Crime and un-punishment: Now Republicans have a roadmap for a better coup

Trump's not going to jail and major Republicans have faced no consequences. They'll absolutely try it again

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 19, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

US President Donald Trump (2L) walks next to US House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) after a meeting at the US Capitol with the House Republican Conference in Washington, DC on June 19, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (2L) walks next to US House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) after a meeting at the US Capitol with the House Republican Conference in Washington, DC on June 19, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump's coup attempt on Jan. 6 and the terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol by his followers was one of the most spectacular crimes in American history, and also one of the most documented and most thoroughly investigated. The world has learned that the Jan. 6 coup plot was vast in scale and scope, and involved or intended to involve Congress, the court system, the national security state, right-wing militias and paramilitaries, conservative think tanks, lobbyists and funders, and the right-wing "news" media.

The Republican coup plot was also reliant on state-level operatives who sought to sabotage American democracy, overturn the results of the 2020 election and return the Trump regime to the White House through a combination of false claims, threats of violence, voter nullification and a calculated attack on the weak spots in America's electoral mechanisms. 

Donald Trump was personally at the center of this coup conspiracy. He was not a hapless bystander or useful idiot simply swept up in the catastrophic events of that day.

Violence was central to the coup plot and not peripheral or somehow accidental to it. There remain many unanswered questions about the Trump cabal's coup attempt. What was the role of the Secret Service, and how badly where its agents compromised or implicated? Who planted the bombs that apparently targeted the Democratic and Republican national headquarters, as well as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris? Was there a stand-down order that prevented Capitol Police and the National Guard from defending the Capitol? How much influence did conspiracy theorist and coup supporter Ginni Thomas wield over her husband and other Supreme Court justices? How close did Donald Trump come to invoking the Insurrection Act and trying to declare martial law in order to stay in power? Had he done so, would it have worked?

To this point, approximately 1,000 of Trump's MAGA foot soldiers and insurrectionists have been charged by the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies in connection to Jan. 6. This includes right-wing paramilitaries and street thugs from the Oath Keepers, Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys and others. 

Donald Trump has of course never been charged with any crime. He is still issuing threats of a possible violent uprising and demanding that Joe Biden be removed from office. He has not yet returned to Twitter, but under Elon Musk is free to do so. He will likely return to Facebook soon as well. Trump has declared that he will once again run for president in 2024. If he seriously does so, he will be the Republican frontrunner once again.

Republicans in Congress, a group now dominated by Jan. 6 insurrectionists and Trump loyalists — to the virtual exclusion of so-called moderates — now control the House of Representatives.

America's democracy crisis, in other words, continues largely unabated. The Republican fascists are destroying the system from within. As I wrote recently for Salon, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his party will "do everything they can to sabotage any and all investigations into the crimes of Jan. 6":

Even worse, the Republicans in Congress will work to remove any oversights or other guardrails that could limit their corrupt behavior and fend off attempts to end American democracy. They will launch "investigations" into nonexistent "abuses" by the federal government, including the Department of Justice and FBI, for daring to investigate Trump and his allies' blatant criminal conspiracy.

In short, Kevin McCarthy and the other Republican insurrectionists — especially the right-wing shock troops of the so-called Freedom Caucus — are working to make the crimes against democracy committed by Donald Trump and his allies and followers appear to be normal, "legal" and even noble conduct. This corrosion and inversion of the rule of law as part of a larger assault on reality is one of the distinguishing features of fascist and authoritarian movements.

On Tuesday, the Defend Democracy Project issued a warning about the just-announced committee assignments for the 118th Congress, which will be filled and run by "election deniers and MAGA Republicans, Donald Trump's closest allies":

The most extreme members, the ones who incited a mob to storm the Capitol on January 6 and were the most hands-on in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election, are the ones calling the shots. These committee appointments to the Oversight, Homeland Security, and more are filled with election deniers, subpoena defiers, and underminers of democracy. They have already shown they will stop at nothing to secure more power for themselves and their leader, Donald Trump, all to undermine our rights.

At the Independent, John Bowden focuses on perhaps the most ignominious, and certainly the most infamous, member of the Republican House majority:  

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene is set to join the House Homeland Security committee in a decision that is drawing disbelief and disgust from her critics who find themselves unable to fathom that a onetime 9/11 truther and spreader of countless conspiracies will now sit on a committee making decisions about America's defense. ...

She will now have access to potentially sensitive classified information, a significant change of fortune for the Georgia congresswoman who was stripped of her committee memberships during the last Congress after a Facebook account in her name was found to have "liked" comments endorsing violence against Democrats including Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker.

In all, the Republican fascists and their allies are undeterred in their attacks on democracy. Contrary to what many observers have deluded themselves into believing, Jan. 6 and the rise of American neofascism were not isolated or anomalous events. They were decades in the making, and cannot be understood as a moment of crisis that is now passing.

Donald Trump has not been arrested, tried or convicted for his many obvious or likely crimes. In all likelihood — and contrary to the vivid fantasies of many liberals, progressives and others — that will never happen. Despite the recent appointment of a special counsel to lead the Trump investigation, Attorney General Merrick Garland has shown no inclination to move toward arrest or indictment.  

Trump's allies in Congress, of course, have also not been held to account for their misdeeds. If anything, they are more powerful now than they were before the events of Jan. 6 two years ago.

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Even after everything we endured through the Age of Trump and what it exposed about our ailing democracy, the mainstream political class, the news media and many members of the public still cling to a desperate belief in "shared values," "democratic norms" and the power of "institutions" to constrain the Republican fascists and other malign actors. They have concluded that somehow the House Jan. 6 investigation under the previous Congress, along with the prosecution of hundreds of Trump's followers, will be sufficient to deter the next coup attempt, whether by the MAGA movement or some other would-be autocratic force.

That is clearly incorrect. Since there has been no serious punishment for those who planned and executed the Jan. 6 attack, the Republican fascists or some future heir to their project will certainly attempt another coup. That is the only logical conclusion in the world as it actually exists, rather than in some fantasyland where shame, public embarrassment and soaring rhetoric about "history" might hold real power.

Ultimately, the investigations into Jan. 6 and the larger coup attempt against American democracy have effectively created a roadmap or guide for how to do it again, avoiding the mistakes and pitfalls of 2021, and succeed next time.

In a new essay for the New York Review of Books, Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole suggests that "the most important question" about the Jan. 6 coup attempt "is why it failed":

Or to put it another way: If you were planning a future coup, what could you learn from this one? From the evidence accumulated by the House of Representatives inquiry into the attack, two aspects of this failure are obvious. Too many Republican officials in crucial states refused to subvert their own elections. And what we might call the institutional right — Donald Trump's appointees to the judiciary and the Department of Justice — did not support the conspiracy. Yet the most important factor may be one that is much more intangible. At its heart was Trump's political persona.

For Trump's hard-core followers and the legal and judicial arms of his movement, the coup's fault line ran through the unstable terrain between performance and action, gesture and reality, signals transmitted and signals received. If Trump himself had understood his relationships with those groups more clearly, the insurrection might well have got much further than it did. "Fascism," as Guy Debord once wrote, "is technologically equipped primitivism." Trump unleashed the primitive anarchy on January 6, but he was not technically equipped to make it effective.

Trump failed on two important counts, O'Toole continues. He never told a coherent and consistent story about why it was necessary for him to stay in power, and "he did not do enough homework" to grasp how he might do so even after an obvious defeat:

A coup, in this context, does not mean tanks on the streets, helicopter gunships strafing public buildings, thousands of people rounded up by soldiers, and a junta of generals or colonels addressing the nation on TV. On the contrary, the story that needed to be told by the plotters of 2020–2021 was not the overthrow of democracy, but its defense. Trump, as his chief of staff and co-conspirator Mark Meadows put it in his book "The Chief's Chief," was merely seeking "to uphold the democratic process." In any conceivable future coup, this will again be the necessary narrative. We won, they are stealing our victory, we need to take extraordinary measures to defend democracy.

It is important for actual democrats to understand this. Dark fantasies about martial law and mass repression may deliver a certain masochistic thrill. Yet the lesson from the events of two years ago is that, spectacularly horrifying as it was, the attack on the Capitol was not the main event. It was a poorly conceived and (by Trump) badly led reaction to the failure of the much more feasible coup — which Trump just might have pulled off in November or December 2020. He lost that opportunity because he could not create the necessary heroic drama — the one in which he was not sullenly subverting the presidential election but selflessly upholding its real results.

O'Toole concludes by arguing that the next coup probably won't look much like that one: "Next time, if there is one, the plot will be much tighter, the action less outlandish, the logistics much better prepared, the director more competent. And the show will be called Defending Democracy."

Communicating to the American people the enormity of the existential crisis facing the country and its democracy is unquestionably a difficult task. But the news media can only meet that task with clear moral language and direct examples: Today's Republican Party is a fascist and corrupt organization, not a legitimate partner in the political process. It cares only about obtaining and expanding its power, and it holds democracy, the rule of law and the overall well-being of the American people in utter contempt. Saying that is not easy, but for the most part the American news media has utterly failed to do so.

In a recent essay for the American Prospect, media critic Eric Alterman makes this case forcefully: "These people don't believe in anything save satisfying their own twisted needs and deploying whatever power available to them to defenestrate the people who stand in their way," he writes. "That's the essence of American fascism, and you can see it on display literally every day at the center of our political life, even if it's impolite to say so. You don't need the folks at the Claremont Institute, the Heritage Foundation, or National Review to come up with sophisticated ways to justify it. Trump's followers get it. When will the mainstream media?"

The deeply rooted narrative that a return to "normal politics" will inevitably occur, because underneath all this drama the Republican Party and its voters are fundamentally decent Americans, has been proven wrong over and over again. America's democracy crisis and the rise of neofascism are the inescapable consequences of a deep societal sickness. As long as that remains unaddressed, our democracy will continue to descend into worsening dysfunction. 

If Donald Trump and the other high-level coup plotters are not punished, then Jan. 6, 2021, will appear to future historians as  preview of the American future, in which illegitimate attempts to seize power and right-wing political violence become a recurring feature of a disordered landscape. That America will eventually no longer be a real democracy, but whatever remains of the political and media classes will wring their hands and exclaim, "How could this possibly have happened?" That outcome is still preventable, but time is growing short.

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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