As Americans pick up the pieces of the Trump Coup Attempt, some officials have made bad faith calls for unity without accountability, while others seek a War on Terror–style crackdown on right-wing extremists. To remake America’s battered democracy, we need something different: a sustained campaign for justice and accountability, that draws on the lessons of America’s misguided War on Terror and of other democracies that have faced authoritarian power grabs.
History offers clear guidance, if only we are willing to heed it. Democracies only rebound after authoritarian spells if they hold the guilty to account, whether through criminal trials, lustration, truth commissions, or other mechanisms—and not just the footsoldiers of authoritarianism, but their instigators, chief among them former President Donald Trump. American reformers will only succeed if they abandon the magical thinking that America operates differently than every other society and nation on the planet; this country is special, but is subject to the same forces and dangers as every other.
The January 6 attack on the capital was but one chapter in a direct assault on democracy, which began more than four years ago when candidate Trump declared that all elections were rigged unless he won.
We now face long, difficult work—in politics, in our culture and society, and in our halls of justice, where traitors, insurrectionists, and those who have perpetrated violence and fraud against our democracy must face trial. Supporters of Trump’s extremist project will seek to avoid accountability, as they have historically, and will try to dismiss justice as a partisan witch hunt, a purge, cancel culture, or an oppressive restriction on their liberty.
But just as calls for unity without accountability will do nothing for our republic, neither will a response to the insurrectionists that relies on the frameworks of the failed War on Terror and its unconstitutional paradigms. Our problem is a persistent and intentional abuse and destruction of our national institutions. We must prosecute the criminals who have led this authoritarian assault and restore the laws and principles on which democracy is founded. Our Constitution and laws are fully capable of facing this challenge, but only if our leaders and institutions finally decide to confront the insurrectionist and white supremacist threat head on.
Unless we convincingly take on the authoritarians in our society, root them out of our institutions, and prosecute those who have committed sedition and other crimes, they will keep coming back until they take control.
Call It by Its Name
America’s unraveling is by no means a novelty; the world has witnessed such convulsions before in other democracies. My colleagues and I who have been focused for the past decade on the authoritarian wave in the Arab world understood, from the beginning, that Trump had no regard for democracy. We saw in his earliest maneuvers echoes of the authoritarians in the Middle East that worked overtime to crush peaceful, democratic, popular revolts. And while some of us were surprised by how quickly Trump escalated from demagoguery to an attempted coup—and by how many Americans have willingly supported his power grab—we saw his authoritarian aspirations for exactly what they were. We also knew that no country is immune from authoritarian drift.
A first step toward repair is to call things by their real names. Far-right extremists and propagandists have muddied the water for years, throwing around political labels without any regard for their meaning. Over the past four years, journalists and analysts learned the hard way that they needed to call lies lies, no matter who uttered them. And by a similar logic, Americans can’t begin to rebuild democracy until we call the January 6 power grab what it was: an attempted coup. One can’t cure a disease without an accurate diagnosis.
But critics of Trump’s authoritarian gambit are divided over whether to label it “fascist.” Some have deferred to historical literalism, suggesting that only authoritarianism practiced by Italians before 1945 ought be called fascist. Others have preferred to avoid tiresome fights with cranks and naysayers, and have therefore avoided the label even if they think it’s appropriate.
Such deference plays into the hands of those more concerned with superficial manners than crimes. Fascism is a perfectly useful—and accurate—label for a movement that relies on lies and propaganda to mobilize organized violence against our democracy.
More vexing is the question of terrorism. The term “terrorism” is wildly overused, but its most useful definition signifies a real concept—the use of violence against civilians to achieve political ends. By that definition, many of the perpetrators on January 6 were undeniably engaged in crimes that should be considered terrorism.
It’s reasonable to levy legal charges of terrorism against individuals who broke into the Capitol with the intention of harming or killing legislators. It’s not sound policy, however, to call for a new War on Terror against the insurrectionists and white supremacists who today are testing our democracy.
The War on Terror notoriously caused more damage than the ill it sought to remedy. We must not repeat the error with a domestic war on terror. The militarization of American society is one of the root causes of the current anti-democratic wave.
For twenty years, the American government has caused harm around the world, and ultimately to itself at home. The global War on Terror indiscriminately targeted people based on their race and religion, and normalized practices such as torture, indefinite detention, and “extraordinary rendition” that most Americans used to consider abhorrent and which contradict America’s laws and values.
On the other hand, American law enforcement has always gone easy on domestic terrorists, most strikingly in the free pass it gave the white supremacists who provided material support to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Spencer Ackerman, author of the forthcoming Reign of Terror, a history of the post-9/11 years, makes a persuasive case that “domestic terror” is too loose a term for what he labels “Radical White Terror.”
America’s quest for justice in the wake of the Trump administration must use careful language that recognizes the seriousness of the crimes but holds the country to a higher standard than the War on Terror did. Some of the armed insurrectionists deserve to be indicted under existing terrorism laws. The rest deserve other labels that more precisely capture their crimes: insurrectionists, seditionists, traitors, thugs, and so on.
Enforce the Laws We Have
We have all the legal tools we need—we just need existing prosecutors to pursue criminals, seditionists, and terrorists whose sworn ideology is white supremacy with the same zeal (and more precision) they applied to the perpetrators of the attacks of September 11, 2001. What we need is genuine enforcement of the existing laws against white supremacists. More rule of law, with rights for all. “Congress has given DOJ officials plenty of tools to attack far-right violence,” writes Michael German from the Brennan Center. “They just require the will to use them.”
In the wake of 9/11, a terrified establishment in Washington was ready to give law enforcement and the executive branch any powers that it sought. Fear ran wild. Americans imagined the next attack could strike anywhere—suicide bombers at the mall, radioactive dirty bombs at the ballgame. Reality was scary enough, with lethal anthrax arriving by mail at the U.S. Capitol, among other targets. Members of Congress from both parties believed—not entirely without reason—that they might die at work. In their panic, they handed expansive power to War on Terror maximalists.
Law enforcement got the Patriot Act, which empowered a sprawling national security state with unprecedented, unconstitutional powers to surveil, detain, torture, and execute. The executive branch got the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) which has been invoked as the legal justification for nineteen years of warfare in upward of one hundred conflict zones, with no congressional declaration of war and no congressional oversight. Opposition was muted. In 2001, just one senator, Russell Feingold, and sixty-six U.S. representatives voted against the Patriot Act. And just one elected official, Rep. Barbara Lee of California, voted against the AUMF, correctly and courageously foreseeing that it would lead to unsupervised endless wars.
Today, we find ourselves at a similar moment of justified panic—but we have an opportunity to avoid some of the same mistakes. We plainly do not need bigger police forces; we already have too much law enforcement firepower, of the wrong caliber. What we need is for our justice system to do its job without fear or prejudice. Fortunately, there is already pushback in Congress against the call to escalate our already overinflated terror laws, led by Rashida Tlaib and eight other progressive members of Congress. “In the face of great tragedy, we call on you to reject reactionary demands to further erode the rights and liberties of the American people,” the nine members of Congress wrote in a letter to their leadership.
It is time to indict and try the militiamen and rebels who want to kidnap our elected officials, hijack our democracy, and roll back the franchise. The bedrock of our laws is strong. So are the ideals of our justice—if we determine to deploy them.
A contest against violent authoritarians cannot be won by force alone; it must be won by law. The state can and must use force against violent seditionists, but it will not succeed if it wields such force indiscriminately, in a war against its own people. The only force that works is the steady force of law and justice—indictments, arrests, and prosecutions of those who would dismantle our system, and our rights, by force. And we must apply the laws we have against the criminal masterminds who have schemed and plotted and vitiated our laws, just as the organized crime boss who orders a hit but keeps his hands clean must go to jail along with the hired assassins. Justice for thugs and bosses alike.
Special, but Not Exceptional
“American exceptionalism” refers to our nation’s unique character and dreams, which undergird an experiment that has attracted generations of ambitious migrants to America’s shores. Unfortunately, too many Americans have taken the idea literally, believing that the United States of America was subject to different rules than other nations and societies. This glib belief means Americans are habitually blindsided when the sorts of things happen here that happen in every society—civil war, civil strife, mob violence, lynchings, racism, hypocrisy, and so on.
America is different, but not immune to reality. The laws of political physics apply just as surely to the United States as they do to every other polity in the world. For the better part of a century, America’s flawed democracy has steadily improved. We amended our Constitution and changed our ways, so that voters directly elected the Senate, and voting rights were extended to an ever-greater share of Americans through the Fifteenth and the Nineteenth Amendments, which gave Black Americans and women the right to vote, and the Voting Rights Act, which made it possible for Black Americans to actually exercise that right.
The insurrectionists unleashed by Trump after he lost the ballot in 2020 want to roll back the momentum of history; they want fewer votes counted, and fewer Americans to vote. They envision minority rule by white supremacists; they view Americans who are not white (as they define white) as less American—or perhaps, as not American at all. They view those who don’t share their vision as lacking standing to vote. This exclusionary approach seeks to shrink the circle of citizenship in America. It is expressed in the language of white supremacy, and also of fascism, which imagines politics not as a peaceful competition between equal holders of equal rights, but as a test of brute force.
In this anti-progressive turn, America is not in the least exceptional. There is plenty to learn from other countries as we try to stop our slide toward authoritarianism. There is the example of the corrosive power of unaccountable hybrid militias in the Middle East and elsewhere, which operate independently from the state, but often with the state’s resources and blessings. Empowered gunmen have in many places succeeded at ending the rule of law and matching the power of the government. Americans might wish to believe that we could never share the same plight, but we are vulnerable like all other threatened democracies.
This crisis won’t bring Americans together. An attempted coup will not unite those who believe in equality, rights, and due process with the coup plotters. These men and women circumventing the metal detectors in Congress, brandishing their guns across America as they storm our seats of government, don’t want to follow the rules. Unless our leaders make sure to enforce the rules on these criminals and the bullies who enable them, America will be their country, and eventually theirs alone. Their vision is an America for the few, governed by force. The alternative vision is of an America for all, governed by law, equally enforced for all, with equal rights for all. As long as they don’t commit crimes, the white supremacists and seditionists are entitled to their opinions and their votes, just like any Americans—but they cannot impose their will on the majority with violence.
This is the work: Democracy promotion at home. We are fortunate to see President Joe Biden take the office that he legitimately won. Now, we must embrace the arduous task of restoring democracy in the United States of America. Honoring the presidential election results is a crucial first step, but it is only that: not salvation, but a chance to save ourselves.
Those of us who are committed to a nonviolent democratic republic with rights for all face a generational task. We must commit for the next ten or twenty years to a sustained campaign to change our country—otherwise, the mob will keep coming for us, and eventually they will win.
header photo: A counter-protester in holding a sign in support of President-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris stands before Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Source: Jon Cherry/Getty Images