Resolute Square

To Protect Democracy, Prosecution of Coup Attempts Must be Swift and Resolute

Reflections on the FBI and DOJ's Reluctance to Prosecute Trump and Elite Enablers
Published:June 22, 2023
Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

"You couldn't use the T word," a former DOJ official told the Post, referring to the DOJ and FBI's reluctance to investigate former president Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 coup meant to keep him in power illegally. From the point of view of democracy protection and the history of coups, this is misguided and also profoundly sad.

The "institutional caution" and worries about being seen as partisan that lay behind this non-action are a symptom of the success of the far-right in putting our democratic institutions on the defensive. And the bottom-up approach taken by the FBI and DOJ --concentrating on the foot soldiers and leaving those who orchestrated the coup alone--has left our democracy more, not less, exposed to future authoritarian actions.

First, my mantra about coups: for every thug we see bashing heads on the ground during a coup, two more individuals in well-tailored suits or uniforms work behind the scenes to make that violence happen. The Jan. 6 coup follows this tradition.

The thugs who attacked Capitol Police on Jan. 6 are fanatics who responded to a cult leader's summons to save him from an unjust fate. They are tools of the elites, and they are entirely dispensable. Having prosecutors and investigators focus only on them is exactly what the cult leader and his associates who planned the operation need to happen.

January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol
Supporters of Trump storm the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Of course, Mark Meadows --Trump's Chief of Staff and the coup's fixer-- had no outward reaction to the start of the violent assault on the Capitol, as Cassidy Hutchinson testified to the House Select Jan. 6 Committee. He knew that violence was on the table when all else failed to overturn the election and stop Joe Biden from taking office.

Second, although coups depend on clandestine planning, the idea that just a few conspirators can overthrow a government is mostly a myth. Even military coups often involve a broad swath of civilian elites who help to create the proper political and psychological climate for the coup and legitimize the government that comes out of it.

"T" had hundreds of elites working in many institutions on this "project," and 57 GOP local and state officials attended the rally that preceded the assault on the Capitol. This is why the House Jan. 6 Committee's chair, rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), called out the coup attempt as "a sprawling multistep conspiracy aimed at overturning the election."

The "up the ladder" approach to Jan. 6 prosecutions, as Post journalists Carol Leonnig and Aaron Davis aptly call it, leaves all of these party and institutional elites untouched, emboldening them and their leader to continue the fight by other means.

It is telling that on Jan. 7, when officials were ready to take appropriately rigorous action to protect our democracy, a few GOP elites, such as Mitch McConnell, denounced the violence. "We are looking at all actors, not only the people who went into the building," said Michael Sherwin, acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia; "We will not bow to lawlessness or intimidation," McConnell declared in denouncing the insurrection that same day.

Then, as the Post recounts, the "looking into all actors" approach faltered, and the easy targets approach prevailed. During that year of non-action against the instigators of the coup, the GOP became far more radicalized, and "lawlessness and intimidation" became its core dogma and way of doing politics. One year after the coup, the GOP decreed the Jan. 6 physical attack on the Capitol to be "legitimate political discourse," meaning it accepted violence as a means of dealing with the political opposition.

It is important to keep the focus on "T" and his extremist peers in politics and the media who created the conditions for the coup and have supported it. Not one GOP lawmaker has publicly shown any remorse for Jan. 6, which has been miraculously transformed in Republican propaganda into a patriotic act.

Yet the weakness, "caution," and desire not to rock the boat too much shown by the FBI and GOP testify to a degree of internalization of far-right propaganda that has been ceaselessly directed to those institutions for years. As the Post reports, wanting to "restore public trust in the department" dictated, in part, the non-action of Merrick Garland and his collaborators.

This non-action is devastating from a democracy protection point of view. We depend on those institutions to enforce the rule of law. Instead, not wanting to seem like the conspiratorial "deep state" of Trump's fantasies, they failed us, fueling the idea among Trump supporters that he is all-powerful, untouchable, innocent, and indeed the only man fit to "save" America.

This is why Jack Smith's indictment of Trump was so important, as was his emphasis in his press conference on the rule of law. Smith, who prosecuted war crimes at the Hague, knows that strongmen thrive on the absence of restraints and invest in the mystique of being able to get away with crime.

It is difficult to stand up resolutely and swiftly to authoritarian violence, but the damage to democracies from not doing
so can be incalculable.