The Shape of Cowardice

While the House voted to hold Steve Bannon in criminal contempt, 202 Republicans chose to let him off the hook

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Steve Bannon exits the Manhattan Federal Court on August 20, 2020 after being indicted for allegedly defrauding donors. (Photo by Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress via Getty Images)

Yes, nine Republicans joined 220 Democrats yesterday to hold Steve Bannon in criminal contempt of Congress for defying the subpoena to hand over documents and testify. That included, of course, Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both of whom are members of the House Select Committee investigating January 6.

But 202 Republicans voted to let Bannon off the hook, illustrating once again their denial of responsibility and their continuing subjugation to the dangerous malignancy who previously occupied our White House.

I’ll leave it to others to reflect on the institutional significance of this event. Instead, allow me to dwell on what this vote suggests about the people who lacked the courage to do the right thing. Political reporters are quick to note that many of these Republicans face re-election in 2022, so they fear the wrath of Trump and the possibility that he may primary them and drive them out of office.

Yet I’m always struck by the cynicism and small-mindedness required to think this way. Are these elected officials so riddled with cowardice and lacking in larger purpose about their responsibilities as public servants that they cannot recognize what they’ve become? Are they so lacking in talent and skill that they cannot imagine getting another job if they do their duty and, as a result, lose an election? Is the corruption of power so great that they’ll do whatever it takes to hold onto it?

The answers are plain to see.

I’m inclined to include here the oft-quoted biblical reference: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” But as I’m sure many of you are already thinking, how many of the 202 Republicans who chose to stick with Trump and Bannon yesterday had—seeking profit—already discarded their souls?

And then there’s the other nine. Beyond Cheney and Kinzinger, whose participation on the Select Committee clarifies where they stand on January 6, five of the other Republicans who voted with the majority had voted in January for Trump’s impeachment for his role in inciting the insurrection. That includes Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler, New York Rep. John Katko and Michigan Reps. Fred Upton and Peter Meijer.

Most of them have already faced blowback for sticking up for what’s right, which is why Gonzalez had already decided last month not to seek re-election, obliquely noting “the toxic dynamics inside our own party.”

It doesn’t take much effort to depict the sour reality of Steve Bannon: the criminality, the corruption, the arrogant assumptions that the law does not apply to him, the nasty effort to dismantle government and destroy the lives of decent people. In August last year, a sunburned Bannon, taken by federal agents off a 150-foot yacht owned by a Chinese billionaire, sat in a Manhattan holding cell, charged with mail fraud and money laundering for his role in bilking donors in the private “Build the Wall” scheme.

Bannon reportedly pocketed more than $1 million for himself after claiming that he would take no compensation. While he had been dumped by Trump in 2017 as a chief strategist and official adviser, Bannon evaded trial when Trump pardoned him. This despite the fact that Trump criticized Bannon for (laughably) “showboating” and called the project “inappropriate.”

Lest we forget: This is the former co-founder of the alt-right Breitbart News and a heroic figure among white supremacists. This is the self-described Leninist, proud of his dedication to destruction. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too,” he said in 2016. “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

And this is the guy that 202 Republicans chose to hitch their wagons to yesterday, despite his paltry claim that he could invoke executive privilege to justify his nose-thumbing of Congress. It should be a reminder—as if we needed another one—of how fully the party and the belief in decency and rule of law have come crashing down.

But, of course, Bannon is just a stand-in for his former boss, the disgraced, twice-impeached White House occupant who continues to push the Big Lie, minimize (or, worse, take pride in) January 6, evade justice and hold power over frightened House members. Crossing Bannon meant crossing Trump.

Which brings us to the Department of Justice and Attorney General Merrick Garland, who’s now responsible for deciding what to do with the House referral. At a House Judiciary hearing yesterday, Garland offered a typically non-committal comment: "The Department of Justice will do what it always does in such circumstances, we'll apply the facts and the law and make a decision, consistent with the principles of prosecution." Not exactly satisfying for those of us who believe that the insurrection’s leaders need to be prosecuted with all due speed.

I leave you with the words of Steve Bannon from his January 5 podcast, a show titled “War Room” during which he told listeners that the next day “all hell is going to break loose.” Remember this as you reflect on 202 Republicans who chose yesterday to stand by Steve, the smirking, Trump-supporting Leninist whose determined to defy Congress, destroy democracy and deny the truth of that deadly day.

“We are going into uncharted waters. We’re going into something that’s never happened before in American history. Tomorrow it’s going—we’re pulling the trigger on something that’s going to be, it’s going to be minute by minute, hour by hour, what happens. The stakes couldn’t be higher right now…It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen. Okay, it’s going to be quite extraordinarily different. All I can say is, strap in. … You made this happen and tomorrow it’s game day. So strap in. Let’s get ready.”

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