Resolute Square

Protecting Criminals is Now the GOP's Job as an Autocratic Party

From Ruth Ben-Ghiat: "Crime, and the law, have a different meaning for authoritarians and their enablers. In the amoral and transactional world of leaders such as Trump, all means are justified to get to power and stay there."
Published:December 12, 2023

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Authoritarianism revolves around the power to commit crimes with impunity. That is why protecting and promoting criminals and turning violent and corrupt activities into patriotic and necessary actions are always priorities of authoritarian parties and governments.

The statement by Speaker of House Mike Johnson (R-LA) that House Republicans will blur footage from the Jan. 6 attack to help participants avoid being brought to justice is symptomatic.

When autocratic forces triumph, the rule of law becomes rule by the lawless. If Donald Trump returns to the White House, this will be the situation in the United States.

The party took a big step forward in the process of normalizing impunity when they made the methods and philosophy of the Jan. 6 attempted coup into party dogma. A 2022 GOP resolution decreed the assault on the Capitol to be "legitimate political discourse.” This rhetorical defense provides an "intellectual" rationale for the overturning of our democracy.

Normalizing impunity also means actively shielding participants in the coup attempt from being brought to justice and discrediting democratic institutions of justice in the eyes of the public. This is what keeper of the MAGA cult Johnson sought to do with his statement. "We have to blur some faces of persons who participated in the events of that day because we don't want them to be retaliated against and to be charged by the DOJ," he said.

As with everything Johnson says and does, this declaration was meant for an audience of one. It was a loyalty performance meant to reassure Trump that the GOP will defend those who tried to save him from the awful fate of accepting democratic precedent and leaving office when he was voted out.

Looking out for Number One. Mike Johnson (R-LA) just after he was elected House Speaker, Oct. 25, 2023. Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Johnson’s statement also sends a strong message to MAGA thugs and fanatics that the Republican party will defend them if they engage in acts of political violence going forward. And it reduces the DOJ's actions to hold criminals accountable to "retaliation."

Crime, and the law, have a different meaning for authoritarians and their enablers. In the amoral and transactional world of leaders such as Trump, all means are justified to get to power and stay there. So, actions that might be defined as criminal in a democracy take on a different meaning in an autocracy. Elites and foot soldiers are rewarded for engaging in corruption, lying, and violence.

Creating an environment propitious to such violence is a key element of preparing for and managing autocracy. Spouting dehumanizing and violence-inciting rhetoric is not enough: you have to give people incentives to engage in corrupt and violent acts.

The promise and reality of pardons plays a role here. MAGA loyalist Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) used the idea of a " blanket pardon" to get people to participate in the insurrection. Trump has deployed this ever since. "If I run, and if I win, we will treat those people from January 6 fairly," the former president stated at a Jan. 2022 rally. "And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons, because they are being treated so unfairly."

As I observed in an earlier Lucid essay, illiberal leaders have long used pardons to corrupt people, discourage dissent in and outside of the party, hide their crimes, and free up the most criminal and unscrupulous elements of society for service to the party and the state.

Benito Mussolini inaugurated this strategy. In 1925, soon after he declared himself dictator, he pardoned all "political criminals," meaning the Blackshirts whose violence had helped him come to power in 1922 and intimated and killed people ever since. Murderers, specialists in torture, and more were now available to serve in Il Duce's new militia or take jobs in the party and the state bureaucracy.

Five years after the 1973 coup destroyed Chilean democracy, dictator Augusto Pinochet amnestied all political criminals. Tellingly, the junta pardoned not just "authors" and "accomplices" of crimes, but also "concealers" of those crimes, so that military and security service agents who had committed human rights abuses now had their service records cleansed of incriminating evidence.

In blurring the faces of those who engaged in violent actions on behalf of an autocrat, and stating that they do not want those who assaulted the Capitol to be brought to justice, Johnson and the GOP place themselves in authoritarian tradition. They are releasing the altered footage because they need to consolidate a revisionist narrative about Jan. 6 for campaign purposes.

The DOJ has the unaltered footage, and living in a democracy means evidence of actions that incriminate those who commit violence on behalf of the powerful cannot easily be destroyed. The GOP intends to cleanse the DOJ if they return to power and likely scrub all such evidence. In the meantime, they must settle for blurring the faces of those they want to use for future anti-democratic actions. "We don't want be charged by the DOJ," Johnson said. This is why.

If Trump and the GOP have their way, as of 2025 the DOJ would be remade to serve autocratic goals, protecting criminals rather than holding them accountable.