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David Burns: Trump’s enablers sit down to a banquet of consequences

Republicans find that no one gets to dabble in authoritarianism. You’re either for it, or you’re against it.

In this image from video, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks as the Senate reconvenes after protesters stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

“Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences”

— Robert Louis Stevenson

January 6, 2021, a day that will live in — let’s see, infamy is already taken, how about — ignominy, the United States sat down to a banquet of consequences. The result was the trashing of the nation’s symbol of democracy, the Capitol building.

The F Word

How we got to ignominy began on July 2, 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed the next year by the Voting Rights Act. Together these laws dismantled segregation in the Jim Crow South, allowing America to at long last become  an inclusive democracy.

Johnson knew the Democratic Party would pay a price for doing the right thing. He famously predicted his party may have “lost the South for a generation.” Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy in the 1968 presidential election seized on the opportunity to flip the South to red by playing on the ensuing white racial resentment. White Northern working class voters — ”Reagan Democrats” — flocked to the Republican Party in the  1980s, driven by economic anxiety and cultural conservatism.

The reshuffling of the two main political parties that had started in the 1960s came into focus in the 1990s, and along with it a new white nationalism that was more likely to dress in camouflage than white hoods. The anti-government ideology that Ronald Reagan ushered in became an article of faith on the political right, and was first weaponized by Newt Gingrich in the House. At the same time, there was a right-wing militia movement, armed run-ins with the government at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the deadliest ever act of domestic terrorism at Oklahoma City.

While the country was becoming more diverse, the Republican Party’s base was becoming more white and Christian. The Republican backlash to the election of the first Black president in 2008 included the anti-government Tea Party movement. House and Senate Republicans responded with obstructionism and government shutdowns, and state Republicans with voter suppression and partisan gerrymanders.

Trump was elected in 2016 on a wave of populism, and then he mainstreamed white nationalism. The relative ease of Trump’s hostile take-over of the Republican Party laid bare its rot.

It’s a mistake to treat Trump as a fluke or an accident. His win in 2016 and near-win in  2020 are just the most recent stops on the Republican Party’s more than 50-year journey from respected partner in a two-party democracy to white supremacist, anti democratic party with fascist leanings. The F word describes the beating heart of today’s Republican Party. The Capitol siege was, in fact, us — a substantial minority of us.

The Trump Enablers

That rot was also seen in the effortless way, after 2016, many Republicans set aside their pre-election concerns about Trump’s character and fitness, and eagerly enlisted in the Republican corps of Trump enablers. The corps eventually included Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Chris Stewart, Rep. Burgess Owens and Attorney General Sean Reyes.

But here’s the thing: No one gets to dabble in authoritarianism. You’re either for it, or you’re against it. You’re either actively fighting against it, or you’re enabling it.

The road these Trump enablers have taken is well traveled-by in history. It’s the same one taken by other elites who facilitated the rise of fascists working to overthrow democratic governments. In the 1930s, for example, the Nazi Party’s rise was made possible by the cooperation of the German officer corps and the funding of wealthy backers who opposed the young Weimar Republic, which they smeared as “socialist” and “communist.” (Sound familiar?) These elites made the fatal mistake of believing they could dabble in fascism without being consumed by it.

The American elites who have enabled Trump deserve all the condemnation that history will surely heap upon them. In exchange for tax cuts for the wealthy and the  appointment of conservative judges, they made possible the worst presidency in  American history. Last week, Trump and, by extension, his enablers like Lee and  Stewart, caused harm to our country that no enemy, foreign or domestic, has ever inflicted. A symbol of hate, a Confederate flag was waved inside the Capitol for the first time.

Our political leaders like Lee and Stewart failed to honor their oath of office to uphold the Constitution, which expected them, regardless of party, to provide a check on Trump’s subversion of democracy. Instead, they defended him, made excuses for him,  and bailed him out.

Stewart has been one of Trump’s most visible defenders on cable news over the last four years. He called the House impeachment inquiry a “coup d’état,” despite Trump’s obvious attempt to pervert democracy by asking a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent. Lee and every other Republican senator except Mitt Romney voted against impeaching Trump.

Lee vouched for Trump’s good character during the 2020 election, likening him to Captain Moroni. He attacked social media companies that wanted to check Trump’s spread of disinformation. And he provided support for anti-democratic forces by tweeting “we’re not a democracy.” After the election, Lee rejected a Democratic senator’s concerns that Trump’s rhetoric could incite violence by his supporters. “The only  violence that I’m aware of has occurred in connection with antifa,” he said.

Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud — the “Big Lie” — have been overwhelmingly rejected by the courts and election officials. Still, most Republicans have refused to acknowledge Joe Biden’s win, giving oxygen to Trump’s claims. Before the siege, Stewart and Owens, along with two-thirds of House Republicans, said they would vote to sustain the Big Lie objections to Biden’s Electoral College victory. They helped to incite insurrection by legitimizing the false belief that the election was stolen.

History doesn’t forget, and the stain of complicity of Trump’s enablers will never wash out. No autocrat works alone.

A Clarion Call

The damage to the country caused by Republicans is like the damage done to the Capitol building: It’s heartbreaking to behold, but it can be fixed and replaced with the same or even better materials.

Broken windows and doors, defaced statues, damaged paintings, graffiti and ransacked offices can be cleaned up, repaired, or restored. Stolen objects can be replaced. Literally, every trace of these terrorists can be obliterated from the Capitol.

But the memory of the insurrection can never be undone. And that’s OK, because it’s a clarion call for action to repair our broken democracy. Seventy-four million Americans — including 865,140 (58.1%) Utahns — voted in November for a fascist for president, and thousands of them just staged a violent attack on the seat of government to reverse the electoral outcome.

The question of our time: How do we rebuild our democracy when one of the two main political parties has given up on it? Short answer: more democracy. The strength and unity needed to fix what ails us can only come from a renewed commitment to our shared, democratic values.

In the meantime, the Republican Party must be kept away  from political power — especially the presidency — until it purges its extremists or is replaced by a new party that supports democracy.

Democracy isn’t something that is done. It’s something that is being done. It’s hard, ongoing work. And it begins with the truth.

A few hours after the attack on the Capitol, the Senate resumed its debate on the bogus Republican objections to the Electoral College results. In his speech to the chamber, Lee condemned the attack, but he didn’t mention Trump or the other Senate Republicans who had incited the mob. He instead referred the mob to state officials who control the  voting process. “They should have been focused on their state capitals, not their nation’s capital, because our role is narrow, our role is defined, our role is limited.”

It thus fell to the junior senator from Utah to point out what democracy required in this situation: “The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”

David Burns

David Burns lives in Salt Lake City.

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