The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Distinguished pol of the week: He focused on preventing the next potential coup

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) speaks during a hearing on July 12 for the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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The House Jan. 6 select committee, thanks to its diligent staff and self-restrained members, has produced a magnificent presentation of the machinations leading up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol in 2021. In addition to skillfully edited videos, chilling testimony from Republican witnesses and carefully allocated bombshells, the committee has laid out multiple avenues that could result in prosecution of defeated former president Donald Trump for trying to overthrow the election.

As impressive as the committee’s excavation of the past has been, its work will be for naught unless it persuades Americans to fortify the guardrails of democracy against the next coup plot. On that, committee member Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) has provided a great service by reminding the public that Republicans are still propagating the “big lie” and nominated a raft of election deniers for the midterm elections.

Raskin provided a stirring summation at the end of last Tuesday’s hearing. He noted that Trump, when he invited supporters in a tweet to come to D.C. on Jan. 6 “became the first president ever to call for a crowd to descend on the capital city to block the constitutional transfer of power. He set off an explosive chain reaction among his followers, but no one mobilized more quickly” than the far-right extremist groups that organized to storm the Capitol.

He reminded viewers that the Founders fully anticipated characters such as Trump. “In the very first Federalist Paper,” Raskin recalled, “Alexander Hamilton observed that history teaches that opportunistic politicians who desire to rule at all costs will begin first as demagogues, pandering to the angry and malignant passions of the crowd, but then end up as tyrants, trampling the freedoms and the rights of the people.”

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Trump’s conduct, Raskin said, made the Watergate break-in look like a “Cub Scout meeting.” Trump “interrupted the counting of electoral college votes for the first time in American history, nearly toppled the constitutional order, and brutalized hundreds and hundreds of people.”

Raskin then provided this essential warning to Americans:

The crucial thing is the next step. What this committee — what all of us — will do to fortify our democracy against coups, political violence and campaigns to steal elections away from the people. ...
[Trump] threatens to take one of America’s two major political parties with him down the road to authoritarianism. And it is Abraham Lincoln’s party, no less. The political scientists tell us that authoritarian parties have two essential features in common, in history and around the world. They do not accept the results of democratic elections when they lose, and they embrace political violence as legitimate.

He ended with a warning that this is not solely the problem of the Republican Party; rather, “it is the problem of the whole country now.” He concluded: “We need to defend both our democracy and our freedom with everything we have, and declare that this American carnage ends here and now. In a world of resurgent authoritarianism and racism and antisemitism, let’s all hang tough for American democracy.”

Raskin’s remarks summarize the ultimate purpose of these hearings. It is not simply to prove in the court of public opinion that Trump betrayed the country and tried to steal an election, although that is important. It is not even to allocate responsibility among Trump’s enablers and demonstrate the GOP’s abject irresponsibility, although that is important, too.

No, the single most important task is to make certain Jan. 6 never happens again. That requires structural changes at the federal level, including amendments to the Electoral Count Act. It requires state lawmakers and courts to insulate their own election administration from chicanery. And it requires the defeat of election deniers.

Just as President Biden used intelligence to preempt Russian disinformation about its brutal invasion of Ukraine, the committee must uncover and explain the authoritarian playbook that nearly cost us our democracy.

Voters must prepare for the next authoritarian effort to delegitimize fair and reliable voting procedures. They need to be on the lookout for the next Trump-like figure who seeks to flood the zone with disinformation and baseless conspiracy theories, fanned by social media and right-wing media stooges. They need to guard against politicians who refuse to recognize courts’ final determination and rely on bizarre legal theories to overturn election. And critically, they must never tolerate reckless calls to resort to force.

This coming week, the committee will present information about the 187 minutes that passed on Jan. 6 before Trump answered pleas for help to restore order and what that evidence shows. After that, I hope Raskin will remind Americans that the American experiment will be destroyed if they ever entrust the republic to a dangerous demagogue bent on furthering his own selfish interests at the expense of our democracy.

For his eloquent words, moral leadership and call to “hang tough for American democracy,” we can say well done, Rep. Raskin.

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