Paul Krugman: Crazies, cowards and the Trump coup

No one can deny that what happened after the 2020 election was an attempted coup.

(Mark Peterson | The New York Times) Footage of President Donald Trump speaking at the "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, is played during a House committee hearing investigating the attack on the Capitol, in Washington, June 9, 2022. "Like many people, I expected the worst from the Jan. 6 committee: long, droning speeches, grandstanding by posturing politicians, lots of he-said-she-said," writes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. "What we've gotten instead has been riveting and terrifying."

Like many people, I expected the worst from the Jan. 6 committee: long, droning speeches, grandstanding by posturing politicians, lots of he-said-she-said.

What we’ve gotten instead has been riveting and terrifying. The usual suspects are, of course, nitpicking at the details — although never over the crucial points, like Donald Trump’s desire to participate in an armed assault on the Capitol, and never, tellingly, under oath — and some in the news media are, shamefully, playing along. But realistically there is no longer any doubt that Trump tried to overturn the results of a lawful election, and when all else had failed, encouraged and tried to abet a violent attack on Congress.

I’ll leave it to the legal experts to figure out whether the evidence should lead to formal criminal proceedings, and in particular whether Trump himself should be charged with seditious conspiracy. But no reasonable person can deny that what happened after the 2020 election was an attempted coup, a betrayal of everything America stands for.

I still see some people comparing this scandal to Watergate. That’s like comparing assault and battery to a traffic violation. Trump’s actions were by far the worst thing any American president has ever done.

But here’s the thing: Dozens of people in or close to the Trump administration must have known what was going on; many of them surely have firsthand knowledge of at least some aspects of the coup attempt. Yet only a handful have come forward with what they know.

And what about Republicans in Congress? Almost surely many if not most of them realize the enormity of what happened — after all, the assault on the Capitol placed their own lives in danger. Yet 175 House Republicans voted against creating a national commission on the Jan. 6 insurrection, with only 35 in favor.

How can we explain this abdication of duty? Even now, full-on MAGA cultists are probably a minority among GOP politicians. For every Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene, there are most likely several Kevin McCarthys — careerists, not crazies, apparatchiks rather than fanatics. Yet the noncrazy wing of the GOP, with only a handful of exceptions, has nonetheless done everything it can to prevent any reckoning over the attempted coup.

Which has me thinking about the nature of courage, and the way courage — or cowardice — is mediated by institutions.

Human beings can be incredibly brave. As we see in the news from Ukraine every day, many soldiers are willing to hold their ground under deadly artillery barrages. Firefighters rush into burning buildings. Indeed, the Capitol Police were heroic in their defense of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021.

Such displays of physical courage aren’t commonplace — most of us will never know how we’d perform in such circumstances. Yet if physical courage is rare, moral courage — the willingness to stand up for what you believe to be right, even in the face of social pressure to conform — is even rarer. And moral courage is what Trump’s associates and Republican members of Congress so conspicuously lack.

Is this a partisan thing? We can’t really know how members of the other party would respond if a Democratic president tried a similar coup — but that’s partly because such an attempt is more or less inconceivable. For as political scientists have long noted, the two parties are very different, not just in their policies, but in their institutional structures as well.

The Democratic Party, while it may be more unified than in the past, remains a loose coalition of interest groups. Some of these interest groups are praiseworthy, some not so much, but in any case the looseness gives Democrats room to criticize their leaders and, if they choose, take a stand on principle.

The Republican Party is a far more monolithic entity, in which politicians compete over who adheres most faithfully to the party’s line. That line used to be defined by economic ideology, but these days it is more about positioning in the culture wars — and personal loyalty to Trump. It takes great moral courage for Republicans to defy the party’s diktats, and those who do are promptly excommunicated.

There’s an exception that proves the rule: the surprising pro-democracy stand of the neocons, the people who gave us the Iraq War. That was a terrible sin, never to be forgotten. But during the Trump years, as most of the GOP bent its knee to a man whose awfulness it fully understood, just about all the prominent neocons — from William Kristol and Max Boot to, yes, Liz Cheney — sided firmly with the rule of law.

Where’s this coming from? I don’t think it’s a slur on these people’s courage to note that the neocons were always a distinct group, never fully assimilated by the Republican monolith, with careers that rested in part on reputations outside the party. This arguably leaves them freer than garden-variety Republicans to act in accord with their consciences.

Unfortunately, that still leaves the rest. If the Democrats are a coalition of interest groups, Republicans are now a coalition of crazies and cowards. And it’s hard to say which Republicans present the greater danger.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times (CREDIT: Fred R. Conrad)

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.