In my almost 70 years on the planet, this is my first American coup. After decades of Americans plotting coups in other countries, it was inevitable we’d have one of our own.
I was going to write about the similarities between last Wednesday’s coup attempt and its precedents in the Munich coup of 1923 or Mussolini’s March on Rome in October 1922. I thought I might mention that the Mar-a-Lago Führer had long been fascinated by his fascist forebears, even keeping a copy of Hitler’s collected speeches in his nightstand, a fact confirmed by multiple sources including Trump himself.
It occurred to me I should also mention the differences between these coups — that, unlike Trump’s 2021 attempt, the Munich police actually fought the 3,000 Bierkeller fascists, killing a number of them. Instead, it was reported today that off-duty police from around the country may have participated in Trump’s attempt to derail the certification of Electoral College votes and physically intimidate lawmakers.
Or that Capitol police, some who appeared in selfies with the mob, appear to have actually invited the insurrectionists into chambers, some armed, some carrying plastic ties to take lawmakers hostage, some erecting gallows, fixin’ to lynch the Vice President and House and Senate leaders. Videos show police actually opening the doors. And now we read that the deployment of Maryland National Guard troops may have been slow-walked by Trump loyalists in the Pentagon. There are many questions to be answered in the investigations that will follow.
Unlike Mussolini, who triumphantly entered Rome with his fellow blackshirts, Trump retreated back to his bunker for another cheeseburger, despite promising the mob he would be marching with them. Unfortunately, America’s First Fascist didn’t even show the courtesy of committing suicide in his bunker like the man whose speeches he loves so much.
But who can say today that they were really surprised by the coup — coming from a man whose administration built concentration camps for children, was all set to ship DACA recipients out of the country in boxcars, never once distancing himself from his white supremacist base and in fact speaking for them? Who could say they were truly surprised at any of this — from a crime boss who managed to corrupt everyone around him and never once encountered anything but impunity for even the most treasonous acts?
What upsets me the most are the reactions the coup attempt has provoked.
Even after four years of the most egregious corruption and authoritarianism, the mainstream press still finds it difficult to pronounce Trump’s attempt to prevent the certification of Electoral College votes a failed coup. Instead, this retrospectively ham-handed effort is most often described as a riot carried out by hooligans — as if it were a fraternity party or Super Bowl celebration that simply got out of hand.
It was, of course, no such thing. This was America’s first coup.
I had planned to mention that the all-too-frequently published photo of a fuzzy painted Norseman with his spear provided an undeserved comic veneer to what was actually a deadly coup that cost the life of six people, including two Capitol police officers. Anyone who watches the videos now surfacing understands that many of the participants thought they were part of a “revolution” liberating Congress, just as they had been instructed to “liberate” state capitals by the President.
Despite all this, Republicans have refused to invoke the 25th Amendment and we now hear from Jim Clyburn that he would prefer that Democrats conduct an impeachment inquiry 100 days after Biden’s inauguration. Some voices gravely warn us that pursuing justice at all will only divide the country.
In the face of all this bending-over-backwards to avoid prosecuting white supremacists and rich white guys, the only real response to Trump’s coup to-date has been for three social network giants to de-platform Parler, the far right version of Twitter, and to ban Trump himself from Facebook and Twitter. There is a long precedent for this. Facebook, Google, and Twitter — who have made many billions of dollars hosting extremist content — routinely cancel the accounts of ISIL terrorists, and telecom giants have on occasion blocked entire websites of whistleblowers on government blacklists like Wikileaks. Neither the social networks nor the members of the Trump administration now writing their resignation letters ever cared much about the lies, the white supremacy, or the calls for violence they echoed — until they were forced to care.
But punishing one undemocratic action with another is not going to fix what’s wrong with American democracy.
Trump’s calls to storm the Capitol and disrupt the Electoral College certification ought to have had immediate consequences. Legislators who swore to uphold the Constitution violated those oaths and ought to be disbarred, unseated, and stripped of committee assignments. Trump’s pitchfork-wielding white supremacists — even when erecting a gallows for lynching — apparently never alarmed authorities as much as the Black Lives Movement’s calls for police reform last Spring. Support for tossing the results of the Electoral College vote by Republican legislators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz should also have set off alarm bells. Well-telegraphed plans, some going back to mid-December, to disrupt the certification ought to have resulted in immediate investigations and extra protection for Congress. Instead, the only solutions our authoritarian-loving nation can come up with are impunity for those driving and supporting the coup and limiting free speech for everyone else.
It is time for a little accountability.
If overturning the results of a democratic election has no consequences, if coup attempts are trivialized, and any notion of prosecuting ringleaders is dismissed, then autocracy will have won.
There have to be consequences for last Wednesday’s coup attempt. People must serve some serious time in prison for it, including the President, several Senators, a number of Congressmen, and thousands of white supremacists and conspiracy nuts who broke into Congress and attempted to crush police to death while blocking the last step in our arcane presidential election process. Some of the spineless Congressmen involved now blame their own actions on their constituents. Michigan Republican Representative Peter Meijer claims that many Republicans went along with the President’s attempt to subvert the election because their constituents had threatened them.
But if none of these instigators, ringleaders, or organizations and individuals responsible for the actual assault on the Capitol are ever held accountable, then why not simply open the nation’s prisons — which contain hundreds of thousands of people serving long sentences for trivial drug and property offenses? Seriously, just let them go. If there are no consequences for ringleaders of a coup to overturn an election, then why should there be any consequences for a guy arrested with a little too much weed on him?
Our outdated, vague, and flawed American Constitution has enabled many of the anti-democratic maneuvers we’ve seen in the last four years, granting excessive power to the Executive, undermining fair elections that everyone must have faith in, continuing to fail to protect everyone’s rights equally — and these are all concerns that both Liberals and Conservatives should agree on.
If we really want to fix our broken democracy, maybe we should start by rewriting the god-awful rule book that governs its operation.