Democracy on the Ropes

The events of Jan. 6 and the cries of “stolen election” evidence the need for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act

The events of Jan. 6 are fresh in our minds, as is the refusal of the Senate to hold the chief insurrectionist accountable for the armed attack on our Capitol. The anti-democracy faction, as always, is in Big Lie mode, as if middle school code messaging can claim the battlefield. 

The People are to swallow the poison elixir — to wit, the rejected president’s inflammatory speech was not at all meant to incite the violence that immediately followed, but was mere metaphoric poetry designed to evoke peaceful participation in the mechanics of democratic government. But the People are not drinking the elixir. Those of us with at least half a wit and a dose of our parents’ old-fashioned common sense, who watched, listened and now recall the context of this historical episode of a defeated candidate’s attempt to overthrow an election and remain in power, had no problem navigating the thicket of lies to arrive at the sobering truth — America came perilously close to totalitarianism. 

And we are still far from being out of the woods.

Let me put the evidence in the record for the readers. First, a little background. I was a federal prosecutor for 21 years of my 45 years of government service in the criminal justice system. During that part of my career, half of which was spent in the very busy Southern District of California, I tried hundreds of jury cases, many of which involved complex fraud crimes where the intent of the defendant was a critical element of the offense — e.g., intent to deceive — as well as cases involving violent crimes, likewise involving proof of specific intent — e.g., premeditated intent to kill. 

Intent is rarely susceptible to direct proof without a confession from the defendant. Lacking such proof, the evidence must be supplied through indirect, or circumstantial, proof — such as similar acts showing a pattern of deceit or violence. Keep these concepts in mind as I endeavor to articulate just some of the actions and statements of Donald Trump which put the activity and speech of Jan. 6 in context.

I begin with his first campaign for president. In August 2016, he gave a speech at a rally of his supporters in which he told them that if Hillary Clinton won she would abolish the Second Amendment and there was “nothing you can do folks … although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know…”  The term “Second Amendment solutions” is a euphemism associated with political assassination, and has been regularly employed by right-wing militias to legitimize the supposed right to engage in armed insurrection against the government. Of course, Trump would later deny any such connotation.

Forwarding to March 2019, when talk of impeachment was in the air, Trump boasted in an interview with Breitbart that if he were to be removed from office (through impeachment), “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people — it would be very bad.”

On Sept. 30, 2019, Trump tweeted that “if the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office … it will cause a Civil War fracture in the Nation from which our Country will never heal.” 

In September 2020, during the first presidential debate, Trump was asked by the moderator whether he condemned the violence of white supremacy extremists, and he not only failed to do so, he exhorted the “Proud Boys” (a violent and extremist white supremacy gang) to “stand by”— a slogan that the Proud Boys subsequently stitched to their clothing. 

On April 17, 2020, Trump tweeted “Liberate Michigan” in a series of tweets critical of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her COVID-19 shutdown measures in the state. Then in early October 2020, the FBI and Michigan State Police foiled an imminent plot by 13 members of a paramilitary group, the Michigan Watchmen, to kidnap and murder Whitmer and other state officials. After being fully briefed by federal law enforcement about the plot, Trump tweeted, “I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence” and added, “Governor Whitmer — open up your state…”

Months before the November 2020 election, Trump began broadcasting that he could only lose the election if it was rigged and there was fraud. To put these remarks in context, the readers need to keep in mind that Trump’s advisers had long been informing him that the Democratic candidate most likely to beat him was Joe Biden, which had fueled his pressuring the Ukraine president to announce a criminal investigation of Biden (to no avail).

What followed was the foreseen catalyst to the Jan. 6 insurrection — Trump lost the election by a large margin and initiated his claim of “fraud,” filing and losing some 60 lawsuits because his lawyers could not prove fraud despite the numerous opportunities to do so. That spurred his attempt to pressure election officials to change the vote tally to appear as if he had been the winner (e.g. the notorious recorded call to the Georgia secretary of state in which he demanded that 11,000 votes be switched from Biden to him). 

Trump engaged in serial attacks on election officials in swing states, who endured death threats from his supporters for validating the election results as accurate after numerous recounts. Finally, Trump was left with one desperate move — preventing the ceremonial opening of the Electoral College ballots officially confirming Biden as the 46th president of the U.S. by the vice president before Congress on Jan. 6.

That was the setting for the summoning of his “tough people” for a rally that very day of the very certification of the votes of the People which would terminate his term and install Biden in the White House. The attendees, not coincidentally, included Proud Boys, militia members, police, military officers and other such supporters he previously bragged would make it “very bad.”

This is some of the totality of context in which to judge the intent of the main orator at the Jan. 6 rally, moments before the crowd attempted to overthrow our government. The crowd got the message — many of them have since affirmed they believed they were following the then-president’s orders. In the aftermath of the sedition, America is hardly out of danger in the threat against our Constitution and Democracy. 

Had Trump succeeded in overturning the election results, we would soon be like all totalitarian governments with pretext elections that count only for show and must always favor the dictator to be considered legitimate. Our Senate has now encouraged armed conflict and sedition in election cycles by passing on any meaningful response to the Jan. 6 events, the attack on the very seat of our government, and thus feeding the evolving narrative that such may become the new normal of politics in America.

Look around America — the so-called “fraud” at the heart of the Trump “stolen election” narrative is at its core the African American vote. The Trump Party has embraced fully the white supremacy/nationalist agenda, which has never acknowledged the legitimacy of the African American vote. 

Research our nation’s history — for decades after the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, white supremacists employed voting suppression tactics and violence to prevent and deny the Constitutional right to vote to African Americans.  A recent USA Today article on challenges to Black voting references the concerted efforts of that era to suppress the African American vote. I am afraid MAGA is a call to return to that terribly unjust and discriminatory period of Jim Crow laws.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act must be enacted. Voting must be facilitated, not impeded. Gerrymandering must be prohibited, not allowed through specious pretexts which disavow its true purpose and motive — racial discrimination.

A former federal prosecutor, Judge Thomas Coffin was a U.S. magistrate for the District of Oregon until his retirement in 2017.