A note about Our Previous President and the Documents in Question: There has been a lot of discussion that is more or less summed up with “what possible innocent reason could there be for keeping the documents?” Or even more generally—what possible reason, innocent or not, could make it seem like a good idea to keep documents not only on leaving office, but after being told that the appropriate law-enforcement agencies knew that he had them and required their return.
I have been seeing three reasons, or categories of reasons, discussed, and I’ll go through them before I make my point (I do have a point this time), but I’ll also give my usual warning that we can’t actually know what someone else’s True Motive is, and people often have a wild mishmash of motives and impulses for their poor decisions rather than an actual True Motive discernible even to themselves.
First, of course, is the Toddler President explanation, which is also the easiest to believe and most persuasive. He just didn’t want to give them up. They were his (he thought) and someone wanted to him to share, and he didn’t wanna and (he thought) they couldn’t make him. Wrong on both counts, of course, but still: very plausible.
The second is the Art of the Deal explanation, which like all the Art of the Deal explanations of his actions, does not require there to be any actual Deal, just the possibility of a Deal in his mind. This might be a plan to sell documents as if they were game-used jerseys or vintage movie costumes, or it might be an idea that they could be used to impress future resort members or bank lenders or business partners. I group all of those nonsense possibilities under the notion that keeping documents leads to cash profits, with a middle step to be determined. Totally plausible, if deeply stupid.
And the third is, well, treason—that Our Previous President is actively working for someone, whether for pay or under compulsion or from ideology or whatever, and that someone wants him to keep those documents. This is utterly implausible, both because there is no evidence that the man is actively working for anyone at all, or that anyone at all wants him to work for them, but also because it’s extremely difficult to construct a scenario where an evildoer demands of a President that he keep originals of documents rather than demanding he hand over the information within the documents without alerting anyone by removing the documents themselves. I suppose the man in question could have misunderstood and kept the originals out of some sort of imbecilic zeal… or that the instructions were just to screw around with stuff and make general trouble and the document stuff is just one random, easy way to do that? I dunno. Honestly, it seems like “Get a Toddler President elected and then just watch and improvise” would be a better plan for enemies of our nation than giving any direct, specific requests.
Anyway, my point (remember that I have one) is that those three categories of reasons are pretty much the only ones I am seeing discussed, either in my usual liberal-left social circles or in the liberal-left news media that crosses my path. And it’s missing the most important possible motivation—something that is key to the future of the country, in a way that even the putative subornation of the President by an evildoer really wouldn’t be. And I have to ask before I go on: do you see it? Is it obvious to you?
OK, it’s this: he believes (or at least claims to, and acts as if he believes) that he was elected President twice in a landslide, the second by even wider margin than the first; that his electoral victory in 2020 was stolen by the federal government, conspiring with his political opponents and foreign elements; that the FBI and DoJ have been persecuting him since he started getting involved in politics, possibly earlier, illegally spying on his campaign before the election and then concocting hoax after hoax during his time in office, all of which have been conclusively exposed as false; that the FBI and DoJ have also been covering up the palpable crimes of his political opponents including (but not limited to) members of the Clinton and Biden families; that he is the legitimately elected President of the United States; that he can be, ought to be, and probably will be restored to power soon; that the current occupant of the White House, in addition to being illegitimate, unelected and corrupt is also a doddering imbecile who can barely stand upright and only emerges from a fog of senility when medicated by his handlers; that in general, the federal government of the United States of America is the least trustworthy possible place for any sensitive documents. That handing highly classified documents to the FBI would be irresponsible and dangerous for the security of the United States. That he, the legitimate President of the United States, is the best person to control such documents and make decisions about them, and that he has the right and the responsibility to do so.
Of course, if he were just one person who believed such ridiculous nonsense, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But it’s the belief of—who knows? A quarter of the country? A third? Many millions of people, anyway. That is the most important context of the Documents in Question, and it’s my impression that the news (outside of the Party-affiliated news) and all of us in the liberal-left coalition have trouble keeping in our heads. A large chunk of the country believes that Our Previous President is more trustworthy than all the rest of the institutions of government—that’s not some sort of fringe idea, but a very mainstream one. And if those of us who are aware that it’s nonsense just ignore that it’s a mainstream idea, then we’re not going to understand what’s going on in the country.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
I freely admit that I don’t understand what’s going on in this country. :^(
That’s the thing, though, innit? I keep having to remind myself that if someone truly, genuinely believed all the things you outline at the beginning of your seventh paragraph, well of COURSE they would respond in many (not all! by no means all!) of the ways that the former president’s supporters have responded.
I mean, if the events of January 6, 2021 had gone differently, you and I and many of our friends might very well be in a similar position. That position would be one that was documentable by (previously)-generally-agreed-upon standards of factual evidence, but it would still be a very similar position.
I don’t know how we get past the “previously” in that last sentence, though.
Right. And that’s why I kinda wish that the Select Committee spent a little more time talking about how the allegations of fraud were false, and what the evidence was for that and what it might be, and all of that. Probably wouldn’t help, though.
Which leaves us with the twin questions: how do we persuade people that the current President is legitimate, and how, if we can’t do that, do we move forward as a nation with a third (or so) of the country convinced that the President is illegitimate?
This is also playing out on local levels—how can the residents of a city be convinced that their law enforcement is legitimate? Particularly in places where there is a long history of a frankly illegitimate police occupancy being covered up for by the “deep city” government institutions? I don’t know the answer to that, either.
In many (most) important respects, legitimacy is a subjective group perception, not an objectively measurable aspect. If you have a group of people who are convinced that anyone they don’t like is illegitimate, those people cannot participate in the construction and maintenance of a democratic social order. They are only fit for fascism and its brethren. If that group is sufficient large and/or violent, any social order that does not cede control to that group is impossible without repression of that group.
As someone who doesn’t like repression in general, I find that uncomfortable.
And worse, it gives MAGA Republicans half of what they want. They want power for themselves, and they want repression. Sure, they want to be the ones doing the repressing, but it’s a huge societal step away from democracy even if they are the ones being repressed, and therefore a huge step towards what they want.
This is the general problem with trying to defeat extremism, because moderation cannot prevail over extremism while remaining inclusive of those in the extremist camp. That requires the use of anti-democratic tools to achieve or maintain democracy.
To minimize the damage that does to democratic principles, we have to figure out how to shrink the anti-democratic camp. I’m not sure that focusing on legitimacy as an overriding concern is helpful in that effort. If we sacrifice doing what is necessary in the hope that the extremists will accept their losses as legitimate, our democracy will lose. (This is the choice I believe we’ve made by not arresting and prosecuting the organizers of January 6.) If we claim legitimacy rather than necessity for steps that we would not want in a time of less extremism, we give up on a longer term goal of less repression.
I hope we achieve a healthy democracy, where we have free and fair elections, protections for the vulnerable, and far less repression than we’ve had in the past. To me, the legitimacy of our social order is in emphatically protecting that vision and being as inclusive as possible of the people who share that vision, rather than in treading too gently in protecting that vision because we are worried that folks who don’t share any of that vision will scream about illegitimacy. Those folks will scream no matter what we do.
This analysis speaks my mind.
I would add that if “repression” takes the form of “enforcing existing laws,” then I think democracy is minimally weakened by such repression.
I think a key way that we “shrink the anti-democratic camp” is to win democratic elections handily and then shore up democracy. Many among the “leaders” of the anti-democratic camp are political opportunists, not committed authoritarians. Right now, for example, many Republican leaders are anti-democratic not because they have much of an opinion about democracy or authoritarianism but because they personally want to be in a position of power, and appealing to anti-democratic sentiments while operating in a democratic system has been politically expedient for them. Insofar as it ceases to be politically expedient for them, they will tack in another direction, and the anti-democratic movement will be diminished.
With respect to committed fascist authoritarians, Federal law enforcement has left our democracy weaker and more vulnerable by not already arresting Trump and the orchestrators and enablers in government and Republican leadership of his coup attempt. However, law enforcement has reduced the risk of widespread and serious political violence by rolling up the direct leaders of fascist ground troops–the Oathkeepers, the Proud Boys, and some from other militias. It is not easy to incite, assemble, train, and mobilize paramilitary groups like these without operating outside the spectrum of law that is regularly applied to common folks, not plutocrats–assaulting law enforcement, wire fraud, attempted murder, etc. We are used as a society to holding non-rich folks accountable for physically violent acts, and so the legal system is doing a pretty good job of holding insurrectionists accountable for these kinds of crimes. That’s a meaningful protection for democracy.
Even if the subset of people with anti-democratic views in our society is far higher that is healthy for society, the subset of that group who are ready to carry out insurrectionary acts or systemic election fraud is still quite small, and the set of these often badly broken people who are capable of effective leadership is smaller still. If legal repression can be effectively applied to those actors, the rest of the run-of-the-mill authoritarians are unlikely to act on their sentiments in ways that destabilize society and create conditions calling for more severe repression in the name of domestic tranquility.