T____ has been unwavering in justifying the insurrection and defending those who carried it out, beginning while the violence was still in progress. “We had an election that was stolen from us,” he said in a short video issued that day while the rioters were still rampaging, telling them, “We love you, you’re very special.”
“If I run and I win, we will treat those people from January 6 fairly,” he said. “And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons because they are being treated so unfairly.”
The practical implications of this pledge for the insurrectionists themselves may be small; nearly all are likely to have completed their sentences by the time Trump would take office in 2025. But the symbolic importance is enormous.
No president in history used his pardon power in as corrupt a fashion as T____. Early on, he dangled the possibility of pardons as a message to those who helped him commit his misdeeds: Stay loyal to me, and I will make sure you are not punished for your crimes. And he followed through, pardoning a rogues’ gallery of former aides: Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Stephen K. Bannon and Michael Flynn, among others.
But now, T____ is not just speaking to those who work for him; he’s talking to the whole population of his supporters, millions strong. If you commit crimes in my service, he says — even violent crimes, even insurrection against the government of the United States — I will protect you. Do your worst.
He also lashed out at prosecutors examining his financial shenanigans and his efforts to pressure officials into overturning the results of the 2020 election:
If these radical, vicious, racist [i.e. black] prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protests we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere, because our country and our elections are corrupt.
This isn’t an explicit call to mob violence, but combined with his celebration of the mob violence on Jan. 6, 2021, and his promise to pardon those who carried it out, the implication is clear: The appropriate response to the operation of the American legal system, if it doesn’t produce the outcomes you want, is to threaten it in the same way the electoral system was threatened a year ago.
Trump’s statements were so alarming that even some Republicans objected to them. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, “I think it is inappropriate. I don’t want to reinforce that defiling the Capitol was okay,” while New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu denounced the idea of pardons. And a handful of more reasonable Republican governors are willing to say that T____ shouldn’t be their party’s leader, because it will lead to more defeat.
But if there’s an internal conflict in the GOP over T____, he’s going to win it and his critics are going to lose.
You can point to some polls showing declines in T____’s popularity among the large universe of Republicans. But his GOP critics won’t coalesce into coherent resistance. Most Republican officeholders represent conservative states and districts where his supporters dominate, so they can’t be too critical of him. Those who are have no national constituency; there is no organized movement behind, say, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
So no Republican would beat him in a presidential primary. And if he is their nominee, what will happen? Once again, nearly every Republican will say, “I don’t agree with everything he says, but since the alternative is Democrats being in power, I’m behind him.”
Which will mean indulging T____’s increasingly violent rhetoric and promises to abuse power and undermine the rule of law.
From now through 2024, T____ will steadily ratchet up his threats of lawlessness from both inside and outside the government he seeks to lead. And his fans will thrill to every moment of it. Just as in 2016 he told them to abandon civility and relish giving offense, in 2024 he will give them new permission to edge toward violence.
The difference between then and now is that the 2016 version of T____ felt that adherence to laws and norms — paying your taxes, obeying labor laws, telling the truth on loan applications — was for suckers, losers, people who didn’t have his ability to get what they want from the system.
But today, the system isn’t merely something he wants to circumvent and manipulate, it’s his enemy. It validates his election loss, it prosecutes him and his business, it resists him at every turn. And he wants revenge, both by winning in 2024 — with the help of a cadre of candidates who are all but promising to steal future elections on his behalf — and with a new presidential term that will make the previous one look upstanding and honorable.
T____’s malignant presidency ended with an attack on both the Capitol and the American system of government. If he gets another chance, do you doubt he’ll bring even worse?
His threats are not just talk. They’re a terrifying preview of what’s to come, and we’d better pay attention.