The Unwitting Trump Enablers

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Written By Pinang Driod

The collapse of Republican resolve in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election on January 6, 2021, and Trump’s continued designs on power have together ensured that conservatives find it necessary to downplay or dismiss those events as much less than what they were: an assault on American democracy.

This much was predictable. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, my colleague David A. Graham anticipated that the events of January 6 would be “memory-holed,” and the Republican Party’s continued dependence on Trump made that inevitable. The task of justifying or minimizing January 6 became more urgent once courts began to consider whether Trump’s actions that day disqualify him from seeking reelection under the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars those who have betrayed an oath of office by engaging in “rebellion or insurrection” from holding office again.

Rationalizing Trump’s actions demands rewriting both history and the English language. Committed Trumpists are happy to warp reality to fit whatever distortions their leader demands. Yet distinct from the Trump sycophants are the Trump enablers, both witting and unwitting, more serious figures who eschew such crude gestures of devotion in favor of cautious minimizations that obfuscate the truth rather than openly contradict it. There are all too many serious writers willing to oblige, intelligent people making clever arguments that amount to sophistry.

Earlier this month, the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat endorsed the liberal writer Jonathan Chait’s definition of insurrection as an attempt to “seize and hold the Capitol” or “declare a breakaway republic.” After I pointed out that this limited definition would exclude most insurrections in American history, Douthat tries a little historical research to distinguish the Whiskey Rebellion from the assault on the Capitol by insisting that the Whiskey Rebels’ use of “a six-striped flag representing claimed independence for five Pennsylvania counties” amounted to proof of the existence of an “incipient political formation in those western counties opposed to the authority of the federal government and the Constitution.”

This is a very thin reed for Douthat to hang his claim on, for a number of reasons. For one, as the historian William Hogeland notes in The Whiskey Rebellion, the six-striped flag “is unlikely to have been a flag of the rebellion—and might have been a regimental flag of the suppressing federal army.” The Whiskey Rebels made no declaration of secession, because the odd mix of radicals and moderates never developed a clear political program beyond violent opposition to the whiskey tax. It is strange for Douthat to insist on the importance of overt seditious declarations to the definition of insurrection and then, in his own example, fail to provide one. But at any rate, this definition continues to exclude many of the most famous insurrections in American history, from Fries’s Rebellion to John Brown’s seizure of Harpers Ferry.

In this response, Douthat does not mention his prior insistence that an insurrection is defined by the declaration of a “breakaway republic” or an attempt to “seize and hold the Capitol.” Rather, he offers a new one: “What transforms a political event from a violent riot or lawless mob (which Jan. 6 plainly was) to a genuinely insurrectionary event is the outright denial of the authority of the existing political order and the attempt to establish some alternative order in its place.” By this definition, January 6 was obviously an insurrection, even if Douthat misses that by mistaking the rhetoric of counterrevolution for its substance.

As the writer John Ganz notes, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome, commonly described as an insurrection, did not culminate in a direct violent overthrow of the government. Rather, the violence and disorder from fascist militias persuaded King Vittorio Emanuele III to deny aid to then–Prime Minister Luigi Facta and appoint Mussolini in his place after Facta resigned. This was formalized within the existing political and legal framework, Ganz points out, even as the political violence provided the necessary external force. Mussolini was even sworn in by the king and took an oath to him and the constitution. Every counterrevolution imagines itself to be a restoration of a glorious past; that does not mean it is one.

We needn’t look abroad for examples of insurrectionary political violence that did not present themselves as the establishment of an alternative order, however. The 1898 coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, in which white-supremacist Democrats won office by terrorizing Black voters away from the polls, did not fundamentally change the structure of the local government. They “won” an election through force and fraud and then forced the local government to resign at gunpoint so they could be replaced. The false legalism was a crucial component of the assertion of legitimacy on the insurrectionists’ part; it did not mean that no coup had taken place. A coup does not cease being a coup because paperwork or procedure is involved; even deposed kings and emperors signed letters of abdication.

The men who executed a coup in Wilmington believed themselves not usurpers of the established political order, but agents of its restoration, because, as they put it, the Framers “did not anticipate the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African origin.” And in this they have something in common with the January 6 rioters, who were told by Trump and his co-conspirators that unless they forced then–Vice President Mike Pence and Congress to go along with overturning the election, their country would be lost—as Trump said, cities like “Detroit and Philadelphia” could not “be responsible for engineering the outcome of a presidential race.” That Trump and his co-conspirators sought to seize power through legalistic channels to provide a thin veil of legitimacy is a common characteristic of insurrections. This is why Judge David Carter described their plan as “a coup in search of a legal theory.”

If Trump had been successful in using the mob to intimidate Pence into rejecting the electoral votes, or Congress into accepting his fake electors as planned, and therefore unlawfully seizing power, it would have been the establishment of an alternative order and a denial of the existing political order, as Douthat defines insurrection. That would be true even if Trump and his supporters had insisted it was a continuation, much as the insurgents in Wilmington did, because a foundation of American democracy—the peaceful transition of power—would have ended for the first time in its history. It is absurd to assume that Trump, having defied the rule of law by seizing power in the first place, would then govern as if bound by it.

Members of Trumpist militias who showed up on January 6 believed that political violence was necessary. As noted in the House’s January 6 report, the Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, later convicted of seditious conspiracy, told followers in late 2020, “Either Trump gets off his ass and uses the Insurrection Act to defeat the Chicom puppet coup or we will have to rise up in insurrection (rebellion) against the ChiCom puppet Biden.” The Proud Boy Charles Donohoe “believed that storming the Capitol would achieve the group’s goal of stopping the government from carrying out the transfer of presidential power,” according to the report. During the planning for January 6, the report describes Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio telling his girlfriend that revolution was “what every waking moment consists of.” Douthat’s denial that January 6 was an insurrection requires ignoring what the insurrectionists themselves believed they were doing. The political aims of the most hard-core January 6 rioters in overthrowing established authority, and the means by which they sought to achieve them, were far more clearly stated than the objectives of the Whiskey Rebellion.

In his contention that Trump did not engage in insurrection, Douthat offers a laundry list of abuses that prior presidents have engaged in while in office, writing, “One can abuse the powers of the presidency for one’s own political benefit without it being an insurrection or rebellion under the terms of the 14th Amendment.” This is a correct but irrelevant claim; Trump is literally the only president in American history who sought to overthrow the constitutional order by unlawfully seizing power from a successor by force and fraud. The entire point is that this is something no other president has ever done, a category apart from abuses such as Woodrow Wilson’s Palmer Raids or the torture at Abu Ghraib under George W. Bush, neither of which was an attempt to violently overturn an election.

The strangest part of Douthat’s argument, however, is that prior to January 6, he wrote a column in which—haughtily dismissing the possibility that Trump would try to seize power by force—he imagined, when describing his own hypothetical coup scenario, the precise mix of extralegal force and intimidation combined with a legalistic pretext that is so common to such events. In October 2020, he wrote:

Meanwhile, the scenarios that have been spun out in reputable publications—where Trump induces Republican state legislatures to overrule the clear outcome in their states or militia violence intimidates the Supreme Court into vacating a Biden victory—bear no relationship to the Trump presidency we’ve actually experienced. Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like “plotting” implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks.

Douthat understood exactly what a coup was, right up until the moment Trump attempted one. Once Republicans refused to convict Trump after January 6, and as Trump maintained his iron grip on the party faithful, it became necessary to forget. What is the alternative, after all? To acknowledge that the libs are right that the Republican front-runner is a tyrant in waiting who poses an existential danger to the constitutional order? This is how one ends up arguing absurdities, such as that violently disrupting the government’s ability to collect a whiskey tax amounts to insurrection, but trying to overthrow that government by force does not.

One thing Donald Trump has long excelled at is separating ardent sycophants from their dignity. In their commitment to defending him, they willingly shear themselves of any ideal they have previously professed to value, even if this demands their own humiliation. If Trump did something, it has to be justified, no matter how immoral or absurd. Whether it was Trump admitting to sexual assault on tape, praising neo-Nazis, or attempting to extort the Ukrainian president into falsely implicating then-candidate Joe Biden in a crime, some conservatives always found a reason to rationalize behavior they would have otherwise condemned.

The Trump enablers are distinct from the Trumpist bootlickers, who justify his every unconscionable act with enthusiasm. They do not endorse Trump’s undemocratic or immoral behavior, but simply downplay it. They may maintain that he is practicing politics as usual but with more flair, bombast, or showmanship; they may insist that the institutional guardrails of democracy remain undamaged; they may dismiss the reactions to his behavior as so much liberal hysteria. Whether they do so out of quiet fealty to Trump, denial, or mere partisanship, they serve a vital function on Trump’s behalf: providing those conservative Americans who are alarmed by Trump’s actions with a means to avoid the conclusion that those actions threaten American democracy.

Trump enablers are similar to what the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe in Tyranny of the Minority as “semi-loyal democrats.” Whereas “loyal democrats clearly and consistently reject antidemocratic behavior, semi-loyal democrats act in a more ambiguous manner. They try to have it both ways, claiming to support democracy while at the same time turning a blind eye to violence or antidemocratic extremism.” Levitsky and Ziblatt warn that “history teaches us that when mainstream politicians take the more expedient path of semi-loyalty, tolerating or condoning antidemocratic extremists, the extremists are often strengthened, and a seemingly solid democracy can collapse upon itself.”

What perhaps distinguishes the “semi-loyal democrats” from the inadvertent Trump enablers is that the latter are not deliberately seeking to aid Trump, and may even oppose him. There is a difference between disagreeing over the wisdom or propriety of disqualification under the Fourteenth Amendment, a complex problem, and denying the reality of what happened on January 6, 2021, the facts of which have only become more damning with scrutiny. The latter is an extension of Trump’s corrupting influence, whereby needing to avoid potential chaos or violence induces otherwise sensible or intelligent people to rewrite both history and the law on Trump’s behalf.

There is little substantive distinction, in the end, between engaging in semantic or factual contortions to deny that January 6 was an insurrection and the dishonest assertions of Trump’s attorneys, who have argued that the former president merely “called for peaceful and patriotic protest, and respect for law and order.”

In the coming election season, the Trump enablers, both of the conscious and unconscious variety, will provide an essential function for the Trump campaign simply by avoiding the Juche-like tone of most right-wing outlets that Americans who are not loyal Trumpists find off-putting. They will make Trump seem as normal and reasonable as possible. And if he takes office, asserts his authority as a “dictator on day one,” and continues his assault on American democracy, they will insist that he is behaving no differently from presidents who came before.

Trump enablers sound very different from Trump toadies, who lavish him with absurd praises and seek to mirror his vulgarity and bombast. But whether they realize it or not, they are part of the same project. Indeed, they are an indispensable part of legitimizing that project. They are simply more respectable. And that’s what makes them dangerous.

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