The Trump Coup: Maybe We Can’t Handle the Truth
A pro-Trump demonstrator carries a sign near the US Capitol on the one-year anniversary of the January 6 attack.John Lamparski/AP
Editor’s note: This essay by David Corn first appeared in his newsletter, This Land. But we wanted to make sure as many readers as possible have a chance to see it. This Land is written by David twice a week and provides behind-the-scenes stories about politics and media; his unvarnished take on the events of the day; film, books, television, podcast, and music recommendations; interactive audience features; and more. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but right now you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of This Land here.
On Friday, the Republican National Committee formally censured GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, castigating them for participating in the House investigation of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. The resolution described the inquiry as “the persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” Consequently, it was widely interpreted and decried as equating the riot that led to nine deaths with reasonable debate and as showing support for Donald Trump’s brownshirts, though Republicans could claim the fuzzy wording only applied to the nonviolent protest rally that occurred prior to the assault on Congress. Most notable was that the GOP wasn’t more careful with its language regarding 1/6 and that its leaders felt no compunction to include in the resolution a denunciation of the violence committed by the mob of right-wing fanatics inspired and incited by Trump. Perhaps more stunning—though it’s hard to be stunned by Republican extremism these days—was that the GOP believed it could play politics with 1/6, as if that horrific event is just another dispute in the never-ending tussle with the libs, and get away with it.
This brazenness brought to mind a quote that had appeared in the New York Times a few days prior. Regarding the steady flow of revelations pertaining to Trump’s efforts to overthrow the election and retain power, Jeffrey Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, observed that voters had become desensitized, if not numb, to Trump’s attacks on democracy: “I actually think the American public is dramatically underplaying how significant and dangerous this is because we cannot process the basic truth of what we are learning about President Trump’s efforts—which is we’ve never had a president before who fundamentally placed his own personal interests above the nation’s.”
The final piece of his statement was naive. Previous presidents have placed their own political interests above the country’s. Richard Nixon, for one, conspired with a foreign power to sabotage the Vietnam War peace talks so he could prevent a breakthrough that would harm his electoral prospects in 1968. (This deed—one of the dastardliest in US presidential history—likely caused the deaths of thousands of American soldiers.) But Engel’s larger point is intriguing: Trump’s wickedness may be too immense for the nation to absorb.
Each week yields new evidence that Trump was scheming in his final days to destroy American democracy. He improperly—possibly criminally—pressured state legislators, state election officials, and Justice Department officials to help him rig or undermine the vote count. Last week, Trump issued a statement acknowledging he had leaned on Vice President Mike Pence to “overturn” the election—not just provide the states more time to review their vote tallies. (Trump’s argument that a vice president has the power to do this is both dumb and dangerous. Certainly, the authors of the US Constitution did not intend to grant the vice president—who could be a presidential candidate—the unchecked power to decide an election.) But the enormity of Trump’s turpitude has not fully registered—in part because the Republicans have stuck to a this-parrot’s-not-dead stance and refused to admit reality.
But this shameless denialism can only work if enough of the public either goes along, declines to pay attention, or doesn’t give a damn. A president attempting a coup ought to define the political moment. A party that supports such a leader and his return to power ought to be scandalized and delegitimized. Failing the basic test of responsible governance—defending the Constitution—the GOP has proved itself unworthy of national stewardship. And yet the Republicans remain standing—and drool over the prospect of regaining control of Congress later this year.
So we end up harrumphing over the RNC resolution, squabbling over a violent raid on the citadel of US democracy. Engel’s point resonates: The audacity of Trump’s crime against the republic might be too great for many to absorb. Certainly, Trump fans don’t want to concede that the man in whom they placed their faith—their cult leader—acted with such villainy. Others may find it too tough to confront and comprehend such a huge and unprecedented crime, for doing so would compel involvement and action. During the Trump-Russia scandal, I hypothesized that one reason why Trump’s aiding and abetting of the Russian attack on the 2016 election did not spur greater popular outrage was that the primary notions of that controversy—that American democracy was vulnerable, that Moscow could successfully assault the United States, and that a presidential candidate and his party would provide cover for such an attack and exploit it for their own gain—were almost too outlandish to believe. Those are discomfiting premises that undermine our collective sense of security and stability.
A few weeks after the 2016 election, I encountered then–House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at an event and asked if the Democrats intended to press for investigations of the Russian subversion of the campaign. Her answer was, maybe. It was evident that she had not yet given much thought to this possibility. I wondered at the time if the matter was too overwhelming for our divided and tribalized government to address. Eventually, she and other Democrats did demand inquiries, which were initiated but were also highly politicized by Republicans who did not want a full exploration of what had transpired.
The attempted Trump coup, similarly, may be too profound a breach to be processed by our fractured political system. This presents a challenge and an opportunity to the House committee investigating January 6. Its members had considered holding extensive hearings last month, but they postponed them until April or May, as the committee reviews the massive amount of information it has gathered and pursues recalcitrant witnesses. Up to now, the Trump coup tale has emerged in bits and pieces through multiple revelations in the media. These components do not appear in a linear fashion. There’s new information about Trump muscling the Justice Department. Something about fake electors forging documents. A phone call to Georgia state election officials. A draft order to declare martial law. And so on. The story can be confusing and murky even to those of us who cover it steadily. Imagine how it comes across to citizens who only see the headlines intermittently. For them, it’s not drip, drip, drip; it’s more like a splatter.
Here’s where the House committee comes in. When it does get around to hearings, it will need to convey a clear and comprehensive story that shows anyone paying attention how Trump vigorously endeavored to sabotage the republic. This won’t happen with a lot of speechifying. But committee members—or staffers—should guide the public through the various elements. With charts. With video. With timelines. Witnesses can be quite useful at hearings. A sharp grilling of a bad actor will go viral. But narrative storytelling can be more important. The full tale of the Trump-Russia affair was never presented publicly (though the 966-page Senate Intelligence Committee report produced four years after the fact is a somewhat full and frightening chronology of what occurred).
As we learned with the Trump-Russia scandal, criminal investigations, such as special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, are imperfect vehicles for informing the citizenry. That’s the job of Congress or an independent commission. Remember the 9/11 Commission and its impressive final report that provided a straightforward recounting of that nightmare and the governmental failures that preceded it. The House January 6 committee ought to take its lead from the commission and embrace the effective telling of the 1/6 story as its top priority. The nation’s citizenry deserves a full account of Trump’s skullduggery, even if we can’t handle the truth.