Accountability Makes Us Safer
If Trump escapes indictment, making mockery of the principle that no one is above the law, it will further empower extremist leaders and increase the prospect of political violence
No one is above the law. Remember that quaint notion?
This Thursday in prime time, the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 will be providing a detailed account of over three hours of inaction by Donald J. Trump as the violence unfolded that day, despite the efforts by aides, lawyers and family members. This is intended to be the last of their televised hearings, at least for now, and it’s supposed to further strengthen their case that Donald J. Trump was responsible for inciting violent insurrection and engaging in seditious conspiracy.
For 187 minutes—from the time he exited the “Stop the Steal” rally to when he finally released a video urging his supporters to leave the Capitol—Trump did “nothing” to stop the escalating violence, said Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. Kinzinger, who will lead the next session along with Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, also said the committee has “filled in the blanks” and Thursday’s hearing “is going to open people’s eyes in a big way.”
That’s a good thing—the truth always matters. But it leaves open the question of whether the committee’s effort to present the facts and provide the narrative to understand the facts matters if it doesn’t lead to a criminal referral—and ultimately indictment by Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice.
Failing to do so will give additional fuel to Trump supporters, especially the 40 percent of Republicans (one in three Americans overall) who think that political violence is sometimes justified and the significant majority of Republicans—a whopping 70 percent—who continue to insist that Joe Biden was fraudulently elected president. It will also likely demoralize Democrats who see this reluctance to bring charges as a failure of nerve.
At a time when the authoritarian mentality has continued to metastasize, this failure to act will put all of us in even greater danger. It’s not just rising doubt about the fundamental principle that no one is above the law; it’s how that failure convinces extremist leaders and right-wing extremist groups to keep going, convinced that truth is on their side, violence is necessary to achieve their ends, and the rule of law will not limit their power grab.
This failure to bring charges further motivates ambitious, authoritarian-inclined leaders like Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis that this is the way of the future and, indeed, illuminates the path to the White House. Does anyone doubt that if Trump avoids prosecution, the next Republican candidate for president who loses the election will graciously concede? Or worse, that we can be sure the next Republican president who loses re-election will relinquish power peacefully?
Several months ago in a Washington Post interview, Barbara Walter, author of the recently published book How Civil Wars Start, called the Jan. 6 Capitol attack “the most public act of insurrection, probably a treasonous act that 10, 20 years ago would have just cut to the heart of every American.” She initially viewed it as a “gift,” she said, “Because it’s bringing it out into the public eye in the most obvious way. And the result has to be that we can’t deny or ignore that we have a problem.” She admitted she was surprised by “how hard the Republican Party has worked to continue to deny it and to create this smokescreen.”
But in Walter’s study of predictors that increase the risk of civil war, she learned that countries in a middle zone between democracy and autocracy—a form of government defined as anocracy—that are most in danger. This is true particularly if they possess weak institutions and their political parties are “based almost exclusively around identity: ethnic, religious or racial identity.”
Suffice to say, she has been alarmed to see the GOP increasingly organizing around “a white supremacist strategy”—and the growing strength of violent extremist groups. Her conclusion, which has caught a lot of attention: “What we’re heading toward is an insurgency, which is a form of civil war.” She added:
“I wish it were the case that by not talking about it we could prevent anything from happening. But the reality is, if we don’t talk about it, [violent extremists] are going to continue to organize, and they’re going to continue to train. There are definitely lots of groups on the far right who want war. They are preparing for war. And not talking about it does not make us safer.”
Views vary on whether and to what extent Attorney General Merrick Garland is investigating Trump’s criminal culpability and whether he will eventually be prosecuted. But don’t doubt that the failure to pursue criminal charges will empower him and those who want to be like him.
Rep. Kinzinger said the committee still has plenty to do, even after Thursday’s hearing. “This investigation is not winding down,” he told CBS’s Margaret Brennan. “We may be towards the end of this tranche of hearings, [but] we may have more hearings in the future and the investigation is still ongoing.”
Here’s hoping the investigation yields a criminal referral and the mounting body of evidence succeeds at turning more heads, including among the culpable. Accountability at the highest level is critical to strengthen the bulwark against those bent on violence and bringing our democracy to an end.
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