Opinion

Do Democrats realize the danger they are in?

Here's what they must do to protect themselves — and the country

Nancy Pelosis desk.

Democrats, already rattled by nearly falling into the hands of a violent mob during the attempted putsch at the Capitol on January 6, are facing the possibility of worse happening soon. Democratic members of Congress were briefed on three different additional conspiracies to overthrow the government on Monday, and at least one member has faced harassment by Trump loyalists out in the wild.

One has to wonder: Are Democratic leaders able to face how much danger they and their party are really in, or what it might take to preserve their lives?

As I've written previously, the fascist mob was within yards of seizing members of Congress on several occasions during the January 6 putsch. If the guns, pipe bombs, flex cuffs, and literal gallows they carried are any indication, many members would have been hurt or murdered by the putschists — as they did murder one Capitol Police officer, as well as seriously injuring some 15 others. Now the extreme right is plotting new conspiracies to overturn democracy during the Biden inauguration, including by assassinating Democratic members of Congress or President-elect Biden, according to the new leadership of the Capitol Police. One plot "would involve insurrectionists forming a perimeter around the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court, and then blocking Democrats from entering the Capitol ― perhaps even killing them ― so that Republicans could take control of the government," writes Matt Fuller at HuffPost. One Chicago man has already been arrested for allegedly threatening violence against President-elect Biden.

What's more, law enforcement agencies are clearly less than trustworthy. There were many off-duty cops and members of the military involved with the putsch, and already several Capitol Police officers have been suspended for fraternizing with the putschists. Meanwhile, a Secret Service agent is under investigation for unhinged social media posts accusing Democrats of treason and stealing the election. For every member of law enforcement dumb enough to get caught doing that, it's probably safe to assume there are several more with similar views but who keep such thoughts to themselves.

Even if we think it is comparatively unlikely that the vast security apparatus will fail to protect the new president at least, there is still a major danger to the Democratic rank-and-file. Backbenchers get no Secret Service protection, and a pack of Trump supporters — who have been constantly whipped into a frenzy with inflammatory lies from half the Republican Party elite — were reportedly on the verge of violently attacking Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) at Dulles International Airport before security intervened (though Correa says those same security officers failed to even take down the names of his assailants).

What is most urgently needed right now is for elected Republicans and conservative media to tell their constituents the truth, and deescalate the situation — admitting that Biden won the election fair and square, and telling conservatives to go home and try to win the next election instead of threatening violence. This would be far too little, far too late, but it might avoid major bloodshed. Unfortunately, it is also exceedingly unlikely given that President Trump has gone back to doubling down on his rhetoric that incited the mob in the first place, and many Republicans are now whining about impeachment and the lack of unity they themselves created, so more unilateral options are needed.

Luckily, there are a great many legal and regulatory actions Biden and the incoming Democratic Congress could do to crush right-wing extremism. For instance, the far right runs on a flood tide of oligarch money — the app Parler, on which much of the putsch was organized, was funded by the notorious ultra-wealthy Mercer family — which could be taxed and regulated. As Alex Pareene suggests at The New Republic, "Rigorous audits and reclassification of 501 nonprofits would do more to disrupt right-wing organizing than any new domestic terror law as interpreted and enforced by our current security state."

Perhaps most effective immediate step would be squelching the spread of extremist propaganda, which genuinely appears to be driving much of the nutcase behavior we see around the country. Look into the history of the putschists, and in virtually every case one finds someone who melted his or her brain watching conservative YouTube, or people who are themselves conservative media personalities. I have argued that rolling back Section 230 (which protects internet companies like Facebook from being held legally liable for the material that is posted on their sites) would expose the social media behemoths to titanic legal liability, and force them to remove all extremist content — probably causing them to shrink drastically in the process, which would be its own benefit.

Finally, Democrats could conduct a purge of all the right-wing extremists in law enforcement and the security apparatus. Rather than passing a new domestic terrorism law, they could excise the fascist sympathizers from the FBI, Secret Service, NSA, and so forth, and use existing legal authorities to smash far-right political structures. The Capitol putsch was already a massive crime spree, all is needed is to enforce the laws that are already on the books.

On the other hand, it is worth noting how the space of possibility shrinks if anti-democratic extremism is allowed to metastasize. Eventually, meeting force with force becomes the only option available. This was the case by 1860, just after the Republican Party had been formed to combat slavery, when a small group of men calling themselves the "Wide-Awakes" took to protecting a Republican campaign in Connecticut. Soon there were copycat organizations springing up across the North, and the Wide-Awakes became a sort of paramilitary wing of the Lincoln campaign — serving as security for Republican events, conducting big marches through towns and cities, and recruiting thousands of young people to the anti-slavery cause. (As historian Matt Karp argues in a big article for Catalyst magazine, the Wide-Awakes were just part of a massive organizing campaign that united the Northern working class under the Republican anti-slavery banner.)

Few historians believe that the Civil War could have been avoided without splitting the U.S. in half. But today, untrammeled violent conflict could still be avoided — if the Democrats are willing to mobilize the vast powers of the American state to protect democracy and freedom from the fascist threat. It seems like a long shot, but let's hope that being in literal physical peril motivates them to get over their usual timidity.

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