By Peter Berger
Insurrection is an unfamiliar word for many Americans. If we follow Mr. Lincoln’s example and couple “insurrection” to “treason” and “rebellion,” we’ll have a fuller sense of what did happen and what almost happened on Jan. 6.
Simply put, Donald Trump ran for reelection. He manufactured the lie that the only way he could lose would be if the election were rigged and stolen. Before the election, he told the lie in case he lost. After the election, he told the lie because he lost. He scheduled a rally on the day Congress would count the votes and officially confirm his defeat. He launched his lie-incited rally mob at the Capitol to “stop the steal” by stopping the count so he could remain president even though the Constitution and the voters said he’d lost.
I mention this so there’s no hedging or misunderstanding about what we face as a nation. If this sequence of events appeared on the news about some “lesser” country, you’d say without hesitation that the defeated president had tried to seize power by launching a coup and overthrowing the government.
You’d be right.
Anyone who agrees with Republican leader McCarthy that lawfully impeaching, convicting and disqualifying that lawless ex-president from holding future office is an “overreach” and an “overreaction” needs to more closely consider Mr. Lincoln’s three words.
Nor is it “living in the past” to disqualify a habitual liar and proven insurrectionist who tried to overthrow the government when he lost in 2020 and who’s already talking about running again in 2024.
Trump’s months of lies were the incitement that fueled his insurrection.
Hitler explained his theory of the “big lie” in Mein Kampf. He recognized that most decent, ordinary people tell small, commonplace lies, which equips them to spot and suspect small lies when other people tell them. Most decent, ordinary people, however, are easy prey to “colossal untruths” – like the election was “stolen” – because they simply can’t “believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” In short, the secret to successful, persuasive lying is to tell outrageous lies shamelessly and often.
Hitler, of course, wasn’t confessing to telling big lies himself. He was falsely accusing German Jews of telling a big lie, specifically that the German army had been defeated militarily in World War I. Hitler countered that “lie,” which was actually the truth, with the real big lie that Germany had lost because Jews in the government and at home had sabotaged the war effort, a pernicious fiction popularly known as “the stab in the back.”
When the media of his day published unflattering facts and criticism of Hitler and the Nazis, he called them “lugenpresse,” the lying press. Donald Trump similarly projects his own venality and deceit onto the “fake news,” as well as onto Democrats and “weak Republicans.” He recognizes the most important big lie is the preemptive lie that the other guy is the liar.
Hitler also noted that even when a repeated lie is exposed and proven false, “it always leaves traces behind it,” so its influence never entirely goes away. He concluded by disclosing these tricks “are known to all expert liars in this world.”
The mob that attacked Congress blames Biden because of what Trump told them Biden did, instead of blaming Trump for actually trying to do it.
Joe Biden didn’t steal the election. He didn’t overthrow the government.
Donald Trump did attempt to steal the election. He did attempt to overthrow the government.
In the spring of 1940, after nearly a decade spent appeasing Hitler and ignoring Churchill’s warnings, Britain’s three major political parties formed a national unity coalition government around Churchill because they finally recognized Hitler as the mortal threat he really was. Churchill declared the government’s single-minded commitment to waging war against a “monstrous tyranny.” He warned that without victory, there would be “no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for.”
Mr. Lincoln likewise feared that defeat in our pivotal Civil War would mean the end of democratic self-government.
Like the British people at their moment of reckoning with Nazism, Americans need to see rampant Trumpism as the mortal peril it really is.
Every American who voted for Trump isn’t a Trumpist. I know too many decent, reasonable people who voted for him. But the party of Trump is increasingly the party of Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Greene.
The sooner Republicans sickened by the cult of Trump join moderate Democrats and moderated progressive Democrats in an anti-Trumpist coalition, the more likely the survival of the republic. This will require humility from Republican leaders, a temporary tempering of conservative orthodoxies, and the willingness of more ardent progressives to postpone their zeal.
I don’t expect our differences on policy issues to disappear. Churchill’s unity coalition lasted only until the war was won.
But until we defeat our homegrown monstrous tyranny, we need to embrace and act on a unity of higher purpose. We need to approach our crisis with the same single-mindedness we’d devote to saving someone we love.
Who cares if Joe Biden is too liberal, or if he’s not liberal enough?
Donald Trump and his mob tried to overthrow the government. He tried to make himself president.
He failed – this time.
Hitler failed the first time, too.
We will all be required to compromise. The question before us is will we compromise for a time about policies and issues, or compromise forever our honor, self-government, and the republic?
Our existential conflict isn’t over budget deficits, government regulation and tax codes. It’s a choice between lies or the truth, facts or conspiracy theories, science or ravings about Jewish space lasers.
Fascism or the rule of law.
Trumpism or the Constitution.
As in Mr. Lincoln’s day, the fate of government of the people, by the people and for the people hangs in the balance.
If we fail or falter, it might not perish from the earth.
But it will surely perish here.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.