Samuel Alito's snide denial of his Jan. 6 flag is just as ugly as flying it in the first place

The Supreme Court justice views his fellow Americans with contempt, and not as citizens he's serving

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 18, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Samuel Alito | An upside down American flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Samuel Alito | An upside down American flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Add one more incident to the "shocking but not surprising" pile that grows mountainously high in an era of rising fascism: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito flew a flag at his house signaling support for the Capitol insurrection in the days after January 6, 2021.

The inverted American flag was a popular signal of support for Trump's lies about the 2020 election and the MAGA riot on the Capitol. As reported Thursday by Jodi Kantor of the New York Times, photographs and testimony from Alito's northern Virginia neighbors show an "upside-down flag was aloft on Jan. 17, 2021" at his home. At the same time, the Times notes, Alito unsuccessfully attempted to get the court to take a case undermining the 2020 election. 

Republicans are rubbing people's noses in the fact that there's nothing the rest of us can do to stop them from advertising their fascist sympathies.

Gross and undeniable in its meaning, of course. But Alito, who has never been interested in honesty with the public, offered a glib rebuttal, telling the New York Times, "I had no involvement whatsoever in the flying of the flag." Instead, he blamed his wife, saying she flew the inverted flag as a "response to a neighbor’s use of objectionable and personally insulting language on yard signs."

As Joe Scarborough on MSNBC retorted Friday morning, "nobody believes him." There's no universe, Scarborough noted, in which the upside-down flag is used as a way to throw the finger to neighbors you're in a spat with. This is Alito lying by omission. As Kantor swiftly discovered, the argument the Alitos were having with their neighbors wasn't over loud parties or defecating dogs, it was over Jan. 6, which the neighbors in question vociferously objected to. Martha-Ann Alito took offense to a neighbor who "displayed an anti-Trump sign with an expletive" around the election. Things escalated, and, as neighbors and documentary evidence show, the inverted flag was up in the days after the riot. 

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A more honest description of the conflict would be that the Alitos rejected their neighbor's right to express their political opinions freely. In order to convey their disapproval of this use of First Amendment rights, the Alito household sent a message of support to people who used violence in an attempt to destroy American democracy. As more than one commentator pointed out, Alito continues to run around pretending he's a champion of "free speech," but when his neighbors expressed an opinion held by most Americans, he (or his wife, if you believe him) responded with an endorsement of violence to end constitutional democracy as we know it.

When asked about this by Shannon Bream of Fox News on Friday, Alito doubled down on the faux outrage over curse words and claimed his wife only expressed support for the Jan. 6 rioters after neighbors said mean things to the couple about how violent insurrections are, in fact, bad. 

As a reminder, four rioters and five police officers died as a consequence of the riot. Alito is unsubtly suggesting that those deaths somehow are less offensive than some kids seeing a curse word. Even then, his "logic" falls apart at first blush. After all, children visit the Capitol every day, yet Alito is apparently fine with it being subject to people breaking windows, smearing feces, shedding blood, and threatening murder — all with quite salty language, as the voluminous video evidence from that day shows. 

Additionally, Alito's snide dishonesty is insulting, and it is meant to be.

For someone who feigns outrage at curse words, he is basically throwing a big middle finger to all American citizens. He's not just rejecting his duty as a public official to uphold democracy, but sneering at the idea that he even owes an explanation to the people he was supposedly hired to serve, who pay his salary. He feels no need to put the effort into a better lie. After all, what are any of us little people going to do about it? 

Alito's quasi-denials operate as confessions, and not just of his and his wife's sympathies for fascist seditionists. His open contempt for the idea that he has to answer to anyone radiates through these fake excuses. It ends up underscoring why he and the Mrs. were so enthused about Trump's attempted coup: They agree with the foundational sentiment that the American people should not be in control of their government. As Adam Serwer recently wrote in the Atlantic, Alito "expects the public to silently acquiesce" to his authority, "without scrutiny, criticism, or protest." Alito sees us as subjects whose duty is to bend the knee to him and his preferred leaders, like Trump. With this flag gesture, he's signaled support for violence as the enforcement mechanism. 

Again, shocking but not surprising. Alito has long taken a "tough on crime" attitude that leads to almost no sympathy for the rights of criminal defendants — unless those defendants are aligned with him politically. When it comes to Trump and the Jan. 6 defendants, Alito has expressed a view that the criminal charges are illegitimate. As Scott Lemieux of Lawyers, Guns & Money noted, Alito's belief that he and his are above scrutiny of the law was evident even during Alito's confirmation hearing in 2006. When Alito was questioned about his participation in an organization dedicated to keeping Princeton's student body white and male, his wife threw a massive public tantrum, weeping giant crocodile tears and stomping out of the hearing. Their self-perception is not "public servant," so much as "medieval royalty." 

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As Don Moynihan wrote in a recent newsletter, far too many Republicans and their apologists seem to excuse this far-right radicalism because the people who are expressing it have expensive clothes, elite educations, and fat investment portfolios. He notes that Speaker of House Mike Johnson, R-La., is laying "the groundwork for another coup attempt in plain sight," while the media's outrage is far more focused on "scruffy students" expressing their perfectly democratic right to disagree with their country's foreign policy. Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., signaled support for an organization, the Proud Boys, whose leaders are currently in prison for violent sedition. 

I have one quarrel with Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo.'s claim that Gaetz is trying to be "subtle" with his message. As with Alito, the dog-whistling is no longer about trying to smuggle fascist messages to supporters without the press or liberals noticing. Republicans are rubbing people's noses in the fact that there's nothing the rest of us can do to stop them from advertising their fascist sympathies. Their impunity is part of the argument against democracy. By flaunting their untouchability, they're treating the end of democracy as a done deal. If people as unapologetically hateful can't be removed from office, their behavior suggests, then democracy is dead already. 

And yes, it's hard not to look at these self-satisfied moral monsters without feeling despair. But no one should fall for their tricks. Because of Trump, anti-democratic forces have had some major victories, but the fight is far from over. President Joe Biden's presence in the White House shows that democracy prevailed in 2021. Trump's ability to mount another coup will be hamstrung by the fact that he's out of office and has fewer levers of power. That's why people like Gaetz and Alito are so focused on demoralizing their opposition. They know Trump's ability to end democracy depends heavily on whether or not people fight back. They haven't won until they've successfully scared people into thinking it's already over. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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