What Should We Do About That Corpse in the Middle of Fifth Avenue?
MAGA is a fascist movement that will not hold Trump accountable on its own.
(Note: This is an archive post from my pre-Substack “Weekend Reading” newsletter.)
Trump famously said “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters.” But not even he imagined that if he did shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, he wouldn’t be arrested for it, and that the witnesses wouldn’t call the police or snitch until compelled to by a congressional committee. Yet here we are.
What we have learned from the January 6th hearings so far makes it clear that we face two major crises in America today.
The first is the growing ascendance of a fascist movement, MAGA, which now controls the Republican Party and is committed to imposing its white Christian nationalist agenda by any means necessary.
The second is the failure of the institutions that should be the guardrails of democracy – the media, our legal system, and our elected officials who swear an oath to protect the Constitution – to accurately name and confront that threat.
Describing MAGA as “fascist” is not name-calling; it is factually accurate. MAGA (which is not the same as the Republican Party, but which now dominates it) checks all the boxes of what historians and political scientists generally label as “fascist”1:
Refusing to accept elections as legitimate unless their preferred candidates win;
Encouraging or tolerating violence against political opponents (January 6th and other vigilante actions);
Embracing authoritarianism and extreme nationalism (“America First,” Trump as strongman supreme leader);
Fearing and loathing difference (white nationalist ideology, xenophobia);
Pushing paranoid grievance narratives about plots to overthrow traditional ways of life (Great Replacement Theory, QAnon, radicalized anti-feminist movements);
Promising a return to a mythical past (literally make America great again).
Republicans who vocally reject MAGA’s lawlessness, like Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger, are for the most part either retiring soon or facing likely defeat against MAGA primary challengers.
In the wake of World War II, Germany, as well as other European countries that had seen fascist and authoritarian communist regimes come to power through putatively democratic means, wrote constitutions that created ways to disqualify antidemocratic parties from participating in democratic elections. They very well understood the threat to democracy from movements that had no intention of participating or governing democratically.
Students of the interwar period recognized:
“In societies, particularly European societies, in which democratic regimes gained considerable stability, relatively few problems were of the structural type; many of the difficulties arose following decisions by the democratic leadership that made solutions within the democratic framework impossible.”2
This is where we find ourselves today.
In this Weekend Reading, I want to show how what we have learned from the January 6th hearings illustrates how the “decisions [made] by the democratic leadership” already, and those still to be made, may make “solutions within the democratic framework impossible.”
Congressional Coverup: What they did know and when they did know it
The most important thing we learned from the January 6th Committee’s hearings is that almost nothing we’ve learned about Trump’s criminal conspiracy wasn’t already known to the leadership of the Republican Party on January 7th, 2021. They knew that:
There was no evidence of fraud in the outcome of the election, and that Trump and the members of Congress objecting to the electors also knew that;
Trump summoned and incited a mob that included armed militia members to attack the Capitol building to prevent the pro-forma certification of the election;
For three hours, Trump did nothing to respond to urgent calls for help;
Trump had pressured Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger to “find 11,700 votes”;
Members of the mob had chanted “hang Mike Pence,” and Trump tweeted inflammatory attacks against Pence during the riot;
Even after the riot, Trump disavowed nothing.
McConnell and McCarthy, who will likely lead their respective chambers if Republicans win the midterms, also knew that members of their caucuses were actively participating in and assisting with Trump’s plans, and that some were almost certainly breaking the law doing it. (At a minimum, the ones seeking pardons.)
What did they do?
Voted against impeaching or convicting Trump;
Voted against and filibustered the creation of an independent commission that would have quickly informed us of what we are now just learning more details about;
Filibustered allowing debate on election reform legislation;
Refused to cooperate with the January 6th Committee and attacked it as a partisan witch hunt.
Compare this to the behavior of the Republican Party during Watergate. Although there is no question that individual Republicans did much to make it more difficult to get to the bottom of what happened, they didn’t dispute that breaking into the Watergate was a crime, and, importantly, didn’t themselves already know how guilty Nixon was. Although far from perfect, Republicans on the Watergate Committee mostly participated in good faith. When the tapes were finally released, Barry Goldwater led a delegation of Republican senators to convince Nixon to resign. Similarly, although they understood that there was much more downside risk for them, Republicans (mostly) participated in good faith in the 9/11 Commission.
To be clear, we live in a different and more polarized time now than then, so we would have no reason to expect similar behavior now, using “expect” in the sense of what we anticipate happening. But we have every reason to expect similar good faith behavior from both parties in similar circumstances, using “expect” in the sense of what we insist on in a functioning democracy.
Let’s now consider what the last year and a half might have looked like had Senate Republicans not filibustered the commission.
Freedom to Vote. Since the language that would have created an independent commission required a report by the end of 2021, would efforts to enact the Freedom to Vote Act have foundered in 2021 if the public was simultaneously being informed by the investigation of the Independent January 6th Commission?
Virginia Governor’s Race. Might coverage of the Virginia governor’s race have been different if Youngkin had been forced to comment on the Commission’s hearings and findings?
Media Narratives. This is more difficult to quantify in a thought experiment, but just begin to try to imagine where our national conversation would be now ahead of the midterms if this accountability process had begun sooner. Then try to imagine if that process had already resulted in the criminal charges that we only hope will soon come as a result of the committee’s work.
If this sounds like an absurd fantasy to you, it should crystallize just how far we have fallen as a democracy, just how much danger we are really in, and just how much we have allowed learned helplessness to dominate the national narrative about who and what Republicans really are.
Just Who Is Doing the Politicizing?
In a truly astonishing feat, we are questioning whether the Justice Department should aggressively investigate Trump’s criminal wrongdoing because it could be seen as political retribution, undermining public confidence in the judicial system and thereby setting a precedent for future presidents.
Why an astonishing feat? Because it is the Republicans who have politicized the issue by not doing what is expected of any citizen, much less any elected official, who cares about American democracy.
Mitch McConnell knew this when he delivered his remarks immediately after Senate acquitted Trump in the second impeachment trial:
American citizens attacked their own government. They used terrorism to try to stop a specific piece of democratic business they did not like.
Fellow Americans beat and bloodied our own police. They stormed the Senate floor. They tried to hunt down the Speaker of the House. They built a gallows and chanted about murdering the vice president.
They did this because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth – because he was angry he'd lost an election. …
Let me put that to the side for one moment and reiterate something I said weeks ago: There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.
The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. …
The issue is not only the president's intemperate language on January 6th.
It is not just his endorsement of remarks in which an associate urged "trial by combat."
It was also the entire manufactured atmosphere of looming catastrophe; the increasingly wild myths about a reverse landslide election that was being stolen in some secret coup by our now-president. …
This was an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories, orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters' decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.
The unconscionable behavior did not end when the violence began.
Whatever our ex-president claims he thought might happen that day, whatever reaction he says he meant to produce, by that afternoon, he was watching the same live television as the rest of the world.
A mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name. These criminals were carrying his banners, hanging his flags, and screaming their loyalty to him.
It was obvious that only President Trump could end this.
Former aides publicly begged him to do so. Loyal allies frantically called the administration.
But the president did not act swiftly. He did not do his job. He didn't take steps so federal law could be faithfully executed, and order restored.
Instead, according to public reports, he watched television happily as the chaos unfolded. He kept pressing his scheme to overturn the election!
Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in danger, even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters, the president sent a further tweet attacking his vice president. …
And even then, with police officers bleeding and broken glass covering Capitol floors, he kept repeating election lies and praising the criminals.
In recent weeks, our ex-president's associates have tried to use the 74 million Americans who voted to re-elect him as a kind of human shield against criticism.
Anyone who decries his awful behavior is accused of insulting millions of voters….
Put another way, in the language of today: President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office, as an ordinary citizen, unless the statute of limitations has run, still liable for everything he did while in office, didn't get away with anything yet – yet.
We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.
Of course, it didn’t take long for McConnell to regain his partisan senses. But had he followed through on that February floor statement, we would not be in this upside-down world in which it is considered out-of-bounds partisanship for our foundational justice institutions to prosecute criminals, but not for partisan politicians to protect criminals from being prosecuted.
That consistent majorities of Americans, larger than Biden’s vote share in 2020, believe that Trump should be prosecuted, and even greater majorities believe that those who supported him should be held criminally liable and should not be allowed to hold office again should dispel the concerns about “democratic legitimacy,” which is now revealed to be a concern of those who fear prosecution.
As further evidence that we have lost our moral compass, notice how we take for granted that public servants can be excused from their commitments to the criminal justice system if it is inconvenient to their political party. Consider the newly minted Republican “heroes” who stood up to Trump – including Pence, Barr, Jeffrey Rosen, Rusty Bowers, Cassidy Hutchison, Pat Cipollone, Matthew Pottinger, Sarah Matthews, and Brad Raffensperger. None of them came forward in real time, before the second impeachment trial, or likely ever would have without the Committee’s investigation. (Although the Raffensperger call was reported in close to real time, it was a leak of unknown origin.) It’s also clear from the testimony that fear of being prosecuted themselves, rather than patriotism, motivated our “heroes.” Rusty Bowers even says he would vote for Trump again.
Every Republican on the ballot now knows what the hearings have taught us about the criminal conspiracy, and they know what public opinion says about it. Yet none of these Republicans (Liz Cheney excepted, of course) are saying anything to distance themselves from any aspect of the conspiracy, including its violent expression – not the Big Lie about the outcome of the election; not summoning, helping to pay for, inciting and directing a mob that included armed militia members to attack the Capitol building to prevent the pro-forma certification of the election; not generating violent threats against Republican election officials’ wives and children; not pressuring the Justice Department to join the criminal conspiracy; and not witness intimidation.
Even if they are not part of the conspiratorial fringe, by virtue of accepting every aspect of the comprehensive criminal conspiracy as legitimate, Republican candidates are promising they will accept any future criminality. By virtue of doubting the results of the 2020 election, they are promising to doubt the results of any election they lose. By virtue of their silence (or worse) in the face of orchestrated threats against election officials, they are promising to condone it (or worse) if elected.
A majority of the House Republican Caucus voted to object to the certification of the electoral votes on January 6th. All but 10 voted against impeachment. All but 35 voted against creating the Independent Commission, even though the formulation reflected concessions to Republican Representative John Katko. Only Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney voted with Democrats to censure Paul Gosar for posting a video depicting violence against Biden and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In their latest count, FiveThirtyEight reports that “At least 120 Republican Nominees Deny the Results of the 2020 Election.” But it’s actually much worse than that. Out of the 244 who have already made it to the general election ballot, only 15 percent have fully accepted the election results. Of course, many of them are competing in Blue states.
Here is the most disturbing counterfactual. If Trump had never mounted the Stop the Steal rally on January 6th, the Capitol insurrection would never have happened – but other parts of Trump’s criminal conspiracy would still have been perpetrated. Trump would have continued his Big Lie campaign, the MAGA legislatures would have enacted their anti-voting/power grab legislation and conducted their sham "audits," and Bannon and others would have recruited their army to disrupt the 2022 elections and replace election officials. But we would not have had the same obvious demonstration of why Trump’s crimes were so dangerous. Our elected leaders, the media, and the business community would have all reverted to the same wishful thinking about who Republicans are, and the slow-motion coup would have proceeded with no widespread public alarm whatsoever.
The leaders of the European democracies emerging out of the rubble of World War II, were freshly aware of the catastrophic damage done by fascist and totalitarian communist regimes that came to power through putatively democratic processes. For that reason, many of them, including Germany, crafted criteria that guarantees parties broad freedom to compete in elections, but only as long as they refrain from antidemocratic practices. I would argue that Germany’s ability to disqualify antidemocratic parties has made it no less democratic than the United States.
More recently, Giovanni Capoccia writes that over “the past two decades, the concept of militant democracy—the use of legal restrictions on political expression and participation to curb extremist actors in democratic regimes—has again captured the attention of comparative constitutional lawyers and political scientists. In comparative constitutional law, the old neutral model of liberal democracy, according to which all political views are entitled to the same rights of expression and association, has given way to a general consensus that restrictions on basic rights designed to preserve democracy are legitimate…. [T]hese developments point to the fact that militant restrictions constitute an important facet of modern democracy … making the legal and empirical analysis of militant democracy an important emerging research program both in comparative constitutional law and political science.”3
Of course, words like “antidemocratic” or “fascist” are much less salient in the United States because, unlike most nations in the world, we have only known democracy. We don’t have a developed vocabulary to discuss the idea of different kinds of political orders.
Actually … we do. For a moment, we understood that Jim Crow governments were authoritarian, not democratic. Thus, the idea of declaring a set of political actors a threat to democracy is actually not even far-fetched in American experience. Consider the pre-clearance requirements in the Voting Rights Act, included because it was well understood that without such constraints Southern (and other) jurisdictions would adopt policies and practices that would limit voting rights. Of course, when Shelby ended those constraints, many of those jurisdictions immediately adopted discriminatory policies.
When we find a termite in our home, we don’t just squash it and hope for the best; we realize that where there is one termite, there is likely a whole colony eating away at the foundation of the house. Yet, for more than a decade, each time we find a MAGA termite eating away at the foundation of our freedoms and democracy – Shelby, Citizens United, the Big Lie – we declaim that particular termite as if it had no relationship to the others we found, and did not portend much worse ahead.
I certainly don’t have the answer here, but can express confidence that defeating MAGA is a problem that cannot be solved until we acknowledge it.
Red Nation Patriots
How can we explain, or hope to understand, why Republicans are being so unresponsive to public opinion, and why they are so flagrantly shirking their democratic duties?
Let’s begin with coverage the morning after the last hearing. The Fox News homepage did not report on the hearings at all. Instead, it had two stories you won’t find in the mainstream media: a prosecutor who says that Hunter Biden’s story doesn’t add up, and in one of the four illustrated boxes, “Pentagon should end ‘woke’ hunt for military extremism” – which is a reference to a recent vote in Congress (an amendment to the NDAA) to instruct the Pentagon to prepare a report on how to combat white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity in the police and military. Every Republican voted against it.
Now, let’s look at how the hearing was covered locally, comparing McConnell’s hometown paper, the Louisville Courier Journal with the Boston Globe. In the former, the hearing didn’t happen; in the latter, it’s the top story.
I hope this provides a good illustration of what I recently explained in “A House Divided” – and, indeed, what I have been arguing for the last few years. The absence of coverage by Fox or the Courier Journal is evidence of the extent to which Red Nation is, in fact, a separate nation – one with radically different values and priorities from Blue Nation – and that pretending otherwise will always result in dramatic failures of political analysis.
The liberal4 Blue Nation and the illiberal Red Nation are not just metaphorical concepts. They are two places with distinct geographic borders and starkly divergent histories and traditions – and, as a result, the two nations have dramatically different governments, laws, and life outcomes. To imagine that Democrats (the elected representatives of Blue Nation) and Republicans (the elected representatives of Red Nation) can simply come together and resolve their differences is to imagine that Canada and Russia could come together to agree on how both of their countries should be governed.
Fully Appreciating MAGA
As Charles Homans detailed in New York Times Magazine this week, the Tea Party movement laid much of the foundation for Trump and MAGA to rise to prominence. This article is excellent, but dangerously incomplete. It represents important progress in that it recognizes that the dangers of MAGA preceded Trump and will continue if he disappears. Because it centers the most extreme elements of the MAGA movement, however, it makes it seem like the threats are coming from an extreme fringe.
But, in fact, MAGA is no longer a fringe movement of kooky conspiracy theorists. It is institutionalized by white Evangelical churches and right-wing media enterprises like Fox – and it now has an ironclad hold on many state governments. At this moment, 48 percent of Americans live in states where for the last dozen years, MAGA has been enacting its Christian nationalist, corporatist programs – from banning pre-viability abortions, to denying full collective bargaining for working people, to denying Medicaid to low-income families, to making it more difficult for people of color to vote.
It’s important to understand that Red Nation and MAGA are not necessarily synonymous, but that this is the current status quo. The mid-20th Century saw Red and Blue Nations begin to converge into something more resembling one nation. Since 2008, however, that trend has dramatically reversed. (Again, see “A House Divided” for more detail and data on this.)
After the election of our first Black president, the illiberal faction that had for decades been in the passenger seat of the Republican coalition – the segregationists and the racially resentful, as well as the white Evangelicals who longed for theocracy and Christian nationalism – rose up in the form of the Tea Party to claim the driver’s seat and purge the Republican Party of establishment “RINOs.” And since this illiberal faction happened to take over the GOP in a wave midterm election year (2010) that also coincided with redistricting, the nascent fascist movement that became MAGA was able to consolidate political power in Red Nation to such a dramatic extent that, today, these states are nearly as devoid of true political competition as they were in the Jim Crow era.
In contrast to the clean break with anti-democratic forces that Germany made after World War II, we are still trying to cling to the fiction that we are one nation with the same values that only needs to heal its divisions, instead of two nations with diametrically opposed priorities that have never truly been united. We are refusing to see that the America most of us were raised to believe in – a pluralistic melting pot, a refuge for huddled masses, a shining democratic city on a hill – is not the same America that MAGA is trying to remake. We are refusing to recognize that we are already in the middle of a hostile takeover.
This is not controversial at all - see, for example, How Fascism Works (Stanley), Anatomy of Fascism (Paxton), The Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt).
Giovanni Capoccia. Defending Democracy: Reactions to Extremism in Interwar Europe (p. 3).
For more on this subject see here, as well as Capoccia’s Defending Democracy: Reactions to Extremism in Interwar Europe.
By “liberal,” I don’t mean politically left-of-center; I mean supporting civil rights and liberties, consent of the governed, and equality before the law.