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Jan. 6th and ‘Why We Did It’
The mental contortions of the Coup Guys.
Hey, it’s Tim subbing in for JVL again today.
The political world is just starting to digest the big Supreme Court news that will dominate the headlines for the next few days. We’ll be covering it in The Bulwark in various ways, as we already have been for weeks—here’s a Not My Party on the overturning of Roe that I did last month, and here’s a Twitter thread linking to some of our recent relevant coverage.
Meanwhile, I figured I’d use today’s newsletter to talk about something different.
At long last, my book, Why We Did It, will be in bookstores on Tuesday. Surreal!
I want to look at the Jan. 6th hearings through the lens of the themes that I cover in the book. I hope it whets your appetite to read it.
So if you haven’t done so yet, get on it and pre-order today! Or if you want to wait to pick it up at your local bookstore, that’s great, too; please tell them I said hello and kindly ask if they would give me a pretty placement on the shelf, front and center!
I also want to say one more time how grateful I am to you all and the whole Bulwark community for making this possible. There is no way I would be an author if it wasn’t for the support of this group, so I will be forever in your debt.
On to the newsletter. . .
1. Why Didn’t More People Stand Up to the Coup?
Watching testimony from the Republican officials who found themselves caught up in Trump’s traitorous asininity, I was reminded of something that had gone dull in my brain.
What came back to mind is just how obvious it was that Trump’s behavior after the 2020 election was not just ridiculous, but also morally wrong and likely dangerous.
I know Brit Hume was super impressed that like nine Republicans refused to go along with Donald Trump’s coup, but to me every Greg Jacob or Rusty Bowers or Gabriel Sterling who came forward to testify raised once more the question at the heart of my book: Why were there so few?
It’s not as though any of the testimony we have heard so far would lead a person to believe that these patriots were forced to make complicated judgments on the merits of the case. Nobody was vacillating on what they should do because they felt a need to weigh the possibility that Italian satellites were using Jewish space lasers to change votes from Trump to Biden. None of them thought a seizure of the voting machines might reveal illegal Chinese bamboo ballots. The set of normals who were made to think twice about the likelihood of voter fraud by Rudy Giuliani’s slurred rants delivered as pee-pee dribbled down his pants—yeah, it’s an empty set.
This was an open-and-shut case. As Richard Donoghue put it in his testimony yesterday, what Trump and his crew was pushing was “pure insanity” and “patently absurd.”
There was no fraud. They all knew there was no fraud. They all heard Gabriel Sterling’s plea to stop the madness before someone got hurt. And they all knew that in a few weeks Donald Trump would be gone, whether he believed it or not.
So the most common rationale presented for sucking up to him—maintaining proximity to power—was moot!
And yet, despite all that, we can fit the Republican politicos who actively resisted Trump’s cuckoo coup plot into a single homeroom.
I spoke with a bunch of the people who considered themselves to be on some version of “Team Normal,” and asked.
2. These Were Not Coup Guys
This is the story of a top GOP strategist involved in Georgia’s runoff elections. His tale ended up hitting the Why We Did It cutting-room floor, but I want to reanimate it because it sheds light on the mindset of those who were going along to get along as the insurrection unfolded. (Our interview was “on background,” and I never circled back for permission to use his name on the record because he didn’t make the final copy. For the purposes of this newsletter, we’ll just call him Clarence.)
Throughout the runoff campaign, Clarence had become increasingly flummoxed by the position he was in.
Like most of the people in the Republican campaign world, Clarence isn’t a coup guy. He doesn’t have all the robes and lotions. He’s your typical old-school, God-fearing, chamber-of-commerce Republican—the kind of guy who goes to the beach in a “Back to Back World War Champs” tank top and has a medium-key Reagan fetish.
Clarence was one of the many “privately concerned” Republicans who knew Trump was a clown from day one but who stayed in the game anyway because he had a career and was concerned about creeping socialism and believed there were still plenty of good people like him in the mix—and, well, what the hell else was he going to do.
Then came “Stop the Steal.”
Clarence knew the election wasn’t rigged. He was hoping for a standard-fare, peaceful transition of power to Biden and to then help guide a runoff election campaign centered on the need for a Republican Senate majority that could check the new president’s agenda. (He didn’t realize at the time that Manchinema was going to do the checking regardless of the outcomes in Georgia.)
Like Donoghue, he knew everything being spewed by Lin Wood and the Kraken Lady was insane.
More than that, he knew that everyone he was working with—up to and including the candidates—knew it was insane, too. And when I asked Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan to confirm that, he did:
“I don’t know if I bumped into very many if any elected officials that actually believed there was a conspiracy out there to overturn the election,” Duncan said. “What I kept hearing was, Man, my phones are ringing off the hook.”
To Clarence’s dismay, the callers weren’t just some delusional super-activists his team could satiate with a little red meat. As it turned out, the crazy was everywhere.
“That’s the thing that’s so scary: It wasn’t just the base GOP hard-core Trump-loving people,” he told me. It was “spinal surgeons and local pillars of the community and private equity guys and family members and friends.” Duncan put the same point this way: “It was a fine example of contagion 101. . . . A mob mentality kept growing and growing and growing.”
In order to deal with the contagion, a version of Bill Stepien’s “Team Normal” emerged in the Peach State. It consisted of everyone at Mitch McConnell’s staff, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Loeffler campaign, about half the people around David Perdue, and almost every consultant working for all of the above. Basically, the entire Republican political class.
They knew about the threats that Gabe Sterling had ranted about, of course.
But they felt trapped. So they made a disastrous calculation and decided that the only way to win these two Senate seats was to humor the dangerous president for a little while longer.
From their perspective, the violence that Sterling had warned about was hypothetical—merely empty threats. Meanwhile, they perceived the threat to Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority to be very real if their candidates didn’t support Trump’s batshit plot.
The result? David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler became the only two major-party candidates since the Civil War to run campaigns promising that they would help overturn a legitimate election if they got to Washington.
And all of their advisers all agreed that this was the best of the bad options.
That’s how quickly it happens. That’s how people like Clarence and all the good ol’ boy consultants on “Team Normal” sacrifice their integrity out of ambition and loyalty to a team . . . in only a few weeks.
That’s how people who aren’t “coup guys” become complicit in the blink of an eye.
Makes it easy to see how it might happen again.
3. The Stories We Tell Ourselves
What the Georgia runoff election and the House Jan. 6th hearings both reveal is a broader truth about human nature.
It’s a truth that Dan Crenshaw, of all people, aptly observed: Any time we face a “hardship,” we tell ourselves a story to account for our actions. The challenge is to generate a story that is filled with hard truths—a story where we are responsible for our own choices and the way they contributed to the hardship we’re experiencing.
That is easier said than done.
People prefer to tell themselves stories that are convenient. We prefer stories in which the hardship was out of our hands. Where we did the best we could given the circumstances. Stories that center the trauma we overcame rather than the sacrifice we avoided.
And so when the GOP political class was faced with the hardship of a mob demanding they follow the orders of a madman who wanted to undermine our democracy, they began telling themselves a story in which it was not their responsibility to put their own heads on the chopping block.
We needed to win two Senate seats, they thought. It’s important that Mitch McConnell be in power, they figured. This is Brad Raffensperger’s problem. Then it’s Jeff Rosen’s problem. Then it’s Mike Pence’s problem.
In other words: Tough titties, Mike/Jeff/Brad, I got a campaign to win.
Team Normal went about their business and convinced themselves that doing so was just the latest little sacrifice required by their career. That the bad actors were somewhere out there. On Team Crazy.
But inside, they knew that what they were doing was, at best, an icky part of doing business—and at worst, it amounted to direct support for a horror that their kids and grandkids will read about in their history books.
So they made a speech on the Senate floor to ease the feeling of guilt. Or tossed a few bucks into Raffensperger’s campaign kitty. Or flattered themselves with daydreams about how next time they’ll take down the real bad guys.
But we all know they’ll just get in line again.
Their mental contortions are not solely to blame for the precipice on which we sit. It’s true that there were more directly implicated evildoers—the Jeffrey Clarks who tried to seize the throne when the moment presented itself.
But without the enablers, the evildoers would have had no opportunity to execute their plot.
Understanding why the “normals” did what they did is crucial if we want any of them to be shaken free from their cozy complacence. If we are going to avoid the next threat to our democracy, we will need these functionaries to tell themselves a story where they are responsible for getting us out of the hardship. Or, even better, a story where they can be the heroes.
That’s what Liz Cheney, and Adam Kinzinger, and all the rest that we have heard from over the last two weeks did. They looked inward and decided that the rationalizations that had gotten them there were no longer operative. They wanted to write a fresh chapter.
It’s my hope that more can be nudged to do the same so we don’t catch the next threat to our democracy right in the chest.
So now—go buy the book!