Of Damning Facts and Destructive Fantasies
My Tidings column for the Institute for Policy and Governance October newsletter is entitled “Beggaring Imagination.” It addresses the false claims of today’s GOP as that party and its leader, Donald Trump, seek to ensure the latter is never held accountable for his role in the violent attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, or for his other misdeeds while in office or following. Republican officials have embraced preposterous lies in their pursuit of power and appear to have lost any sense of dignity or sight of the nation’s values in the name of that idol. The Select House of Representatives Committee investigating the events of January 6 and Trump’s lies regarding the November 2020 election that resulted in that murderous event has conducted hundreds of hours of interviews, collected and examined thousands of documents and compiled a vast archive of video evidence. The lion’s share of this information has come from Trump’s advisors and other Republican officials and partisans. To date, the Committee has incontrovertibly demonstrated the following:
· Trump and his advisors knew he had lost the election and that such had occurred without widespread fraud. Trump specifically told several of his aides he knew he had lost, but he chose to claim otherwise in a bid to retain power and avoid what he saw as personal embarrassment.
· Months prior to the election, Trump had decided to claim victory, regardless of the outcome, as a “strategy” to maintain power and his base of supporters among GOP partisans.
· By far the largest share of Republican Party officials and a super majority of this year’s GOP candidates for federal and state office have embraced Trump’s crazed lies wholesale and offered an array of conspiracy claims in their name.
· Trump personally incited the violence on January 6 and then returned to the White House Dining Room to watch the resulting mayhem. He refused repeated advisor and family entreaties to intervene to stop the melee he had unleashed. In fact, he added gasoline to that fire by Tweeting to rioting supporters that Vice President Mike Pence, then in mortal danger, “deserved” the threats of death and opprobrium he was receiving.
· Trump personally orchestrated the many unethical and unlawful efforts to overturn the election’s results. He continues to press local and state officials to delegitimate lawful voting results.
· The solid phalanx of Republican office holders’ support of Trump, his grip on GOP institutional machinery, and his and the party’s continuous propagandizing have persuaded close to two-thirds of GOP partisans that fraud occurred in 2020, based on no evidence whatsoever. In fact, those choosing to believe the conspiracies on offer have done so in the face of a continuous stream of evidence showing very clearly that nothing of the kind ever occurred.
During the committee’s ninth and likely final public hearing this past week, the Vice Chair of the House Select panel, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming (R), neatly and chillingly summarized the implications of Trump and many others in his party’s actions and described what is at stake in the group’s proceedings and the nation’s upcoming mid-term election. Her remarks merit careful attention:
Most importantly, our president, who has a constitutional obligation to faithfully execute the laws, swears to accept them. What happens when the president disregards the court's rulings as illegitimate, when he disregards the rule of law? That, my fellow citizens, breaks our republic. Finally, as you view the evidence today, also consider this. President Trump knew from unassailable sources that his election fraud claims were false. He admitted he had lost the election. He took actions consistent with that belief. Claims that President Trump actually thought the election was stolen are not supported by fact and are not a defense. There is no defense that Donald Trump was duped or irrational. No president can defy the rule of law and act this way in a constitutional republic, period. Mr. Chairman, our nation's federal judges are sworn to do impartial justice to preserve our Constitution and preserve our union. Dozens of these judges have been addressing January 6th cases, and many have given us plain, unmistakable warnings about the direction of our republic. … Those who planned to overturn our election and brought us to the point of violence must also be accountable. With every effort to excuse or justify the conduct of the former president, we chip away at the foundation of our republic. Indefensible conduct is defended. Inexcusable conduct is excused. Without accountability, it all becomes normal, and it will recur.1
The former president and his allies’ relentless and contemptuous attacks on truth, the rule of law and the sanctity of the vote—the very heart of self-governance—prompt the question: Why are GOP officeholders and a share of Americans willing to believe obviously cruel and destructive nonsense designed to ensure that one profoundly flawed and amoral man can remain in the spotlight and enjoy the opportunity to regain the office to which he laid waste while its incumbent? It is now eminently clear, as Dan Rather and Elliott Kirschner observed this week and as I outlined above, that the events of January 6 were no accident. Trump and his allies orchestrated them, and that group sought nothing less than the “destruction of our democratic order.’2
If we may surmise that Trump is driven by egomania, that hardly explains the actions of the bulk of Republican office holders who, whatever their personal views, have routinely failed to call out Trump publicly and hold him accountable for his continuing parade of lies, even when remaining silent led those so behaving to violate their oaths of office. As I ponder these individuals’ behavior, I am reminded, by analogy, of Primo Levi’s comments about those who conspired with the Gestapo to operate Germany’s death camps during World War II. These included countless officials, farmers, businesses and citizens. Meanwhile millions more Germans were aware of the camps and did nothing to intercede in their operation:
It remains true that the majority of the oppressors, during or (more often) after their deeds, realized that whet they were doing or had done was iniquitous, or experienced doubts or discomfort, or were even punished; but this suffering does not enrol them among the victims…. I know that the murderers existed not only in Germany and still exist, retired or on active duty and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affection or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.3
Like those businesspeople, citizens and officials in Germany who participated in and profited from an unspeakable horror, or whose silence permitted it, Republican officials rationalizing their complicity in Trump’s calumny on grounds that systematic lies and continuous mendacity can be justified if they result in power may not be forgiven their behavior on that basis. Power for its own sake corrupts and connotes tyranny. Levi also poignantly pointed up another truth about those who managed Hitler’s death camps and carried out his “Final Solution” that comes to mind as one watches the tragedy of a GOP attack on the democratic foundations of this country unfold: “It is not permissible to admit that this pressure [from the regime or party] is irresistible. … their joining the Nazi Party was a choice dictated more by opportunism than enthusiasm.”4 Today’s GOP officeholders and candidates, who daily trumpet and countenance lies behave more like ambitious apparatchiks than deliberative representatives as they abuse and attack reason, the rule of law and democracy. It is difficult not to conclude they have fallen prey to the siren call of unaccountable power irrespective of the costs of its pursuit for their nation.
If these descriptions make some sense for Trump and GOP officials and candidates, how is one to explain the behavior of those people who viciously attacked police to desecrate the Capitol in 2021, or who subscribe to bizarre Q-Anon conspiracy claims and count Trump a salvific figure as a result, or who believe the obvious GOP claptrap that President Biden and all Democrats are Marxists and are willfully seeking to ruin America? This is a more difficult question, and no single answer describes the behavior of all these individuals. Three threads appear to animate many as they embrace Trump and GOP lies and thereby, the erosion of their privilege of self-governance and personal freedom. First, Trump and his supporters have wielded race and racism and concerns about social status amidst globalization and capitalist dominance to scapegoat minorities as responsible for the concerns of many Americans, while in fact often adopting policies that have made those issues worse. The use of race and racial othering to mobilize runs through all of U.S. history. Second, xenophobia, in fact a sort of racism, has provided Trump and the GOP more convenient false foes to blame for their supporters’ concerns. Trump’s ill-considered isolationism and public embrace of authoritarianism are joined to these assertions of fearing outsiders. Finally, and paradoxically, the evangelical bloc within the Republican Party sees Trump as delivering on ensuring them their cherished privileged status in U.S. culture and most such individuals seem to have been willing to overlook his lies and his obvious and ugly disregard for their beliefs with that lone goal principally in mind.
Given the Committee’s superb work and these animating underpinnings and tropes, the nation now stands less than a month from an election that could return the GOP to a majority in Congress. Should that occur, one may expect a doubling down on the party’s now entrenched lies and cynicism and the continued erosion of civil and human rights for targeted (scapegoated) minorities and women. One may also expect continued efforts and claims to ensure that only Republicans prevail in elections and a weakening of the rule of law more generally. It remains to be seen whether most Americans will tolerate such an outcome or will defeat it at the polls. It also remains to be seen whether the GOP can any longer accept almost any truth, including such an outcome, considering the lies it has told its base supporters for so long. The party has created a fantasy world for its partisans through its propagandizing that has few or no connections to reality.
As Dan Rather and Elliott Kirschner noted concerning the Select Committee’s work this week:
They believe that most Americans cherish our self-governance, our stability, and our rule of law. They believe that if we know the truth, that we will do everything in our power, as a people, as a nation, to protect against its recurrence. Does that belief still hold?5
The only honest answer must be: “We shall see on Election Day.”
1 National Public Radio. “Here’s every word from the 9th Jan. 6 committee hearing on its investigation,” National Public Radio, October 13, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/10/13/1125331584/jan-6-committee-hearing-transcript, Accessed October 13, 2022.
2 Rather, Dan and Elliott Kirschner. “Breaking the Republic,” Steady, October 15, 2022, https://steady.substack.com/p/breaking-the-republic?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2, Accessed October 15, 2022.
3 Levi, Primo. The Drowned and The Saved (New York: Abacus Press, 2013), p. 46.
4 Levi, The Drowned and The Saved, p.23.
5 Rather and Kirschner, “Breaking the Republic.”
October 17, 2022