Donald Trump has been banned from Twitter, and while he has held a mysterious meeting with the MyPillow CEO and the rumors abound about where he will flee to before Air Force One is no longer his personal jet, he is for the moment at loose ends. He and his cult are having to work out what comes next.
For the rest of the country, there are a couple of lessons that we must learn here. The first is the obvious parallel with the Beer Hall Putsch of the Nazis against the Bavarian government in 1923. A coup attempt is no less a coup attempt for being a poorly carried out exercise in wild optimism. Much like the way in which Hitler and his followers confused enthusiasm and doctrine with likelihood of success, Trump’s crew believed that they could overturn the results of an election — one that they claim without good evidence was stolen from them — by storming the Capitol building, with some of them hoping to seize Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi — the next two officials in the line of presidential succession after Trump — and others, perhaps to hold them hostage or possibly to kill them. And just as with the failed 1923 coup, the attack on the 6th of January ultimately flopped — in the latter case the result of a lack of competent leadership.
The German Putsch resulted in sixteen dead Nazis and light sentences for the leaders that got reduced even further in short order. Hitler himself was given a cushy time in prison, during which he was able to compose his ideological declaration, Mein Kampf, giving the world an outline of his beliefs and plans, plans that were ignored for far too long.
Thus one thing we must learn from the assault on the Capitol is that the perpetrators must not be allowed to get away with their actions. The latest daily constitutional crisis is the question of whether or not Trump can issue pardons related to the acts that led to his second impeachment, but given his lazy leadership, this may not even be tested, since it is probable that he will not get around to handing out jail-escape cards in his flight from Washington. His long record of using people who worked for him and throwing them away should have warned his rioters of how things would turn out.
The leaders and participants in the attempted coup should receive the full penalty of the law. I do not say this out of mere vindictiveness, and I understand how doubtful claims about deterrence can be. I also suggest that they be monitored closely while incarcerated, since prison radicalization is a prime field for creating terrorists. But we have to make the declaration now that trying to overthrow the lawful government of the United States will not be tolerated. Will that short-circuit future attempts? Who knows. Given the weepy reaction of the terrorists when they find out that they are barred from getting on an airplane among other consequences, however, there is reason to think that in this situation, the demonstration that harsh sentences will result from seditious acts may have a salutary effect.
But of greater importance is for us to learn from Trump himself. I keep asking people to consider the following: What if Trump had been sane? What if he had been competent?
The reality is that it was his sloth, his ignorance, and his fragile sense of self that preserved our nation. We have good institutions — for good people. And yes, the courts did provide a continual check on his greater obscenities. But Congress, even with the House in Democratic control for the last two years, and the Cabinet allowed him to get away with far more than he should have been able to do, the number of times he was prevented by White House staff and department secretaries notwithstanding. What if he had followed the necessary procedures in writing his executive orders? What if he had a coherent foreign policy, a willingness to bring Obamacare to an actual end, a systematic plan for dealing with Democratic opposition? And what if he had used this competence to win support in the military, the FBI, and intelligence agencies?
I pose these questions not out of some academic interest. Tom Cotton, one of the senators from my state of residence, might be working himself up to a presidential run in 2024, and he is not alone among prominent Republicans on today’s stage. Who may be waiting on the sidelines is anyone’s guess. Trump’s campaigns and time in office provide his would-be ideological successors the chance to learn from his errors, and I am unwilling to comfort myself with the fact that many on the right wing cannot trouble themselves to learn. All it takes is one who can then lead the many.
For those of us who value democracy and protected rights, what are we to do? I am reminded of John Adams’s letter to Massachusetts militiamen in which he states that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” I would argue the point about religion, unless we understand the term to mean conviction and faith in our civil system, but what he said overall is correct. Our government only works when good people participate in it, vote for it, and keep an eye on it.
The fundamental reality is that Donald Trump is our fault. We the people have plenty of excuses — the powerful among us have used the machinery of government to keep the rest of us working ourselves into the grave, tired enough to pay much mind to what is going on.
And this must change. We do not have the luxury of inattention. We are living in Germany in 1924, having seen large numbers die in a pandemic and facing a growing economic crisis. More than that, our world is heating up, thanks to our foolish exploitation of its resources. As hard as action will be, we must act. This will require the election of politicians who work for the people. Not politicians who pander to the people, as Trump and the Republicans and the Democrats by and large have done, but work in fact for us, guaranteeing access to healthcare and education to all Americans who are paid for their genuine worth rather than for what capitalists are willing to let slip and who live in a sustainable environment. Candidates will from time to time declare their support for some version of these things, but we must not allow ourselves to become fans of political stars. Instead, we have to demand sound policy.
And we have to do this through the legal processes available in our system: our votes at all levels, our voices as amplified by the extraordinary communications technology we have today, and our value as participants in our economy.
If we do not, the next Trump will be the death of even the last illusion of a free society.