The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion John Hinckley paid for attacking democracy. Will Trump’s cronies?

Police and Secret Service agents react during the assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. on President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. (Mike Evens/AFP/Getty Images)
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If you find yourself outraged by the idea that John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981, has just been granted his freedom and is now bent on pursuing a music career, then consider this:

Hinckley spent 40 years atoning for his blow to democracy. Whereas Donald Trump, John Eastman, Rudy Giuliani and the rest of the 2020 coup plotters haven’t spent a collective 40 seconds contemplating theirs.

I’m not minimizing Hinckley’s crime, which I remember vividly, as I suspect most of those over 50 do. It was a shocking and treasonous act of violence, aimed — quite literally — at the heart of American democracy.

He not only shot Reagan with an exploding bullet at close range outside the Washington Hilton, very nearly killing him, but he also hit the president’s press secretary, James Brady, and two protective agents. Brady suffered permanent brain damage; his death in 2014 was ultimately ruled a homicide.

Hinckley, who said he thought shooting Reagan would help him win the love of the actress Jodie Foster, was declared not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a mental hospital. He spent the ensuing decades undergoing treatment.

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This month, after years of petitioning the court, Hinckley earned a dubious distinction: He is now the first person to have actually shot an American president to be released from state supervision entirely. No one else who shot a sitting president lived long enough to contemplate freedom.

Apparently not content with that, Hinckley is leveraging his celebrity to launch a concert tour, the first three dates of which were canceled because of protests. (We know this because Hinckley tweeted as much to his 38,000 followers.)

All of which is hard to stomach, I grant you. But you know what? Hinckley paid for his crime with what might well be more than half his life. It’s not like anyone ran a quick battery of tests and tossed him back into the world. His treatment was intense and glacially slow.

In the end, federal prosecutors cleared the way for Hinckley’s release, after the doctors treating him told the court he was mentally stable and would pose no danger to the public.

If only we could say either one of those things for the architects of the plot to negate the 2020 election. They too sought to destabilize the country by depriving us of a duly elected president. Their decisions, too, led to violence and tragic death.

Where’s the remorse there? Where’s the courage to face what you’ve wrought?

Eastman, the so-called mastermind who must have imagined himself a great man rising from obscurity when he set out to subvert democracy, pleads the Fifth like a common mobster and angles for a pardon. Tough-talking Giuliani hides behind absurd claims of privilege. Bannon, Meadows, Navarro — all of them defy subpoenas rather than own up to their roles in proliferating Trump’s dangerous fictions.

Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the Republican leader in the House, cared about the coup for about as long as it took to make sure his own office wasn’t ransacked, then pivoted back to his role as principal enabler of an American Mussolini. He won’t be cooperating, either.

What makes any of these guys more deserving of freedom than Hinckley? What makes any of them think they’re better or more entitled to protection than a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia who thought he could commandeer the course of history?

And then there’s Trump himself, who set all of this in motion, and who aspires still to grab power by whatever destructive means will get him there. In response to the ongoing (and stunningly effective) congressional hearings, Trump released a rambling 12-page statement full of debunked claims, reaffirming his fantasy about a stolen election.

Make no mistake: This is Trump staking his claim to the same insanity plea that worked for Hinckley. He is arguing, in effect, that he can’t have knowingly committed any crimes against the state, since he fervently believed — and believes still — that he actually won. Delusion is his ace-in-the-hole defense.

Maybe that’s enough to head off an indictment — who knows. But I’m willing to bet that in the eyes of history, long after all of us are gone, the cynical machinations of Trump and his sad band of lieutenants will eclipse the horrific act of a single, addled gunman.

Hinckley will wind up a proverbial footnote, the lovesick assassin who failed and then faded into obscurity. Trump, Eastman,Giuliani and the rest of them, on the other hand, will endure in posterity like Benedict Arnold, the worst kind of traitors being those who hide their crimes behind the flag.

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