At this point the only prudent course of action for the American body politic and American law enforcement is to treat the events of January 6 not as a single insurrectionary act, but instead as one piece (the most dramatic so far) of a violent insurrectionary movement.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see two converging movements that culminated in Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol. The first was an ongoing propaganda effort, engineered in the White House, aided and abetted by members of Congress, and empowered by conservative media. It was a propaganda effort centered around a plain and provable lie: that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
The second effort was a paramilitary/terror effort that first indulged in acts of intimidation—including by threatening politicians who enforced election law—then plotted a violent attack, and then executed that attack in vicious, spectacular fashion on January 6. The more we learn about the attack itself, the worse it appears. There is now real cause for concern that attackers intended to seize and publicly execute members of Congress and perhaps Vice President Mike Pence.
Moreover, there’s no indication that the paramilitary/terror effort is over. Even now, the internet is teeming with exhortations for “patriots” to murder politicians and journalists. There are open calls for armed protests at all 50 state capitals. And lawmakers are being briefed on emerging threats:
Indeed, the combination of terror and propaganda has echoes of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, with the Trump White House and the Trumpist GOP in the role of Sinn Féin, and the paramilitary “patriots” playing the role of the Irish Republican Army. The politicians produce the propaganda, and the paramilitaries produce the threats and violence.
Even now, as I type these words, something in my spirit rebels against this comparison. This is the United States of America. Aren’t we immune to the forces that have ripped other societies to shreds?
No, we are not. And our naiveté may well be our vulnerability. It’s time to be bleakly realistic about the threat we face. In the words of my former law school classmate and CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem, Donald Trump is the spiritual and operational leader of this insurgency. We are in “the tactical phase of a counterterrorism effort,” and in that tactical phase Donald Trump has to lose.
He has to lose big, and he has to lose everywhere. This is the ultimate logic of his deplatforming on Twitter and Facebook. He was using the immense platforms of these private corporations to openly and obviously organize his resistance. He explicitly and repeatedly hyped the January 6 rally, and Senator Ben Sasse told Hugh Hewitt that, as the riot was unfolding on television, “Donald Trump was walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team weren’t as excited as he was as you had rioters pushing against Capitol Police trying to get into the building ... He was delighted.”
What’s a principal way of taking away an insurgent leader’s ability to lead? Limit his ability to communicate.
But that’s not enough losing for Trump. His hold on a significant portion of the American population is based in large part on the perception that he wins, time and again, against the most hated enemies of the right. Do you want to know a key reason why portions of the right have devolved into Trumpist hero worship and outright idolatry? This chronology is as helpful as any:
In 2016, when all hope was lost, he defeated Hillary Clinton.
In 2017, the hated Obama administration took aim at Trump with the “Russia hoax.” Trump won.
In 2018, the far left tried to destroy Brett Kavanaugh. Trump won.
In 2019, Adam Schiff and other veterans of the Russia hoax launched the impeachment hoax. Trump won.
In 2020, he trailed in the fake news hoax polls. He won. Until they cheated. Until they stole it. But Donald Trump wins. He always wins. So he’ll win again.
Seen through that lens, these words from Fox’s Brian Kilmeade could not be more wrong. He says the House shouldn’t impeach Trump—an act that would let Trump escape accountability, i.e. win again—to avoid inflaming his paramilitary force:
No. If we know anything about dealing with insurrectionary movements centered around charismatic leaders, it’s that they have to lose. The narrative surrounding the leader has to shift, dramatically, once and for all. The story of triumph has to become a cautionary tale.
The seeds are there, of course. In his one term in the White House, Trump has lost the House, the Senate, and the presidency. The loss of the Senate, specifically, falls on his shoulders. The GOP enjoyed immense geographic advantage, and Trump squandered it by loudly and relentlessly promoting his effort to overturn the election rather than taking one for the team and working to hold the line in Georgia.
While the GOP’s electoral losses aren’t as grave as they could have been (due in part to the left’s ideological overreach and the hard left’s own violent uprising this summer), they are still profound. But as for Trump himself? His propagandists are working overtime to preserve the reputation of their “great man” (to quote Christian Trumpist Eric Metaxas).
They say: Only Trump can motivate 74 million Republicans to vote. Only Trump has the iron will to confront the hard left. Only Trump can come back and win again.
And there’s a segment of the Christian community that’s providing prophetic rocket fuel to this faith in Trump. Through dreams and visions and other forms of alleged prophecy, they’ve convinced themselves that the courts are wrong, the counts are wrong, the media is wrong: Trump will win. God says so.
What do we do? We take a page from the counterinsurgency handbook. We separate the insurgents from the population. Through precise applications of lawful power (including vigorous prosecution of the January 6th murderers and rioters), you defeat the leader, you punish his closest confederates, and you give the rest of the population a chance to come to its senses, to see the con man for what he is.
That’s why it’s imperative that Trump not just be deplatformed and ushered out of the Oval Office through the conventional peaceful transition, he should be impeached, convicted, and barred from holding office. At the very least, if his Sinn Féin allies hold the line and prevent conviction, Congress should invoke Section 3 of the 14th Amendment and bar him from public office as an insurrectionary.
Both the DOJ and Georgia law enforcement should open criminal investigations of his attempts to force Georgia election officials to overturn the Georgia presidential election. As I’ve outlined at length, there’s more than enough evidence of violations of federal and state criminal statutes to trigger an investigation. If there’s enough evidence to prosecute, the DOJ and/or local prosecutors should file charges.
The worst of his Sinn Féin rabble-rousers should face their own consequences. Sidney Powell is already a defendant in a credible and potent $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion has issued litigation warnings to (among others) Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity. Lin Wood is reportedly under Secret Service investigation for death threats against Vice President Pence. The New York Bar Association has opened an inquiry into Rudy Giuliani.
All of these moves are positive. All of them are necessary. Critically, all of them are precise. One of the key challenges in opposing an uprising or an insurrection is finding the proper application of power. If you’re too permissive you embolden the radicals. They’ll even view their threats and their acts of violence as guaranteeing their power. Give in to threats of violence (or actual violence), and you incentivize more violence.
But if you’re too punitive, then you don’t separate the insurgent from the population—you bind the insurgent to the population. That’s one danger, for example, of the social media slippery slope. The bottom line is that if you treat law-abiding Americans the same way you treat the lawless, then they’ll blur the lines as well. They’ll see themselves in the mob. They’ll feel unified with the mob.
There’s a sentence I’ve seen from thoughtful Christians online—“accountability is a partner to grace.” In some instances, accountability is a manifestation of grace. In this instance, the act of holding Donald Trump—and his worst enabling offenders—accountable for their violations of law and their abuses of power can help dispel the illusions of his supporters, puncture the balloon of his myth, and give the American body politic an opportunity to breathe. Any other course of action risks further empowering the most destructive man in the United States of America.
One last thing …
I hate to end on this note, I really do, but it’s important for those who consider me an alarmist to see some of the recently-emerging images of Wednesday’s attack, including images of men in military gear with zip ties.