Utah is a long ways from Washington, D.C. Do individual Utahns have any role in responding to the chaos that shook our country last week?
It’s easy to think we can do nothing from afar, that we have no part in what comes next. But I believe we all have a responsibility in moving our democratic republic away from the brink.
Like so many others, I was glued to my screens on that fateful Wednesday, hardly believing what I was seeing. As the shocking events unfolded, shattering our unquestioned faith in the peaceful transfer of power, the words I repeatedly heard — ”We are better than this,” and, “This is not our country,” — rang in my ears.
We surely aspire to be “better than this.” But at this moment in time, this is our country.
How did this happen?
The most obvious answer is that we have a duly elected president who relentlessly built allegiance to his personal brand and then betrayed our country by urging his followers to act violently to overturn an election he lost.
The second most obvious answer is to point to the rioters, devoted to the president and his lies, who believe deeply that the election was “stolen.” They should be apprehended and prosecuted for their violent and unlawful conduct.
But both the president and the rioters are easy targets for those of us appalled by the chaos on Jan. 6.
Less obvious in their role in this nearly successful coup, but arguably even more dangerous, are the enablers, the appeasers. These people understood or should have understood the danger in the president’s rhetoric and actions. These people kept silent and chose to go along with the president or actively defended and excused him. They endanger our democratic republic the most.
Utah must hold to account two of these enablers: Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens. Here’s where ordinary citizens matter.
Stewart once referred to Trump as “our Mussolini,” a remark he tried to explain away as “tongue in cheek” when he hoped to become the Director of National Intelligence. Stewart learned his lesson, quickly becoming one of the president’s most ardent supporters.
A Republican representative supporting the policies of a Republican president should not distress anyone. But a member of Congress supporting a president who rejects the basic foundations of American government should alarm every one of us.
This president tried to reverse the state-certified results of a national election. This president incited a mob to violently attack the Capitol, resulting in five deaths, as Congress met to finalize election results. This president afterwards told the rioters who stormed the most revered symbol of our democracy that he “loved” them, that they were “very special.” To this day, the president assumes zero responsibility for the insurrection he inspired.
Stewart condemned the violence at the Capitol but acknowledges no connection at all between that violence and the man whose mendacious words and deeds created it, much less his own complicity in promoting the underlying lie that the election was fraudulent. Even after the insurrection, he continued to perpetuate the president’s baseless opposition to the electoral outcome by voting against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral results.
Owens, in a singularly remarkable feat, managed to destroy his credibility on his first day of work. Following the riot, he baselessly asserted that antifa, not extreme followers of the president, instigated the insurrection. A week later, not an iota of evidence supports his specious claim.
On “Meet the Press” four days after the riot, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, spoke of witnessing “the damage that can result when men in power and responsibility refuse to acknowledge the truth.”
Stewart and Owens are both “men in power and responsibility.” By refusing to acknowledge the truth, they forfeit their authority.
Utah must elect representatives who can make the cognitive connections between the physical violence at the Capitol and both the president’s and their own verbal attacks on an election whose legitimacy has been affirmed by well over 60 courts. We must elect representatives who can discern fact from fiction. Both Stewart and Owens have demonstrated their inability to do so.
Stewart’s district is gerrymandered so severely that Democrats lack a realistic opportunity to replace him. Republicans must take the lead in this post-insurrection reality. The next Republican primary presents the first practical opportunity for change. The party would be well-served by nominating a candidate who espouses Republican principles but also has the civic and moral spine to condemn a president who inspires and encourages domestic terrorism. Recognizing the constitutional validity of each state’s certified electoral results reflects conservatism at its core.
Owens’ district is less heavily gerrymandered; both parties have a fair shot at his seat. Republicans would be wise to challenge him at the primary level with a seasoned candidate unaligned with fringe extremists, who can fairly represent a politically mixed constituency. Democrats will do their best to field a moderate, viable candidate as well.
This is what we, the voters of Utah, can do. If we want our country to be “better than this,” we must create change with our votes.
Joanne Slotnik is a Salt Lake City voter eagerly awaiting Jan. 20.