Illustration by Chelsea Lovejoy

Totalitarian Ruin

Just look to Russia or North Korea for what life in the U.S. would be like had the Jan. 6 insurrection succeeded

Former three star general and national security adviser Michael Flynn addressed a rally of Trump supporters May 30. He is quoted as having approvingly endorsed the concept of a Myanmar military coup to unseat President Joe Biden and install Donald Trump in his place, saying “it should happen,” to the resounding cheers of his audience.

On Jan. 6, a large mob of insurrectionists had attempted such a coup by storming the nation’s Capitol in an effort to prevent the certification of the Electoral College ballots and overthrow the duly elected government chosen by the people of the United States. 

Were a coup to prove successful, whether by a violent mob of radical extremists or a military style takeover,  our Constitution and the democracy so many take for granted would have suffered the fate of all nations subjugated by a totalitarian regime.

Let that sink in: When a Constitution and its fundamental principles — such as the Rule of Law, its enumerated rights, its guarantees of liberty and freedom — are obliterated by an authoritarian rebellion, there is nothing left to salvage. Every nation that has endured this ritual bonfire has emerged from the ashes to a totalitarian new order, built on the rubble of a corpse that cannot  be resurrected.

In researching this campaign to undermine the compact with the people, which we call the Constitution, I learned that Steve Bannon, who at one time served in the capacity of chief strategist in the first seven months of the Trump administration, is influenced by the Fourth Turning Theory, which in essence holds that every 80 years of American history was marked by a crisis “Fourth [Generational] Turning” that destroyed an old order and created a new one. 

Bannon reportedly believes that America was overdue, and it was critical to be the architects of the “new order” when it happened. That new order would undoubtedly reflect the philosophy of the Traditionalism movement, which is ardently authoritarian, nationalistic, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-diversity and anti-democracy. Bannon himself summed up the core of this movement in an address to the French National Front in 2018 when he told its party members to “Let them call you racist , let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it like a badge of honor… History is on our side and will bring us victory.” This ideology is best represented today by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

I mention this because although Bannon disappeared from the scene for awhile, having proved too controversial in his created out of whole cloth position, he reappeared after Biden won the presidential election in November 2020, and after Biden’s victory was confirmed by numerous recounts, audits and upheld by some 60 courts, which found no evidence of fraud in the election process. At that point, strategy discussions at the White House level occurred which involved the ousted incumbent before the Jan. 6 congressional session to officially certify the Electoral College ballots. 

Flynn was one of the strategists, and recommended a course of action which would involve invoking martial law to cancel the election result as fraudulent and order a new election under military control. Bannon likewise offered his advice, having been absolved from his temporary irrelevance. Other notable advisers were Rudy Giuliani and his colleague from the failed lawsuits, Sidney Powell. 

We do not know all the details yet  of the strategies and planning that led up to the insurrection. The Republican Party is attempting to derail a Congressional investigation into the coup which would provide the answers. But the day before the Jan. 6 events, Bannon forecast it on a podcast this way: “It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen. It’s going to be quite extraordinarily different — and all I’m saying is strap in, tomorrow is game day, so strap in, let’s get ready.”  

Unfortunately, I fear Jan. 6 was only the opening act of what has all the earmarks of an ongoing assault on our democracy.

We can be assured that the authoritarian, nationalist, traditionalist movement to replace democracy has no sentimental ties or use for the rights and liberties enshrined in our Constitution, or any belief whatsoever in the ideal that all people are equal under the law.

Post-insurrection, there is much irony to be found in the travails of those charged with various criminal offenses arising from the attempted coup. One wonders if they realize that any “new order” imposed after the overthrow of the government would not have imbued them with the presumption of innocence, the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt of any charges, the right to a jury trial, or a lawyer, or any of the due process safeguards that they are entitled to under the Constitution they sought to destroy. Look no further than Russia or North Korea for the blueprint of what our life would be without the Constitution.

We find our nation on the edge of this abyss because of several related cancers that are eating at the essence of what the U.S. represents, the foundational principles that must guide us in our campaign to save our heritage.

The most prominent of these is racism, which Albert Einstein once described as America’s greatest disease. As with virtually all of our current crises, racism is based on a vicious lie — the myth that the white race is superior to all other racial categories of the human species and that white “supremacy” justifies policies which deny equality and discriminate against so-called “inferior” races. Thus were inflicted the evils of slavery, segregation, denial of education and opportunity, the right to even live in certain areas, and murderous violence at the hands of white supremacists (such as in Tulsa in 1921 and many other incidents). Despite a Civil War that ended the practice of slavery and resulted in the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, the U.S. still features systemic oppression of African Americans through its justice system, police use of deadly force, disparate penal sanctions and — as most recently evidenced — a continuation of organized legislative action to suppress their right to vote in free elections (based on another lie — that there’s fraud going on in the districts where African American voters live).

I have already touched upon the cancer of authoritarianism which afflicts America, an ideology that is necessarily opposed to democratic principles because it is opposed to equality, diversity, free elections, basic human rights and is nationalist, meaning against immigration by non-whites. Authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with racism, and, frankly, views the vote of the African American demography as the supposed “steal” of the 2020 election of Biden which triggered the unsuccessful insurrection. 

That leads me to the nation’s third cancer — the flooding of the private sector with military grade weaponry based on another lie — i.e., the fabricated reinvention of the 2nd Amendment to include the purpose of arming the citizens so they may violently rebel against their own government. I have written previously for EW on this subject (“Truth is the Only Currency,” 4/29; “The Arms Industry,” 2/18) and simply reiterate that such was never the rationale for the amendment. Quite the opposite — the Founders simultaneously defined treason as taking up arms against the government in the body of the Constitution, and it would have been moronic to create a right to do exactly that. In actuality, the 2nd Amendment was closely tethered to slavery, as the Southern states relied heavily on organized and armed militias to suppress the threat of rebellions by the oppressed slaves who outnumbered the white slaveholders.

This faux premise of a right to rebel hidden in the “right to bear arms” was introduced by the arms industry and the NRA in the late 1970s and 1980s — 200 years later — coincidentally when sales were declining in hunting and sporting firearms. Opening the private sector for weaponry that was designed for the military to inflict mass casualties on the enemy in combat resulted in a boom for the industry. Unfortunately, it has also come at a terrible cost in innocent lives, as America has suffered wave after wave of mass shootings at its schools, workplaces, places of worship, and even its seats of government are not safe from the scourge of gun violence. The 2nd Amendment does not exalt guns above other rights guaranteed in the Constitution and is not a poison pill against reasonable regulations to ensure the “general Welfare.”

All of the enumerated threats to our government and the people of this nation are in conflict with our Constitutional rights and liberties, as well as our very democracy and the rule of law. Above all, the Constitution protects life and is dedicated to the people and posterity, equality and freedom, not the golden calf of guns.

Society errs in categorizing these issues as “partisan politics,” as if they were subject to the tribalism of one’s party affiliation or some ideological label. As citizens, we are united, not divided, in the obligation to defend the Constitution and the bedrock principles which define our nation and the government and which is the product of a compact between the people and those who govern them. We have many models to show us the way to fulfill that solemn obligation, and our cemeteries harbor the remains of millions who sacrificed their lives doing just that. There are many alive today who also light the way and speak out when we need reminding of the principles that are at the heart of who we are — those who warn against injustice, discrimination, suppression of free and open elections, corruption and other ills that fall short of those ideals. We all need to join our voices with them, especially in these times, when the country is targeted in the crosshairs of a grave threat to democracy and the Constitution itself by an authoritarian movement that has produced one insurrection already and by no means has retreated or lessened its resolve.

The stakes are nothing less than existential, as is the challenge. We are called, as our ancestors were, to do our duty.

Thomas Coffin is a retired United States magistrate judge. He served 24 years in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, from 1992 to 2016.