'Stop the steal' means 'start the coup': Experts weigh in on Trump's Jan. 6 coup plot and the power of denial
In the most basic sense, a coup is an illegal takeover of government power by an individual or faction.
A coup can be attempted by members of the existing government and political system or those outside of it. A coup can also involve both groups working together towards the same goal of overthrowing the government.
The connotative meaning, symbolism, and emotional valence of the word "coup" is something much broader: for Americans a "coup" is something that happens in other countries — "over there," not in the world's "greatest democracy." More generally, a "coup" summons up ideas and feelings of social disorder and chaos, a broken democracy or other form of government, and a country to be looked down upon as some type of failed state in the so-called Third World.
On January 6, then-President Donald Trump, his Republican co-conspirators in Congress, allies in other parts of the United States government, and followers attempted a coup to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and Joe Biden's victory.
The last few days have seen more revelations about the Trump regime's lawlessness and just how perilously close Trump and his allies came to succeeding in their attempt to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election. The American people and the world now know that Donald Trump's agents were pressuring the Department of Justice to intervene by "proving" that Biden won the election because of widespread "voter fraud."
Documents obtained by the House Oversight and Reform Committee include a draft memo that was to be submitted by the Department of Justice to the Supreme Court which argued that the 2020 Election results should be nullified.
Moreover, other questions still remain about the events of January 6, such as how the Trump regime was able to so easily demobilize the United States military and why dozens of repeated warnings about a violent attack by Trump's followers on the Capitol were ignored.
Instead of speaking plainly and directly about the Trump regime's coup, many in the mainstream news media, and among America's political class more generally, have avoided using such language. When the coup was imminent, they dismissed it as something "impossible" and "ridiculous" and "fearmongering" by people afflicted with "Trump derangement syndrome."
When the coup and attack on the Capitol finally occurred, many of those same voices called it an "insurrection" or a "mob action" by Trump supporters who "didn't really have a plan." This too is incorrect: Trump's attack force included highly motivated and trained elements who acted in a precise fashion with the goal of capturing Mike Pence, whom they threatened to kill, along with other Republicans deemed to be "traitors" and Democrats. Trump's attack force was also attempting to start a civil war, and at the very least to disrupt the certification of Biden's victory with the goal of creating the conditions for Trump to declare a national state of emergency.
As the horrors of January 6 became even more clear, the chattering class and America's political elites then tried to dismiss the coup as "frightening" but not a "real threat" to the country's democracy. Too many other public voices have also defaulted to the weak and absurd claim that Trump's coup "failed" and "could not have succeeded any way" because of "institutions" — which in their collective mind somehow minimizes the existential peril facing the country's democracy.
And even with these new revelations about Trump and his regime's high crimes, members of the country's political class are still desperately trying to avoid using the word "coup" in a sustained and serious way because to do so would then necessitate questions about investigations, public hearings, trials — along with the threat of punishment — for Donald Trump and his regime.
The Democrats very much want to "move on" from January 6 because they see it as a distraction from their policy agenda. The Republicans are complicit and do not want to implicate themselves by having proper investigations – and are still using the Big Lie to attack American democracy and freedom in what is an on-going coup. The American people are divided on basic questions of reality, which means that there is no agreed upon narrative about January 6 and the Trump regime's attempt to overthrow the country's multiracial democracy and the rule of law. In total, America is being besieged by organized forgetting about the Trump's regime's coup attempt on January 6, and the horrors of the Age of Trump, more generally.
In an effort to better understand why so many Americans are afraid to use the word "coup" to describe the events of January 6 and beyond, I asked several experts from a range of backgrounds for their insights on this social and political dynamic of evasion and denial.
David Rothkopf, political commentator, author of "Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump," and cohost of the podcast "Deep State Radio":
At first glance it seems that we were so shocked by the coup attempt that we froze. But with each passing day, as evidence that it was not only a coup attempt but a vast conspiracy involving multiple crimes at the federal state level, the question grows more urgent. Why are we so inert? Why the inaction? For the GOP, it is easy. They are afraid of complicity and suffering the grim political fate they so richly deserve. But why don't Democrats act? Are they afraid of appearing too "partisan?" Afraid of alienating the few Republicans who might support their legislative agendas? Afraid of a public backlash or giving more bandwidth to Trump and the Trumpists? Whatever the excuse, it is lame. The reality is inaction will just make the past into prelude, yesterday's coup into tomorrow's autocracy.
Norm Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a columnist and contributing editor for The Atlantic, and author of "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported."
The evidence keeps piling up, and is now crystal clear. Donald Trump, Mark Meadows and their allies were dead serious about overturning the election and installing a coup-driven presidency. Trump's conversation on January with Kevin McCarthy makes it clear that if this took many deaths of members of Congress and even Mike Pence, that was a price he would pay. There is undoubtedly more to come, including with top officials at DOD. We came much closer to a genuine violent coup than we knew.
Andrea Chalupa, journalist and author of "Orwell and The Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm." She is also the cohost of the podcast "Gaslit Nation":
I think a number of factors have normalized the coup for many people in the U.S., including many elites, especially in the media. For one thing, political violence has already been normalized through mass shootings and the gun violence epidemic, which are propped up by the Republican Party and the NRA. Another factor is that most white people in America — and the media and elites are mostly made up of white people — haven't had to deal with the realities of authoritarianism, so to them, they're still expecting an exit ramp and some return to normalcy.
Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale University, and author of "How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them" and "How Propaganda Works":
Time and again in recent years, too many have avoided and even derided terminology that is perfectly adequate to describe our times; "authoritarianism," "autocracy," "anti-democratic," "racist" and "fascist" — all of these are accurate to describe the formation that is building in the modern Republican Party. Democratic party politicians have shied away from the accurate terminology because they wish to signal civility and bipartisanship, at a time when voters they wish to woo have clearly indicated a preference for strength. Others have simply failed to recognize and update on the authoritarian threat, mocking those who take the Trumpist faction seriously. As evidence emerges that the country narrowly avoided a coup, and the mechanisms that would have enabled that coup are now being legalized in bills passed across the country, the willful denial of the anti-democratic threat posed by the GOP must increasingly be seen as a form of complicity.
Jared Yates Sexton, political commentator and author of "American Rule: How A Nation Conquered The World But Failed Its People" and "The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage." He is the co-host of the "Muckrake Political Podcast":
The denial by media, politicians and Americans at large of what January 6 meant and what it represented — namely an attempted coup and overthrow of a presidential election — is driven by an unwillingness to reckon with just how perilous of a moment we're living in but also how our history is riddled with antidemocratic actions. This isn't the first time our system has been imperiled. It is a canary in the coal mine moment that tells us we are dangerously close to a troubling and dangerous conclusion to representative government.
Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center. He is the author of "Bush on the Couch" and "Obama on the Couch." His most recent book is "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President":
The country is faced with intensified efforts to force a coup to take over the government. "Stop the Steal" means "Start the Coup." One fundamental psychological challenge facing all presidents is to help citizens contain their anxiety and fear — both of which risk replacing thought with action.
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Last year, as the coronavirus killed hundreds inside Texas lockups and sickened tens of thousands more, prisoner rights advocates unsuccessfully pleaded for state officials to more quickly release the thousands of people in prison who had already been approved for parole.
Now, a new report shows delays in release have been deadly.
In the first year of the pandemic, 18 people who had already been granted parole died with COVID-19 before they could walk out of prison, according to a report released Thursday from the University of Texas at Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. At least another two dozen parole grantees died in prison from reasons unrelated to the coronavirus in the same period, largely due to chronic health issues.
“While COVID has dramatically exacerbated this problem, the data also tells us that this phenomenon is not unique to the pandemic era," the report stated.
At least 26 people died in prison in 2019 after having been granted parole, according to the report.
In April, about 10,800 people held in Texas prisons had already been approved for parole, according to data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, accounting for 9% of the state prison population. More than a quarter of them had been granted parole at least six months earlier, and nearly 900 people had been waiting for more than a year.
The large number of parole grantees in prison is not unusual. At any given time, thousands of people are held in Texas prisons despite having a parole approval in their hands. That's in part because the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles requires most prisoners to first undergo additional educational or rehabilitative programming before their parole release, which can last from three to 18 months.
Some of the programs are specific to the person's conviction, like addiction and sex offender treatment programs. But many prisoners are assigned to complete a more generic life-skills program that lasts three months. In 2019, less than a quarter of those granted parole were approved for release without delay.
During the pandemic, those classes — and the parolees' releases — were often pushed back. Before March 2020, a person granted parole remained in prison an average of three to four months before being released, according to the report. That average increased to six months in the pandemic, with a typical delay ranging from five to 11 months. Eleven people who died in prison during the pandemic had been approved for parole more than a year earlier, the report found.
One explanation for the delay is that those who required programming that wasn't available at their prisons had to wait months while transfers among units were stopped to limit the virus' spread. And units confirmed to have active infections were locked down, sometimes for a month or more, restricting activity within and halting movement in and out of them. Rehabilitative programming shifted from in-person interactions in a classroom setting to filling out paper packets in the prisoner's dorm or cell.
The threat of the coronavirus and the limited programming inside prompted family members and prisoner advocates to call for parolees to complete any necessary programming outside of prison walls after release. But the parole board said repeatedly it would not change its parole review process during the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott, who oversees the board, has maintained a strong message against increased release from lockups, stating in March 2020 that “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution" to the virus' threat inside prisons and jails.
For those who had been approved for release on parole, the UT Austin report suggested free-world programming, noting it is already often available in the community for people sentenced to probation. The report also recommended that TDCJ provide prisoners any necessary rehabilitative programming earlier in their sentences, so as not to postpone release once parole has been granted. Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School and an author of the report, said such a change would require a significant shift in practices within the parole board and TDCJ.
“There's a concept that every expert will tell you, which is that reentry starts on the day of admission to prison," she said. “To adhere to that concept, it makes sense to offer that programming at the start of someone's time that they're incarcerated."
In the Legislature, the Texas House passed a bill this year to require that any necessary prerelease programs be identified by the parole board and made available to prisoners by TDCJ before they become eligible for parole. The bill died, however, after never moving in the Senate.
A spokesperson for the parole board did not respond to questions Tuesday. TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel said the agency provides programming that is mandated by the parole board, and acknowledged the pandemic “absolutely" presented challenges to parole releases. He added that the state has a low rate of people released from prison being reincarcerated within three years.
“The parole system is built to give inmates the highest possible chance to succeed in their reintegration into society," he said. “And the way our parole system works and has been working in Texas is a success story."
Aside from COVID-19, most deaths of those granted parole were due to chronic health conditions, according to the UT report. It says the state pays an estimated $744,722 each day the nearly 10,800 prisoners who were approved for parole in April stay locked up. And costs are much higher for those with chronic medical conditions, as an aging prison population continues to increase prison health care costs. The report recommends immediately releasing those granted parole who are chronically ill.
“It's a problem that is not only a tremendous human toll, but it's got an enormous cost attached to it," Deitch said.
For Kambri Crews, any of the recommended changes in the report could have let her see her father in person before he died in prison custody in July instead of saying goodbye on a hard-fought FaceTime call. Theodore “Cigo" Crews, 73, died in a prison hospital after a late cancer diagnosis, 30 days after he'd been granted parole. He had served 18 years of a 20-year aggravated assault sentence.
“We went through a whole roller coaster of emotions," Kambri Crews said, between learning he was approved for parole and his death. “From elation and fear because of the COVID concerns, and also this crushing feeling of helplessness in knowing that we were going to be caught in the apathetic bureaucracy."
Her father was first required to take a drug and alcohol program, she said, but she didn't understand why he couldn't have taken classes any other time in his nearly two decades behind bars, or take them outside with her had he been released.
“He's a prime example of someone who needed therapy and [Alcoholics Anonymous] and domestic violence training before he got released," she acknowledged. “But he'd been in prison for 18 years, so what was that time for?"
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/17/texas-prisons-parole-coronavirus/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.
Last week, United States Senator Kyrsten Sinema expressed ongoing support for the filibuster, arguing that "it is a tool that protects the democracy of our nation" and prevents our country from "[ricocheting] wildly every two to four years back and forth between policies." Then, over the weekend, Joe Manchin echoed a similar sentiment, writing that Democrats have "attempted to demonize the filibuster and conveniently ignore how it has been critical to protecting the rights of Democrats in the past."
Sinema and Manchin have been rhapsodizing over the filibuster and the virtues of bipartisanship for months, so these arguments are far from surprising. One obvious problem is they fly in the face of overwhelming evidence that bipartisanship is (mostly) dead. However, there's another, more troubling problem that warrants our attention.
Sinema and Manchin maintain that the filibuster protects not only our democracy, but also the Democratic Party. If we rely on a mere majority for legislation, the thinking goes, any leftward movement will be met with an equal rightward shift when the GOP inevitably returns to power. Thus, we are to believe that the filibuster not only ensures stability, but, in the long run, actually protects Democratic Party's legislative interests.
This analysis presumes that both parties are equally interested in passing legislation and that both equally benefit from a procedure that impedes democratic change. A moment's reflection on the contemporary GOP shows these assumptions to be false.
Consider this question: why didn't Mitch McConnell nuke the legislative filibuster during the first two years of Trump's presidency when the Republicans held control over both chambers of Congress? The Senate majority leader—with the support of Senate Republicans—happily abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court justice nominees. This was after McConnell had refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, essentially hobbling another branch of government. At the time, McConnell even declared: "One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, 'Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy."
So is there something about the legislative filibuster's role that's more valuable to McConnell than other norms he's broken? No. He only wants to maintain the legislative filibuster because, despite what Sinema and Manchin claim, the procedure ensures an imbalance of power that benefits Republicans while harming Democrats.
A 60-vote threshold would benefit any conservative party over a progressive counterpart by minimizing change. Even if a conservative party desires regressive change—such as the privatization of a public entitlement (e.g., Social Security or Medicare)—their next priority is, at the very least, maintaining the status quo. The GOP is thus well-served by a procedure that favors inaction at the federal level.
The asymmetrical benefit of the filibuster doesn't stop there. The GOP doesn't want to build anything. They want to either destroy the safety net we have or, at the very least, ensure it doesn't get more expansive. This predictably results in congressional gridlock. Major legislation is rarely passed, which makes distinguishing the two parties' agendas difficult. And guess who benefits from this state of affairs?
An amorphous mass of congressional inaction fuels voter apathy which, in turn, negatively impacts Democrats more than Republicans among key constituents, such as young voters. Why vote in the midterms if neither party does anything meaningful?
Republicans further benefit from national gridlock because their policies are unpopular. Majorities support Democratic policies on a variety of issues, ranging from gun control to immigration to healthcare. For example, as polarized as we are as a nation, if voters hear a party-neutral description of the public option, 68 percent endorse it. Meanwhile, though Republicans were successful at ginning up opposition to the Affordable Care Act throughout Barack Obama's presidency, their actual attempt to repeal it correlated with increased support for the Democratic position.
So Democratic policies are popular on a national level. Republican policies are not. Republicans know this, which is one among their reasons for maintaining a dysfunctional Congress. Meanwhile, Republican causes are well-advanced on the state and local level, as well as through packing the federal courts with right-wing judges.
Consider abortion. Two months ago, McConnell threatened that, if Democrats abolished the filibuster, Republicans would respond by putting a variety of conservative measures, including a ban of abortion, on the docket once they regained power. McConnell was essentially making a similar argument as Sinema and Manchin: if Democrats abolish the legislative filibuster, Republicans will respond in kind.
McConnell is likely bluffing. A national fight over abortion would be disastrous for the GOP. Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Younger Americans are pro-abortion by a whopping 69 percent. Pushing an abortion ban through Congress would not only serve to fully differentiate the two parties. It would also likely energize young voters and eliminate Democrats' midterm turn-out disadvantage. There's no better way to get a 25-year-old white guy passionate about voting than by telling him that he'll be stuck with a kid if the condom breaks.
Thus, Republicans are much better served by fighting on the state and local levels while packing the courts. This allows them to chip away at popular policies under the radar while resting peacefully with the knowledge they control the Supreme Court.
Importantly, if the ACA or Roe get struck down by the courts, the GOP won't be directly blamed. The dire consequences would be a step removed. McConnell and other shrewd Republicans recognize this. They know their battles are better fought on furtive ground. They also know that, due to the unpopularity of their policies, congressional gridlock serves as a shield. Voters will see nothing getting done and blame both parties. Apathy—which especially afflicts young voters—will prevail. Democrats and their popular policies will suffer when they're unable to enact them.
Sinema and Manchin overlook the differences between the parties and how these differences are asymmetrically bolstered by congressional inaction. The filibuster doesn't make our democracy more robust; it impedes democratic change, vastly privileging one party's agenda over the other's. Crucially, these benefits occur in an electoral system whose quirks give disproportionate power to Republican senators.
Like many Democrats, I am growing tired of Sinema and Manchin's arguments over the filibuster. The bipartisanship they hail does not exist. Retaining the filibuster won't fix that. Nor does it equally benefit both parties. Republicans know this, which is why the legislative filibuster is the only "democratic norm" they will fight to protect.
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