Three quick thoughts on Thursday’s hearing by the Jan. 6 commission.
• I know a lot of people on my side of the ideological divide who give Mike Pence little credit for his actions during the attempted violent coup. I disagree. Look, he’s a religious-right Republican who was attached to Donald Trump at the hip from the moment Trump picked him as his running mate. But when everything was on the line, Pence didn’t hesitate to act with courage and integrity. He deserves our gratitude.
• Like everyone, I laughed at the video of Josh Hawley hightailing it away from the insurrectionist mob. But my reaction to the slo-mo replay was one of awed appreciation. It struck me as Liz Cheney’s handiwork — a giant “screw you” to a highly deserving target. She learned at the feet of the master. She can’t waterboard Hawley, although she’d probably like to. But she can humiliate him. Well done.
• I am weirdly fascinated by former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is either the best of the bad guys or the worst of the good guys. He’s certainly no hero. Yes, he may have been among the last people in Trump’s inner circle who was giving him rational, reality-based advice, but so what? And he’s still protecting Trump, refusing to answer questions about what Trump told him under the guise of attorney-client privilege.
The New York Times has yet another story on the pressures being placed on publishers to cancel controversial books. The example in question is by Jonathan Mattingly, one of the Louisville police officers who took part in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.
Probably the best known of such incidents was Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel a contract with Sen. Josh Hawley earlier this year after he essentially endorsed the Jan. 6. insurrection. Hawley’s book was instantly picked up by the right-wing publisher Regnery, and Hawley has been talking ever since to whine about how he’s been silenced.
The Hawley situation shows that the marketplace can resolve disputes over speech. But I want to push it one step further by pointing out that publishing and distributing a book has become absolutely frictionless. Self-publishing a book, either in print or online, is cheap and easy — I’ve done it myself.
And though it is true that Amazon will occasionally decline to carry a book, as was the case recently with a work that had come under attack by the transgender community, DIY methods are always available, starting with the web, email lists and the like. (I’m leaving out Facebook because the service has been making efforts to take down disinformation and hate speech.)
What this comes down to is that fringe right-wing books will continue to be published and will continue to be promoted by fringe right-wing media, with the most prominent authors finding a voice on Fox News.
And even lesser authors can find creative ways to make money from their books. Just ask Sen. Ted Cruz, now facing allegations that he used campaign funds to promote his tome.
I don’t think any of us believe that Trumpism is going away. To the extent that we take any comfort from the current chaotic state of the Republican Party, it’s that it seems mainly to be defined by the QAnon craziness of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the alleged perversion of Matt Gaetz and the cartoonish cynicism of Josh Hawley. Yes, we need to keep an eye on them. But they’re so out there on the fringes that the amount of damage they could do would appear to be limited.
Which is why an essay published recently by Glenn Ellmers of the Claremont Institute should chill you to the bone. Running at more than 3,200 words, Ellmers’ screed is nothing less than an assertion of authoritarianism and white supremacy, dressed up in intellectual garb. I don’t mean to suggest that he advances a coherent argument — he keeps telling the reader that he’s going to explain what he means, and he never actually gets around to it. But Ellmers can write, and he’s got a worldview that he wants to impose on all of us. “Pure, undiluted fascism,” tweeted my GBH News colleague Adam Reilly.
"[A] majority of people living in the United States today can no longer be considered fellow citizens."
Ellmers begins by asserting that more than half of his fellow countrymen are “not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” And what does he mean by that? Well, he wants you to know that his definition of not-Americans goes well beyond those he bluntly labels as “illegal immigrants” and “aliens.” He writes:
I’m really referring to the many native-born people—some of whose families have been here since the Mayflower—who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.
So who are the real Americans? Why, Trump voters, of course. That is, “the 75 million people who voted in the last election against the senile figurehead of a party that stands for mob violence, ruthless censorship, and racial grievances, not to mention bureaucratic despotism.”
There’s the hate, right out in the open. I really don’t need to quote any more except to say that Ellmers goes on at great length, in pseudo-intellectual language, to tell us that action must be taken. What kind of action he doesn’t say. But I would assume that his only regret about the insurrection of Jan. 6 is that it failed.
What’s especially chilling about this is that there’s none of the unseriousness that often defines hardcore Trumpism — no pedophilia rings masterminded by Hillary Clinton and George Soros, no claims that the election was stolen. Just a pure will to power, which is a defining characteristic of fascism.
If you don’t want to read the whole thing, I recommend this analysis by Zack Beauchamp of Vox. Under the headline “The conservative movement is rejecting America,” Beauchamp writes:
Ellmers’s essay should be taken seriously because it makes the anti-democratic subtext of this kind of conservative discourse into clearly legible text. And it is a clear articulation of what the movement has been telling us through its actions, like Georgia’s new voting law: It sees democracy not as a principle to respect, but as a barrier to be overcome in pursuit of permanent power.
The Claremont Institute, based in California, is what might be called a right-wing think tank that at some point in recent years abandoned ultraconservatism for something much more dangerous. In 2016 it published a pseudonymous essay called “The Flight 93 Election,” arguing that — just like the passengers who brought down a planeload of terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001 — voters had to vote for Donald Trump lest they allow Hillary Clinton to destroy the country. As Conor Friedersdorf explained it in The Atlantic at the time:
The most radical, least conservative people in American politics right now are the so-called conservatives who are imprudently counseling the abandon of core values and norms to avoid a point-of-no-return that is a figment of their imagination, often with rhetorical excesses that threaten the peaceful transition of power at the core of America’s success insofar as the excesses are taken seriously.
I couldn’t find a whole lot about Ellmers other than his bio at the Claremont Institute, which describes him as a visiting research scholar at Hillsdale College, another bastion of the far right, as well as a minor politico of sorts. Of local note: According to the bio, he holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Boston University.
More than anything I’ve seen since Jan. 6, though, Ellmers’ essay defines and explains the ongoing threat we face from Trumpism.
President Joe Biden speaks often about his desire to unite the country, and poll numbers suggest that he’s having some success. Until and unless the fever breaks, though, it’s clear that a large minority of Americans — 25%, 30%, 40% — are going to regard themselves as the only true patriots and the rest of us as the Other.
It’s a horrifying dilemma, and there’s no clear path forward.
Many mainstream news organizations are genuinely struggling to come to terms with the current dynamic in Washington: an often feckless Democratic Party opposed by crazy and dangerous Republicans. It’s not an entirely new scenario, and has in fact been building since Newt Gingrich’s speakership in the mid-1990s. But it’s become acute since the Trump-inspired insurrection of Jan. 6 and the embrace of QAnon and sedition by large swaths of the GOP.
But while responsible journalists are trying to figure out how to navigate this reality, there’s another group that continues to embrace #bothsides-ism at its most mindless. At the center of this is Axios, which combines the politics-as-sports sensibility of Politico, whence it sprang, with bullet points and lots of boldface.
Take, for instance, “The Mischief Makers.” According to Axios reporters Alayna Treene and Kadia Goba, leaders in each of the two major parties are being tormented by “troublemakers” and “political thorns” within their ranks. And who are these feisty backbenchers?
Well, on the Republican side is House member Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has called for the execution of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and who believes that wildfires are caused by a Jewish-controlled laser in outer space. Also getting a nod are Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert and Mo Brooks, all of whom supported the insurrection.
What Democrats could possibly be as dastardly as that? Why, the Squad, of course! Because they’re liberal and/or progressive. So Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley all get a shoutout, as well as like-minded newcomers such as Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush.
In the Senate, Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, all of whom supported Trump’s coup attempt, are equated with Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who are more conservative than most of their party peers, and independent Bernie Sanders, who’s to the left of most of his colleagues but who’s been notably supportive of President Joe Biden.
But wait! There’s to-be-sure paragraph buried amid all this:
Not all are created equal. Democrats often contend with an outspoken, very progressive wing of their caucus and try to keep centrists from crossing party lines. Republicans have senators who led efforts to invalidate the 2020 election results and flirted with the same conspiracy theories that fueled groups involved in the Capitol siege.
So, does anything Axios publishes cause genuine harm? It’s hard to say. But Axios is aimed primarily at insiders — congressional staff members, lobbyists and other journalists. And many of them would love nothing more than validation that they can return to business as usual.
Cynical takes such as this can serve to normalize what’s going on in Washington, providing the narcotic drip we need to help us forget that many powerful Republicans attempted to overthrow the results of the election less than a month ago. Five people died, and we haven’t even begun to get to the bottom of what happened.
A lot of smart people are trying to make sense of last week’s insurrection. Was it an attempted coup? I resisted the label at first on the grounds that there was literally no mechanism by which Congress could be forced to keep Donald Trump in office. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump considered it a coup attempt, and that many of his thugs did as well.
With that in mind, I recommend this piece by Timothy Snyder that’s coming out in next week’s New York Times Magazine. Snyder, a history professor at Yale and the author of 2017’s “On Tyranny,” has written a brilliant analysis of the Republican Party in the Trump era. Reading the whole thing will be well worth your time, but I found two points that he made to be especially clarifying.
The first is whether what we’re looking at is fascism or not. Many of us have been struggling with that ever since Trump rode down the escalator some five and a half years ago. He clearly had authoritarian impulses. But fascism on the order of Franco or Mussolini?
The way Snyder puts it is that Trump’s presidency was defined by post-truth, which amounts to pre-fascism. He writes:
Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves.
If the coup attempt had somehow succeeded, I suppose we would be looking at actual fascism. But it didn’t, partly because enough of our elected officials held firm and prevented it from happening, partly because the mob was so incompetent. As Snyder writes, “It is hard to think of a comparable insurrectionary moment, when a building of great significance was seized, that involved so much milling around.” And yet we now know that some elements of the mob were prepared to take hostages and perhaps worse.
The other useful observation Snyder makes is that the Republicans are dominated by two toxic factions — the “breakers” and the “gamers.” The breakers are led by Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who were (and presumably remain) prepared to tear it all down in order to empower themselves. The gamers are exemplified by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was perfectly happy to exploit the chaos created by the likes of Hawley and Cruz — and, of course, Trump himself — in order to carry out their agenda of tax cuts for the rich and right-wing court appointments as far as the eye can see.
It will be fascinating to see whether the gamers are able to move on and or if instead they have damaged themselves beyond repair. I would love nothing better than for prinicipled Republicans who are neither breakers nor gamers split away and form a new conservative party.
But do they have enough of a critical mass to make a difference? I count senators like Mitt Romney Ben Sasse, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski as well as governors like Charlie Baker, Larry Hogan and Phil Scott. You may have their differences with all of them (I certainly do), but, to their credit, they have refused to align themselves with the breakers or, except on occasion, the gamers.
Snyder offers a chilling look at what we may be in for during the next four years:
For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.
The Trump presidency has been awful in ways that we couldn’t have imagined four years ago — and I’m saying that as someone who expected it would be pretty awful. More than anything, we need to take advantage of the pending Biden presidency and Democratic control of Congress to make sure we don’t continue spinning out of control. As currently constituted, the Republicans should never control the levers of power again. We will see whether they have the capability or the willingness to reform themselves.
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