These elections "are the most important in our lifetime": Democracy advocate on America's choice

Brad Woodhouse of the Defend Democracy Project: These are no ordinary midterms; they'll determine America's future

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 18, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

Photos of then-President Trump are shown during a House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th hearing in the Cannon House Office Building on Thursday, June 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Photos of then-President Trump are shown during a House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th hearing in the Cannon House Office Building on Thursday, June 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In a series of public hearings that began last summer, the House Jan. 6 committee has developed a damning narrative, fueled by overwhelming and irrefutable evidence, that Donald Trump was the central figure in a nationwide criminal plot to end American democracy by nullifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Last Thursday, in its final scheduled hearing, the committee presented the following information, further confirming the scale of the Trump cabal's attempted coup: 

  • Trump intended to travel to the Capitol himself, operating on the reasonable belief that his followers would have installed him in power like a conquering warlord or dictator.
  • Donald Trump was no bystander on Jan. 6, and was not caught by surprise. The terrorist attack by followers on the Capitol was no surprise either. Trump both facilitated and welcomed the violence. The Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies warned officials of the Trump regime days ahead of Jan. 6 that his followers were planning violence in Washington, and that some would be armed.
  • Trump had made clear he would never concede defeat in the 2020 election. He had decided weeks prior to claim victory regardless of the outcome.
  • Trump was told repeatedly by aides, advisers and law enforcement officials that he had lost the election and that his conspiracy theories about voter fraud had no basis in fact. He was not going to admit defeat or relinquish power voluntarily. 
  • Trump was apparently in communication with right-wing paramilitaries through his confidant Roger Stone. These groups played a key role in the terrorist attack on the Capitol and the attempt to hunt down Vice President Mike Pence and leading Democrats.
  • In an act of revenge after losing the election, Trump was attempting to order a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Somalia in order to create chaos for Joe Biden's incoming administration. Senior civilian and military leaders resisted those orders. 

At the culmination of last Thursday's hearing, the House Jan. 6 committee voted unanimously to subpoena Donald Trump to testify under oath. It is highly unlikely he will comply. 

But the nine House committee hearings, considered in total, amount to a de facto criminal referral to Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice. What will happen next?

I recently discussed that question and much more with Brad Woodhouse, a longtime Democratic Party communications expert and strategist who is now co-chair of the Defend Democracy Project, an organization working to ensure that Donald Trump and the Republican Party's "plot to overturn elections can't go forward under the cover of darkness."

Woodhouse is also executive director of Protect Our Care, a group working to defend the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. He previously served as the president of the progressive advocacy organization Americans United for Change.

In our conversation, Woodhouse argues that the new information presented during last week's hearing is further evidence that Donald Trump and the leaders of his coup plot must be investigated and prosecuted if we hope to ensure the future of American democracy. If they are not punished, he warns, that virtually guarantees another event like Jan. 6 and rising political violence all over the country on the state and local level.

He shares his concerns that too few Democratic voters will mobilize and turn out at the polls to prevent the Republican fascists from winning power, likely because they are angry or frustrated about the perceived policy shortcomings of President Biden and the Democrats in Congress. That, he cautions, would amount to a grave historical mistake. In fact, toward the end of this conversation, Woodhouse suggests that the upcoming midterms — which he does not see as a likely win for the Democrats, despite some overly optimistic predictions — may be the American people's last chance to slay the "Trump MAGA Beast" and save democracy (at least for now).

Where do we go from here after the last Jan. 6 committee hearing?

We have to have real and certain accountability. We have to have prosecutions. We have to hold criminals and lawbreakers responsible. There is a percentage of the country that is never going to be convinced about anything related to Donald Trump's wrongdoing and criminality. So be it. There are too many Americans who are completely lost to Trumpism. They are willing to do what happened on Jan. 6, to attack the Capitol and do anything they can to overturn an election so that they can win even if it means destroying democracy to do it. If America is going to continue to be a democracy, we have to make sure that another Jan. 6 and that attempt to overturn democracy does not happen again.

The people who were involved have to be held accountable. It can't just be the foot soldiers who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. The people who planned the attack, incited it and fed the conspiracy theories that fueled that day's events must also be held responsible. If Donald Trump is not held accountable in a court of law, there is no reason for him not to try to end American democracy again in the future. Moreover, there will be no reason for some future Trump-like figure, his autocratic successor, not to try another Jan. 6.  All the Republicans care about is power. The people who did this must be held accountable or another Jan. 6 will definitely happen.

Given your pro-democracy advocacy work and all the public warnings you have issued about Trump's coup plot and the larger threat to the country, how are you managing your emotions right now?

All the Republicans care about is power. The people who did this must be held accountable, or another Jan. 6 will definitely happen.

I feel exhausted. Many other Americans likely feel that way too. That having been said, my exhaustion does not mean that I don't have the energy to keep fighting for our democracy. I am deeply concerned that the crisis is not just coming from Donald Trump the individual or even Donald Trump as a cult leader. There's a whole industry now on the right that wants to hold power no matter what it takes. There are election deniers running for office at every level, including governor, secretary of state, attorney general, the House and the Senate. Many of them will lose and they will follow Trump's playbook. They will wreak havoc on our electoral process. They will make people question the legitimacy of our country's elections. We know the playbook. In advance they may not accept the results or they may declare victory on election night whether they really won or not. They will file specious lawsuits to call the results into question if they lose. 

Trump has created a permission structure for these MAGA Trump Republicans to usurp democracy just like he tried to do on Jan. 6. The problem is even bigger than Trump and his Big Lie and the MAGA people. We now have a Supreme Court and the federal courts more generally to worry about. The Supreme Court is now a politically motivated radical right-wing court. Many of these right-wing justices lied their way on to the bench. Consider what they said during their confirmation hearings about Roe v. Wade being settled law, and then they vote to overturn it. Of course there is the Trump-appointed judge in Florida who is doing everything she can to rule in his favor in terms of the Espionage Act and the documents at Mar-a-Lago.

The Jan. 6 hearings have offered an irrefutable case that Trump and his cabal attempted a violent coup with the goal of keeping him in power against the will of the American people. The latest hearing offered even more details about Trump's role in the plan. I am frustrated and angry on behalf of those of us who tried to tell the public about the obvious nature of Trump's coup attempt. There is a decided lack of critical self-reflection by the mainstream news media. How do you feel about all that? What do you do with that energy?

I'm redoubling our efforts. I'm working as hard as I possibly can. I do political consulting; I do advocacy work. I'm putting lots of effort into the Defend Democracy Project. Before we get any accountability anywhere, we've got to get it at the ballot box. We're not going to get it in the courtroom yet. Eventually we might get it in the courtroom, and Donald Trump may even be held accountable under the law. But if we don't turn out in huge numbers to stop these election deniers, to deny them the opportunity to take office and to run our elections, we are in big trouble. Many of these election deniers are already committing to basically rigging the vote to make sure that they win.

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Americans who believe in democracy cannot do anything to expedite the legal cases against Trump or to make sure that justice is done. But the one thing we can do is to beat them at the polls; we must outvote them. There are some people who won't vote because they're upset that the Democrats didn't get this done or Joe Biden didn't accomplish what they wanted about student loans or some other policy. OK — you'll never get your student loans forgiven or anything else that you want if your democracy is undermined and if the other side takes over by force or theft. Consider the following scenario: Republicans win the midterms and Trump's candidates take control of key public offices where they get to decide the outcome of the next election. Trump immediately announces that he's running for president again. He has the momentum because of the Republican victories. That is how high the stakes are in the upcoming elections. These elections truly are the most important in our lifetime.

Did anything strike you as particularly surprising or revelatory about last week's hearing?

I thought the footage of Democratic and Republican leaders working together to get the military and law enforcement to the Capitol so that we could have a peaceful transfer of power was incredibly gripping. That was Trump's job as commander in chief and he abandoned it. I found the Secret Service messages about the violence, and how they knew it was going to take place, to be very important. They knew 10 days ahead of time that Trump's followers were plotting, that people were going to be armed.

OK, you'll never get your student loans forgiven or anything else that you want if your democracy is undermined and if the other side takes over by force or theft.

On Jan. 6, the Secret Service and other law enforcement were identifying these armed people among the crowd. Some of them were confronted by law enforcement and even detained. Many were not. And we know that Trump's followers who were armed refused to go through the metal detectors because they wanted to keep their weapons. We know from prior testimony that Trump was told that these people were armed. Trump still sent them to the Capitol and wanted to go there with them.

How the House committee weaved together that chronology and narrative was very powerful. The Secret Service is close to the president. They knew about the violence that was going to happen and that means Trump knew about that violence too. What happened on Jan. 6 is clear as day. Donald Trump planned to declare victory even if he lost. He was embarrassed that he lost and did not want to leave office or admit defeat. Ultimately, the only way for Trump to try to stay in office was to delay the certification of the Electoral College vote. When Pence wouldn't do that on his own, the only way to accomplish that goal was to send in the mob to attack the Capitol.

The mainstream news media have mostly failed during the Age of Trump. They downplayed the obvious dangers. For the most part, they normalized Trump and his regime. Now they're continuing with the same bad habits: horserace coverage, both-sides-ism and false equivalencies between the Republicans and the Democrats in the name of "balance" and "fairness."

I don't know how they sustained the narrative. We do know that the media in general relished talking about Trump, showing Trump and getting ratings off of Trump. We have seen this over time. It is hard to shame the media for their mistakes and overall hypocrisy. It is also hard to hold them accountable for not focusing on the threat represented by Trump and his autocratic tendencies and movement early on. There are media watchdog groups such as Media Matters who are trying to do that work, but I don't have a perfect solution.

I do not believe the American people will ever know the full truth about what happened on Jan. 6. As others have suggested, it appears that some type of stand-down order was given, implicit or otherwise, to the military and the national security state. The evidence suggests that Trump put his agents in key positions in anticipation of his coup plot. Never mind the missing Secret Service text messages. Will we ever know the whole truth?

I have some hope. The final report of the Jan. 6 committee may have more revelations. I also hope that we'll learn more about the entirety of Jan. 6 through the Justice Department investigation. But we must keep in mind that there are a lot of people who testified either reluctantly or didn't testify at all. The committee also limited its questioning to areas where they thought they could prove criminality and intent. In the end, I do not think we will ever know what was in Trump's mind, what he may have said to everyone at the Pentagon or DHS who he thought he could influence to his side.

I don't think the American people will ever know the full truth. I believe this conspiracy goes further than we'll ever know.

I agree with you: I don't think the American people will ever know the full truth. I believe this conspiracy goes further than we'll ever know. We need accountability at the very top of this conspiracy. Maybe we don't find out every single thing that happened on Jan. 6 or about every single order that was given that day, but we must hold Donald Trump accountable or there will be another Jan. 6 conspiracy and another attempt to overthrow the country's democracy and legitimate government.

What about accountability for the Republicans in Congress and the party itself for their role in supporting Trump in every possible way, including the coup attempt?

Trump has allies in key positions all over Congress who will literally say or do anything he commands. Some of these people were involved in the effort to stop the certification and to vote against it on Jan. 6. Sen. Ron Johnson tried to send fake electors to Vice President Pence to flip Wisconsin to Trump's column. We know Kevin McCarthy is a weak, cowardly bootlicker for Donald Trump and would do anything to get Trump's support so he can become speaker if Republicans take over the House. The Republican leadership in the House in particular, from top to bottom, are all MAGA Republicans. They believe in the wildest conspiracy theories. They're full-fledged supporters of Donald Trump. The Senate has been only slightly different.

History teaches us that the people who are quiet are usually just as bad and complicit as the people who are vocal. The people who vocally support Trump in the House get cover when Mitch McConnell refuses to vote in support of convicting Trump during the impeachment. The Trump bootlickers and the silent ones are all complicit in the end.

To my eyes, the polls and other evidence suggest the Democrats are likely to lose the House and the Senate. Of course that's an unpopular view and I hope that I am wrong. These races are tight, and the MAGA Big Lie candidates are doing much better than they should be. But even if the Democrats manage to keep control of Congress, Republicans do not believe in democracy and are rigging the system to destroy democracy from within. Even if Democrats "win," the Republicans control the rules of the game. Too many Americans are not prepared for this reality.

I'm not going to dissuade you of that conclusion. Remember, before Donald Trump was a presence in our political lives the Republicans were already systematically trying to suppress and subvert the vote of Democratic voters, in particular Black voters. This involves many strategies that the Republicans have used for decades such as intimidation, voter suppression, voter purges and gerrymandering. Now, with Trump and the Big Lie, it is nonexistent voter fraud.

If Donald Trump's coup attempt had been successful on Jan. 6, what would have happened afterward? What would America look like today?

I think Trump could still be president [if the coup had succeeded]. And versions of the armed assault on the Capitol would be taking place all over the country, trying to get state legislatures to do what Trump wants them to do.

Given all the variables involved, I am not sure, and I think it is unlikely, but I do think Trump could still be president. What I am sure of, and is much more likely, is that versions of the armed assault on the Capitol would be taking place all over the country, trying to get state legislatures to do what Trump wants them to do. There would be right-wing groups like the Oath Keepers and others doing battle with police departments and maybe even the National Guard and the U.S. military. It would be on a scale much larger than what we saw on Jan. 6. Yes, all hell broke loose at the Capitol. But I am convinced that if Trump had gotten his way on Jan. 6, and the violence convinced Pence to not certify, then all hell would have broken loose across the country.

The American people must decide if they want a real democracy or fake democracy controlled by an American Caesar or Mussolini. Do they want "one person, one vote"? Or do they want a country ruled by an authoritarian regime where right-wing militias and other enforcers tell them what to do? These are the questions that the House Jan. 6 committee brought into focus for me. 

On the one hand, I'm somewhat buoyed by the fact that public opinion polls show that the American people are concerned about the future of their democracy. Some polls even show that the health of our democracy is the No. 1 concern among many voters for the midterms. My concern is about structures, and how a small number of people, specifically MAGA supporters and other Republicans who believe in the Big Lie, can take control of enough election administration offices, such as secretary of state, attorney general and governor, to usurp democracy and the popular will.

The vast majority of Americans do not want to live in an autocracy. They don't want to live in a dictatorship. They don't want to live in a fascist state. They don't want to live under a Mussolini or Hitler. Unfortunately, there are enough Trump Republicans in key states such as Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin to make sure that no Democrat can ever get elected president again.

If the Republicans take control in the upcoming midterms, the 2024 election and beyond, what will America look like? What will this mean for the average American in terms of day-to-day life?

The future of the country's democracy is at risk. If Trump and his election deniers win key positions across the country, especially if they win control of the Senate and House, then they upend democracy. This translates into the future of a woman's right to choose being taken away by a national abortion ban. Other policies, such as holding corporations accountable for paying their fair share of taxes, will be undone. Protecting the environment will be reversed. There will be years of specious impeachment trials of Joe Biden's Cabinet and then of Biden himself. His family will be targeted to win political points and curry favor with Trump and his supporters. This will be so dangerous. If we don't tame this Trump MAGA beast in this next election, we may never tame it.

By Chauncey DeVega

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

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