When Donald J. Trump delivered his now famous “American Carnage” inauguration speech in 2017 we misunderstood it. We thought he was describing the United States as he saw it but he was really previewing the America he wanted. Last week, on January 6, 2021, we saw the spoiled fruit of Trump’s real vision for American carnage.
Of course, maybe we misunderstood because that was the first lie of his presidency. The recordings indicate he said, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Could it be that he simply changed one word – “starts” to “stops” – to tell us the greatest lie of all?
Like most Americans this week, my brain cells have been working over time to make sense of what we witnessed this week. In this post I’m going to do my best to convey what I’m coming up with so far. In this moment, as a country, we are still on information overload so I will not try to cite everything. I think of myself as a researcher and essayist, not a journalist. However, I do rely upon multiples of time-tested, trustworthy journalists and other researchers for the information that informs my thinking and writing.
The question that has been rolling over in my mind is this: What does accountability and justice look like in the wake of the attempted coup on the United States last week?
To answer this question there are three legal concepts we have to understand: free speech, sedition, and treason. For my sources I am relying on the National Constitution Center and Findlaw. Both sites translate the Constitution, constitutional interpretations, and law into more understandable language for legal dummies like me.
Let’s begin with the concept of free speech. This is what the Constitution says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.First Amendment, Interactive Constitution, National Constitution Center, January 10, 2021
However, there are three situations in which restrictions can be placed on free speech. You can go to the link and read it for yourslef and I will briefly highlight them here. Government can Constitutionally restrict:
- Certain types of speech including: defamation, true threats, “fighting words,” obscenity, child pornography, and false commercial advertising
- A speaker who is in a special relationship to the government, such as an employee or elected official “even based on content, when their speech is incompatible with their status as public officials.”
- Speech under a less demanding standard of “reasonableness.”
Now let’s turn to sedition. Sedition is legally defined as a conspiracy between two or more people to:
To conspire to overthrow or destroy by force the government of the United States or to level war against them;
To oppose by force the authority of the United States government; to prevent, hinder, or delay by force the execution of any law of the United States; or
To take, seize, or possess by force any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof.FindLaw, Seditious Conspiracy and Federal Law: The Basics. January 10, 2021
Finally, as unbelievable as this all is, we need to clarify the meaning of treason and how it relates to sedition. In this case, I’m going to let FindLaw make the point again:
Sedition differs from treason (defined in Article III of the U.S. Constitution) in a fundamental way. While seditious conspiracy is generally defined as conduct or language inciting rebellion against the authority of a state, treason is the more serious offense of actively levying war against the United States or giving aid to its enemies. Another way of looking at it is that seditious conspiracy often occurs before an act of treason.Findlaw, Free Speech, Sedition, and Treason. January 10, 2021
How are free speech, sedition, and treason relevant to the issue of accountability? Simply put: Certain free speech can result in siditious conspiracy and that conspiracy can lead to treasonous acts. Justice can only be done when there is accountability and we have to be willing to hold people accountable. This may be the biggest problem of all in this situation and begs the question: Are we willing to hold everyone accountable who has accountability? That, my friends, is a really, really big group of people. Let’s look at just a few (or many) of them.
Donald J. Trump
Regardless of why he does it, Trump is on record ad nauseum pushing the boundaries of free speech and potentially engaging in seditious conspiracy. If we are willing to hold him accountable, despite all the risks of agitating his easily agitated Trumpists base, it is the purview of the Congress and the courts to determine his to determine his culpability and penalty. For this reason, the House is moving swiftly to act. But we must be willing for him to be held accountable.
The Republican Party/GOP
To be clear, in my family, social, and professional circles I associate with Americans who have diverse political views: Libertarian, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green Party, Socialists, Monarchists, Anarchists, and, yes, even Trumpists. The Republicans I know are as appalled by Trump, his actions this past week, and his repeated failures as I am. However, it has to be said that the Republican Party has been, and continues to be in this moment, missing in action. This is a crucial time for the GOP.
The Republican Party is afraid of holding Trump accountable for fear of losing the Trumpists but it fails to understand the long game. Not all Trumpists are the hard core followers who attempted the coup at the U.S. Capitol last week and who came to DC with guns and explosives. Many just wanted the experience of protesting in Washington, not an invasion. We know that because of the number of people who have since abandoned Trump and the Trumpists. Some members of the GOP did it in the votes to certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (e.g. Loeffler, Lankford, and Graham). As Foxs News and other outlets have reported there has been a flood of resignations since the Capitol invasion: cabinet members, senior staff, and lower level staffers did it by immediately resigning. At least one Trumpist rioter says showing up was the worst decision of his life and, as identities are exposed, arrests are made, and indictments come out, many other Trumpists may also have second thoughts.
If the GOP thinks the Trumpists are a valuable part of their constituency at this moment, they are wrong. The PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll shows that while the country is divided about removing Trump from office right now, the vast majority of Americans condemn the attempted coup on January 6th. The GOP does itself no favor now or in the future by failing to hold Trump and the Trumpists accountable. Doing so means it will lose even more support from the “average American” which is the real silent majority. We must be willing to hold the Republican Party accountable for its part.
The Democratic Party/Dems
In the spirit of transparency, I identify as a Democrat. However, I am not a “Proud Democrat” because I do not always agree with what the the Dems do. So why do I identify as a Democrat? Because the Dems, though sadly imperfect, align with my core value and belief in the greater good for all better than any of the other options…so far. That being said, the Dems are also accountable. The Dems are accountable because they have been complicit with the Republicans in creating the sharp political division that exists in this country. There have been many missed opportunities for the GOP and Dems to come together to govern for the greater good. They failed to do so because of outside interests, internal interests (aka politics), and, sometimes, just downright stubbornness. The intractability of their positions have resulted in a Congressional stalemate and national division it will take years to heal.
The Republican Party has been as partisan as possible during the periods it has controlled Congress over the past decade. The temptation for the Dems will be pay back. At least, that’s how it appears the game is played, and the game has been “on steroids” for the last generation or so.
The Dems have an opportunity to set a new standard of collaboration with Republicans. For the rational, non-Trumpists remaining in the GOP, collaboration will be especially important for helping establish the Republican Party again as an honorable, fair, and dependable opponent – not enemy. This, I believe, will be important for the healing of the country. For it to happen, though, we must be willing to hold the Democratic Party accountable for its part.
Individual Trumpist Legislators and other Trumpists
Accountability is already happening for this group but it is unclear how far it will go. Trumpist legislators (in both the House and the Senate) have unmasked themselves as Trumpists more than Republican. Major corporations are stepping back from financially supporting GOP Senators who objected to the certifcation of the 2020 election. It began with a trickle of three corporations early in the weekend, by Monday morning (today) there was a gush of corporations suspending support of Republicans who moved to de-certify the vote and even all political contributions. This trend is forecasted to grow and continue, especially toward others in the GOP if the Republican Party does not take steps to return the party to some semblance of what it used to be when it was really the Party of Lincoln.
How do we hold these lawless lawmakers accountable? You know the answer to that and it involves ballot boxes not bullets.
And what of the other Trumpists who were outside, then inside, the U.S. Capitol? It’s not looking very happy for them. There is a nationwide “manhunt” on for them. (Did they really not bother to consider that virtually everywhere in DC is in the view of surveillance cameras?) People have been arrested already from Hawai`i to Florida. Friends and family, who recognize their selfies and photos in social media, are calling the authorities.
Right now many of the charges may seem minor but there were five people who died. It appears the Capitol Police officer who died was struck on the head with a fire extinguisher by one of the Trumpist rioters. One day after storming the U.S. Capitol (by January 7th), there had already been 82 arrests. By the next day, January 8th, 13 had been charged in Federal Court and 40 more in Superior Court. The arrests and charges are growing and are expected to go into the hundreds. This does not even consider the number of people who are losing their careers and jobs as a result of this illegal action.
To add insult to injury for these folks, many of whom may have just been caught up in Trump’s rhetoric and the fever pitch of the Trumpist party atmosphere, their “fearless” leader betrayed them. He promised to march with them; instead he hid out at the White House. He said he supported them; then he denounced them on Twitter and described their behavior as “heinous.”
As sad and tragic as it is for these deceived Americans, we must be willing to hold Trumpists accountable.
The Media (as an entitty, both news and social)
In an age when the velocity of information is faster than our ability to fully comprehend it, two things must be true:
- The Media – in all its forms – has to be responsible
- We must be media-wise critical thinkers
The Media has to be committed to doing good research on its stories and to reporting its findings honestly. Overall, I believe much of mainstream media does this. Most media outlets will not release a story unless there are multiple sources. Ideally, those sources will go on record but that doesn’t always happen out of fear of retribution, especially during the Trump administration. For that reason, they need to have even more sources to ensure the credibility and consistency of the story. Using anonymous sources is not any cause for alarm as long as it is made verifiable through multiple sources who give the same story. We should not give a single second of consideration to the Media sources that fail in this most basis responsibility to truth and unbiased reporting.
Okay, look, everyone has a bias. When the Media is wise and honorable, it is upfront and clear about that bias so consumers can make informed decisions about whether to pay attention to it.
Social media has a particularly difficult challenge because it tries to provide an open forum for people to engage one another. That’s fine…but part of holding them accountable might be regular tutoring in the restrictions of free speech from the National Constitution Center. Also, I think it is a mistake for social media to be allowed to get into the “news business.” Most do not appear to have the expertise, infrastructure, or interest in vetting their stories as professional journalists. All of this to say that accountability does include regulation of the social media.
The Media, in all its forms, has the responsibility of shining a light on the most important issues, events, and figures of our day. Let’s be honest. Donald J. Trump has been important only because he has held the Office of the President of the United States. Period. Prior to his riding the escalator down Trump Tower in New York to announce his candidacy, he was thought of as unimportant if he was ever thought about at all. The Media treated him as a sideshow during his campaign but then, when he moved inside the big top, as the ringmaster, he had the spotlight. We can hold the Media accountable by urging them to avoid the next sideshow and stay focused on what really matters. I get it…they have to give the Office of the President their attention and it just so happened Trump was in that office. But now they have a choice. What matters is not Trump’s posts on social media, rants, conspiracy theories, temper tantrums, lies, etc. Media is accountable because it empowered Trump to become larger than life and more important than he ever was. Now they need to be held accountable for keeping the microphones and cameras off of him.
Now, what if the Media fails to be responsible and self and external regulation fails? What are we consumers to do? We have to be critical thinkers on our own. We have to recognize the valuable role Media plays in our society and, at the same time, scrutinize and evaluate what it tells us and call it out when it is gets the fact wrong and when it spews minformations, half-truth, conpsiracy theories, and other lies. We must be willing to the hold the Media accountable for honesty, integrity, and focusing on what really matters.
We the People
In the final analysis it is We the People – all of who live in the United States and its territories – who need to hold ourselves accountable for failing to:
- Protect our fragile democracy from relentless attacks.
- Live out the basic lessons we learned as children on how to play well with others…even those we disagree with (this is also known as “civility”).
- Speak truth to power.
- Build open, honest, and kind relationships with one another.
- Listen thoughtfully, patiently, and seek to understand what is being said before we respond.
- Assume and believe in the best intentions of all of us.
- See and respond compassionately to the cries of any and all of us who feel marginalized and left behind – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, status, faith, or political leanings – not just at this time of an unprecedented pandemic but always.
- Follow the “Golden Rule” of treating others like, no, even better than, we would like to be treated.
- Seek truth – not just the convenient kind that supports our ideology but the inconvenient truth that tests our ideology.
- Research candidates and being clear on our most deeply held values and ideologies to ensure our candidates are in alignment.
- Vote in every election in any legal way available to us to ensure that our voice is being heard and considered.
- Call for accountability for all those I’ve mentioned here.
But, of course, we must be willing hold ourselves accountable. We are not without blame for what happened last week. We can and must do better in the future because our future depends on it. Will we?
Be safe, be well, wear your mask, keep distance, wash your hands, and, in every way and every day, stand up for accountability, justice, and peace in our country and our world.
Featured Photo – Shot Sign in Front of U.S. Capitol – csp55167745 © Can Stock Photo / focalpoint