the Senate have each called on Vice President Mike Pence to initiate proceedings to remove Trump from office under the auspices of the 25th amendment as unfit for office, a step he has refused to take. Accordingly, the Speaker has announced that impeachment proceedings will occur.[5] The public record suggests they are fully justified. It is unclear whether the Senate will take up the measure before Trump’s term ends on January 20, but it may still do so thereafter to bar him from future campaigns for office. I say more about this below.

Third, initial polling following the siege suggests public revulsion and repudiation of Trump’s actions, but, and dismayingly, with perhaps 40 percent of Republicans nonetheless suggesting it was justified.[6] He has also lost access to his main communication tools to spread misinformation and lies, as his major email, Twitter, Facebook and related social media accounts have all been suspended by the relevant corporations. This said, it is uncertain whether the GOP and the many of its federal officeholders who have supported this travesty will actually vote to impeach Trump or to take any serious action to punish others also responsible for this episode. Their political careers have been predicated on the ideology and claims that Trump has taken to their logical extreme and many, if not most, of their core supporters continue to believe, or at least profess to believe, those lies. In sum, whether this incident will itself become an inflection point and constitute the beginning of a process of change in Republican attitudes and electoral strategy, as David Brooks has recently argued, remains unclear.[7] As a normative proposition, it is plain that it should and that it represents a litmus test of the Party’s priorities, and indeed, its soul.

Last, it seems clear that tax and education reform, sustained economic assistance for those hard-hit by globalization and economic change and the pandemic, voting and civil rights reforms that prevent discrimination and ensure citizens’ rights to vote and assemble peacefully in the face of social change, are essential. Perhaps more than any other single step, the nation now needs leaders of both parties more interested in embracing all of its population’s welfare and well-being than in vote mongering via demographic division.

A President elected by a minority of the those voting who has never once attained a public approval rating exceeding 50 percent, Trump is not the creator, but simply the demagogic culmination of one Party’s actions for decades to use race and difference to mobilize voters. Trump was far more blatant in his efforts to scapegoat all but white citizens for the nation’s woes than his predecessors, but his party has taken this stance since the mid-1960s and the advent of major national civil rights legislation. During that same period, the GOP has become ever more radical and insular ideologically, with its leaders bent increasingly on securing power for its own sake. Trump effectively took over that shell, symbolized by its decision not to adopt a national platform in 2020 except support for whatever the incumbent might undertake, by spewing hatred and he claimed a willing following in so doing. His daily actions and words, alongside the solid support of his relatively small group of militant devotees, have directly and continuously threatened the very foundations of our governmental system.

It seems clear that this was all preventable had GOP leaders not chosen to enable Trump in cynical fear that not doing so would lose them votes in their next campaigns or, for some, in their quest for higher office. But they went along and the costs of that choice have been exceedingly high and continue to mount as I write. History will hold these officials accountable for choosing power and privilege over country and for failing to serve the genuine interests of those who elected them. In the conclusion to Profiles in Courage, John Kennedy reminded his readers that democratic leadership requires neither sycophancy nor simple-minded obstinacy, but instead an unwavering commitment to serve the people and nation writ large, beyond oneself or perceived short-term electoral interests:

For democracy means much more than popular government and majority rule, much more than a system of political techniques to flatter or deceive powerful blocks of voters.… The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people — faith that the people will not simply elect men [people] who will exercise their conscientious judgment — faith  the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right.[8]

Republican Party leaders failed this test for four years in their cynical political posturing aimed only at maintaining power and “sending a message” to Trump’s base of supporters, prior to the recent siege in the Capitol. It remains to be seen whether they can rise above that view of office now or will remain content to rend the very possibility of a pluralistic democracy in the name of a broken ideology and quest for what will then be empty control of a no longer democratic nation. As I write, the situation is fluid, but the cynicism of several Republican leaders of this sedition remains all too clear. My hope is that those now standing up for the rights of all citizens and for the diversity and pluralism that represent the soul of this country will prevail in the present struggle over efforts to suppress the civil and human rights of selected groups. I hope, too, that Trump’s nihilism and sedition will wrench his party away from its long-lived determination to gain power by seeding fear and via self-conscious delegitimation of the nation’s institutions.

Notes

[1] Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956, 1964, p. xi.

[2] The book was also adapted in 1964 as a 26-episode NBC television series. The Classic TV Archive, “Profiles in Courage,” http://ctva.biz/US/Anthology/ProfilesInCourage.htm, Accessed January 8, 2021. 

[3] Yourish, Karen, Larry Buchanan and Denise Lu. “The 147 Republicans who voted to overturn election results,” The New York Times, January 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/07/us/elections/electoral-college-biden-objectors.html. Accessed January 9, 2021.

[4] Schuessler, Jennifer. “When does incitement become sedition? Experts say it’s Complicated,” The New York Times, January 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/01/07/us/capitol-building-trump/when-does-incitement-become-sedition-experts-say-its-complicated. Accessed January 7, 2021. 

[5] Fandos, Nicholas and Luke Broadwater. “Pelosi Threatens Impeachment if Trump Doesn’t Resign ‘Immediately;’ Twitter Permanently Suspends Him,” The New York Times, January 9, 2021,  https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/01/08/us/trump-biden#trump-impeachment-pelosi. Accessed January 9, 2021.

[6] Bump, Philip. “Most Americans reject the attack on the Capitol—but millions empathize with the mob,” The Washington Post, January 9, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/01/09/most-americans-reject-attack-capitol-but-millions-empathize-with-mob/, Accessed January 9, 2021. 

[7] Brooks, David. “This is When the Fever Breaks,” The New York Times, January 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/07/opinion/capitol-riot-republicans.html, Accessed January 7, 2021. 

[8] Kennedy, Profiles in Courage, p. 256.

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