COMMENTARY

What's protecting Trump and the coup plotters: American exceptionalism — how do we fight that?

A cruel irony: Our misguided faith that America is special is shielding Trump and the fascists from punishment

By Chauncey DeVega

Published January 26, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Demonstrators breached security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Demonstrators breached security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

It has now been more than a year since the attack on the U.S. Capitol, with no clear signs that Donald Trump or any other of the major coup plotters will ever be punished. Many of the foot soldiers in that assault have been arrested and charged, but only a few have faced serious legal charges. Trump and the Republican fascists are plotting their next attacks on American democracy in plain sight, and in apparent total impunity. 

As others have asked, is this the least punished coup attempt or insurrection in recent history? That is a question for historians, legal scholars and other experts, but an affirmative response does not seem unreasonable.

Almost every week brings more evidence of the true scale of the Trump cabal's coup attempt and its larger plot against American democracy. We now have firm confirmation that Donald Trump and his regime at least contemplated plans to order the military to confiscate voting machines after he was defeated by Joe Biden on Election Day. Such a move was meant to be legitimated by the false claim that voting machines in "battleground states," i.e., those where Trump lost to Biden by a relatively small margin, had somehow been compromised. The seizure would apparently also have involved declaring some type of national state of emergency, presumably granting Trump and his regime broad powers to act outside the boundaries of the law and the Constitution.

RELATED: A year later, we're still trapped in a bad fascist-coup movie: It doesn't end well

Last Friday Politico reported on this:

The executive order — which also would have appointed a special counsel to probe the 2020 election — was never issued. The remarks are a draft of a speech Trump gave the next day. Together, the two documents point to the wildly divergent perspectives of White House advisers and allies during Trump's frenetic final weeks in office.

It's not clear who wrote either document. But the draft executive order is dated Dec. 16, 2020, and is consistent with proposals that lawyer Sidney Powell made to the then-president. On Dec. 18, 2020, Powell, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump administration lawyer Emily Newman, and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne met with Trump in the Oval Office.

In that meeting, Powell urged Trump to seize voting machines and to appoint her as a special counsel to investigate the election, according to Axios.

That order would reportedly have empowered the defense secretary to "seize, collect, retain and analyze all machines, equipment, electronically stored information, and material records," under the terms of a federal law on the preservation of election records. The defense secretary would have been given 60 days to submit a written assessment of the 2020 election, which as Politico reports, "could have been a gambit to keep Trump in power until at least mid-February of 2021."

Ordering the military to interfere in domestic politics would have entered a space where talk of potential civil war or sectarian violence would no longer seem far-fetched. Would the military have obeyed Trump's orders? Would some factions have resisted? 

We have also learned in recent days that forged electoral documents were submitted to the National Archives by Republican operatives in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin, as part of a larger scheme aimed at nullifying Biden's victory and either awarding those states' electoral votes to Trump or throwing the presidential election into the House of Representatives.


Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.


The sum total of information now publicly known confirms that this was a coordinated nationwide conspiracy aimed at overturning the 2020 presidential election and keeping Donald Trump in power. But that calamity has not been consigned to the past. The coup continues; it never stopped. The danger is escalating.

In a certain sense, the Trump cabal are very lucky that they committed these crimes in the United States. If this had happened in another country, the consequences would almost certainly have been much more severe.  

Donald Trump admires dictators and demagogues such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Viktor Orbán and other such leaders. We already know how they respond to coup plots and other such attempts.

According to another draft memo obtained by Politico, Trump considered saying this in the immediate aftermath of his followers' attack on the Capitol:

 The Demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American Democracy…. I am directing the Department of Justice to ensure all lawbreakers are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We must send a message — not with mercy but with justice. To those who engaged in acts of violence and destruction, I want to be very clear: you do not represent me. You do not represent our movement. You do not represent our country. And if you broke the law, you belong in jail.

Trump never made that speech. But the irony here should be obvious: Trump and the members of his cabal have been treated much more gently by the Biden administration and the Department of Justice than what Trump himself appeared ready to demand last year. 

Trump has left such language far behind (however performative it may have been at the time) and now describes his followers who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as "patriots," "heroes" and "political prisoners."

In fact, the Trump cabal is being protected and enabled by the power of American exceptionalism, and the broken politics of our country in this moment. America's elites, by and large, prefer stability and some sense of "normalcy" (however false or manufactured) as a way of moving beyond the events of Jan. 6. There is little to no appetite among American elites for the type of national reckoning that this moment of democracy crisis requires.

In fear of setting a "dangerous precedent" regarding the presidency, or of accusations of partisan political retribution, the Biden administration and Attorney General Merrick Garland appear uninterested in holding Donald Trump personally accountable for their likely high crimes. It seems improbable that Trump will ever be criminally charged, let alone convicted, for his role in those events.

It remains possible that other high-ranking coup plotters may face criminal charges — for example, Steve Bannon and Mark Meadows already do. But it is highly unlikely that their punishments, if any at all, will amount to more than the proverbial slap on the wrist. Trump and his cabal, almost entirely a group of white men, are also being protected by the way American society, including the legal system, is organized to maintain white male privilege. (Especially if those men are rich Republicans and other "conservatives".)

The mainstream news media, meanwhile continues to default to obsolete habits, seeking out "both-sides" arguments, horserace journalism and a return to "normal" politics, even as the country experiences a worsening slide into autocracy. There is no indication that the media is embracing the kind of pro-democracy advocacy journalism that would be required to hold the Republican fascists accountable for their actions and mobilize the American people to defend democracy.

In other countries, there would likely have been massive, sustained protests and other civil disruptions following a leader's attempt to discard the votes of 81 million people as part of a coup. But public opinion and other research has consistently shown that the American people are becoming bored and exhausted by the events of Jan. 6 and have no appetite to pursue justice for those crimes. To a large extent, Americans worn down by the Age of Trump and the pandemic have succumbed to learned helplessness, and view the federal government with increasing distrust and little confidence in its ability to solve important problems.

Instead of being mobilized in defense of democracy, Americans are becoming increasingly demobilized — which amounts to de facto surrender to the Republican fascists. As political commentator Umair Haque warns:

To really stop the Republican plan, something remarkable would have to happen. Americans would have to reclaim their democracy at a grass-roots level, and take all those local offices back from the Trumpists who are claiming them. That's not going to happen — the average American's unfortunately worked to the bone and more interested in influencers and superhero movies in their (increasingly spare) spare time than anything real. Or maybe there would have to be mass defection from the Republican Party. That's not going to happen either, because, and this is the most fatal fact of all — and sadly, you already know it….

Americans are severely, severely underestimating how much danger their democracy is really in. Partly, that is because they don't care — too many are greedy, selfish, violent people who care more about status and power and money than democracy. Too many have been so abused they've had no choice but to buy into those very same values. And partly, it's because they're weary. But most of all, it's because even though they're beginning to be warned, those warnings are not nearly real enough yet, not urgent or clear or strident or sharp enough for the average American to begin to take seriously how much deadly and desperate and real danger their society and future is now really in.

So let it be said with crystal clarity.

This is not a drill, not a game, not some kind of Hollywood movie. This is the real thing. These are the final stages of American collapse. The chances to stop the Republicans are already vanishingly slim — I'd put them at less than 10%. And they dwindle every day. It's now or never.

Here we have one of the most ironic and tragicomic elements of this era: Trump and his cabal are being protected against serious consequences for their actions by precisely the democratic norms and traditions of a political culture and political system they are doggedly trying to undermine and overthrow. 

In their private moments, are Donald Trump, the members of his cabal and their followers aware of this? Do they tell themselves, "I am so lucky that I did these things here in America, where I am protected by the rule of law. The president and the entire political system does not want to see me punished, and most of the population doesn't take what I did seriously, and just wants to get on with their lives"? 

Probably not. Donald Trump is personally incapable of such introspection. He wants to retake the White House as a means of exacting revenge on his enemies, making himself a virtual dictator and accumulating as much power, privilege and wealth as possible before mortality finally claims him.

Trump's followers, whether they literally attacked the Capitol last January or merely supported and sympathized with that attack, believe that they are part of a noble and patriotic cause in defense of "freedom" and "patriotism." This is the same logic used by the Confederacy when it broke away from the Union to protect and expand the evil institution of white-on-Black chattel slavery, launching a civil war that cost the lives of more than 750,000 Americans.

Ultimately, the same civic religion of American exceptionalism, which enabled and encouraged Trump and the Republican fascists' coup attempt in the first place, now protects them from any meaningful consequences — which makes it far more likely that their next attack on democracy will go much further and be more successful.

Read more on the slowly unfolding investigation into Jan. 6 and Trump's attempted coup:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVegaFOLLOW chaunceydevegaLIKE Chauncey DeVega


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American Exceptionalism Commentary Coup Donald Trump History Insurrection Jan. 6