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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of January 7, 2022, in 10 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① Thursday was proof of concept that the fight to save democracy can galvanize the party, and capture the public imagination

② But words don't matter nearly as much as deeds, and on the legal front, many ominous signs remain

③ The legislative front is highly uncertain, too, but there have been some positive developments, and at the very least Democrats won't allow Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to kill democracy protection quietly

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THE YEAR AND NOW

Yesterday marked a year since the Capitol insurrection, the violent climax of Donald Trump’s failed coup—which was really a multifaceted Republican attempt to establish a dictatorship here in the United States. 

The anniversary has formed a backdrop for a broader Democratic Party offensive (facilitated in a way by the uncertainty surrounding President Biden’s economic agenda) aimed at protecting democracy on multiple fronts: the legal and the legislative, as well as in the plane of public perception. 

Let’s see how they're doing on all three. 

① THE REFORMER GUY

The centerpiece of the commemoration was a rousing speech Biden delivered at the Capitol, which marked his biggest departure from the “I don’t think about the former president” zone, where he's usually more comfortable. A spanking-new Brandon, if you will. 

Take the time to read the whole thing here. It’s a comprehensive, explicit indictment of Trump’s conduct before the insurrection—indeed, even before the election—during the riot, and in the year since. It’s also the best and most important speech of Biden’s presidency, one that will be remembered as a turning point in the democracy fight provided Democrats follow through with deeds.

We’ll get to what the deeds might be in a moment, but while the long-term impact of Biden’s comments are unknown I think there’s a lot to learn from the immediate impact, which has been excellent. And it was excellent not because Biden told us (the public, the media, fellow Democrats) anything we didn’t already know, but because he spoke in unvarnished, emotionally potent terms. Consider: 

  • “The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election. He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.”
     
  • “Even before the first ballot was cast, the former president was preemptively sowing doubt about the election results. He built his lie over months. It wasn’t based on any facts. He was just looking for an excuse—a pretext—to cover for the truth. He’s not just a former president. He’s a defeated former president.”
     
  • “You can’t love your country only when you win. You can’t obey the law only when it’s convenient. You can’t be patriotic when you embrace and enable lies.”
     
  • “Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America—at American democracy…. I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. And I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy.”

It wasn’t the bill of particulars, but these charged words—the pejoratives aimed at the opposition, the seizing of the high grounds of patriotism, truth, and freedom, the promising to fight—that the political world reacted to, and the results were instantaneous surges in Democratic morale, good press coverage, and Republican defensiveness.

Every now and again, there’s a day like yesterday where Dems bask in the rewards of good politics (the Hamilton thing, notwithstanding) before slinking back to business as usual. But this is more or less how all Dems, including Biden, should comport themselves everyday. Not as an occasional departure from the regular output of kitchen-table pablum, but the regular tenor. A lifestyle, not a diet.

There’s more to politics than winning news cycles, and most days don’t carry the symbolic heft of the January 6 anniversary, which made seizing the news cycle unusually easy. But again, Biden’s favorite rhetorical flavor is vanilla; in the realm of partisan combat he is uncomfortable with emotional potency. So are most elected Democrats. There's lots of room for them to grow, and it's impossible to fight for democracy in a colorless way. 

② LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO INDICT

Which brings us to the question of deeds and our illustrious attorney general!

Merrick Garland informally kicked off the insurrection remembrance on Wednesday with an unusual speech directed nominally to the Justice Department staff, but really to the restless segment of the public that has just watched a year go by with no accountability for the organizers of the coup d’etat. It isn’t on the Attorney General to be a political combatant in what is ultimately an existential fight between the American far right and center-left—quite the contrary—but he has one of the most important roles to play in determining whether law or lawlessness prevails, and on that he was vague to the point of uselessness. 

The lines he delivered that drew the most attention were seemingly meant to assure people that DOJ’s investigative work won’t end with the street-level rioters who laid siege to the Capitol—or at least to get his critics off his back for a while. But he could have gone further, and what he said is actually pretty ominous when placed in a larger context.

  • “The Justice Department remains committed to holding all January 6th perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law—whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy.” 
     
  • “We understand that there are questions about how long the investigation will take, and about what exactly we are doing. Our answer is, and will continue to be, the same answer we would give with respect to any ongoing investigation: as long as it takes and whatever it takes for justice to be done.

Emphasis is mine. 

The italicized phrases sum to a Rorschach test that people who have differing levels of faith in Garland and the American system of justice will interpret differently. But there was no reason he had to leave things so open to interpretation. For instance, Garland commits to holding criminals “at any level” accountable, but he inexplicably toggles between referring to them as “January 6th perpetrators” and perpetrators of an “assault on democracy.” We have no way to know whether by “January 6th” he means only the mob actions we witnessed unfold on TV or whether he’s using January 6 as synecdoche for larger plot to overturn an election; we're left to guess if by “assault on our democracy” he’s imagining every illegal act undertaken with the intent of blocking the transition of power, or just the ones that lead to a violent “assault.”

Why be so elliptical? Perhaps because we know Trump and his associates engaged in a great deal of illegal conduct between the election and the riot that had nothing to do with the mobs on January 6—not to mention a great deal of illegal conduct long before the election—and there has been a conspicuous lack of accountability for any of it.

There are elaborate apologetics out there suggesting Garland has some inherent obligation to start with the rioters if he’s going to build any case against Trump and his operatives, and Garland clearly wants people to believe the same—cf. “In complex cases, initial charges are often less severe than later charged offenses.” But it is far from legal consensus that Garland would need to establish a lower-level conspiracy to obstruct the January 6 certification in order to charge Trump with other crimes—like intimidating election and law enforcement officials—for which there is already ample evidence. You can listen to some of it here. As Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) has said many times, “if you or I did that, we'd be under indictment by now.” 

But even if you trust people who insist that the law is coming for Trump this time—that these things just take awhile—keep two more things in mind. 

  1. The insurrection has less than nothing to do with Trump’s documented, thoroughly investigated, criminal efforts to obstruct Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the statutes of limitations on which have begun to lapse. They have less than nothing to do with the 2016 election crimes that landed Michael Cohen in prison, and in which prosecutors named Trump an unindicted co-conspirator. 
     
  2. There's only so much institutionalism that Garland’s obligation to uphold the law can withstand. We may not have “awhile” and there is no “as long as it takes.” There is only “as long as Republicans don’t win or steal an election.” If Republicans win or steal Congress in 2022, they will try to penetrate, shut down, or falsely discredit any January 6 investigations; if a Republican is president in 2025, the investigation will be shut down, and any loyalist serving time will be pardoned.

Back to the Rorschach test: Garland is right in one respect that the onus to save democracy can’t be his alone. “The obligation to keep Americans and American democracy safe is part of the historical inheritance of this department,” he said. “But…the Justice Department…cannot alone defend the right to vote. The responsibility to preserve democracy—and to maintain faith in the legitimacy of its essential processes—lies with every elected official and with every American.”

I completely agree with this; the deeds required to defend democracy reach beyond throwing people in jail. But if powerful people who try to steal an election don’t go to jail, there will be more attempts. It isn’t a prosecutor’s job to save democracy, but democracy is much harder to save if prosecutors refuse to investigate or charge those who conspire against it. 

③ AND NOW WE WEIGHT

The final front is legislative, and there’s been surprising movement, mostly positive, since we broke for the holidays. The gist is that while the Build Back Better Act sits on ice, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised that the Senate will “debate and consider” changes to the Senate rules that would allow democracy protections to pass; he’s also swatted away GOP entreaties to limit democracy protection to narrow changes to the Electoral Count Act, which would effectively kill non-partisan redistricting and leave all new state voter-suppression laws in place. In media appearances Schumer has admitted he has no commitments from Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) to side with democracy over Strom Thurmondism but said he hopes their positions will fold under the weight of the moment.

Keeping the moment weighty, though, will require Democrats to keep talking the way they did on January 6, 2022, every day after January 6, 2022. Of all the speeches Democrats made this week, my favorite came from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). If Biden was speaking to all of America, Schatz meant to grab Washington elites—the press, the White House, his Senate colleagues—by the lapels and shake them. “They are now organizing the next coup in plain sight,” he said. “I don’t know the economics or the psychology behind it. Maybe it’s ratings or a natural tendency among the chattering class to not want to sound like a wild-eyed person; that being unworried is what passes for savvy in this town. But everyone, including those who consider themselves patriots, seem so chill about this that I’m genuinely alarmed. They are installing loyalists across the country in order to cheat and they are not being subtle about it. Meanwhile, the cocktail set in Washington is busy policing our tone and talking about Democratic overreach.”

Watch the whole thing here, and bookmark it for if and when those elites, including Biden, slip back into chill once the weekend’s over. 

Ideally they won’t do that. In November, Molly Jong-Fast wrote that Biden needs an enemy, and yesterday we saw how much he benefits from having one. I might tweak that to say: Biden had an enemy all along; his recent political woes stem in large part from his refusal to acknowledge it; and if Biden truly means to "stand in this breach" to "defend this nation," Thursday will mark a lasting change in his disposition.  

I can’t say I’m hopeful exactly, but I am gratified. It’s good to hear Biden use fighting words. I’m glad that Schumer will force the democracy fight, and that he’s teed the issue up to fill the gap between January 6 and Martin Luther King Day—another emotionally potent occasion. I’m gratified that Biden will take his democracy message on the hustings next week, and hopefully activists from across the country will pour into Washington when it comes time for senators to vote. Maybe Manchin and Sinema won’t ever be swayed, but they definitely won’t be if the country isn’t watching, because the political elite returns to chill, and they’re allowed to let democracy protection die quietly.  

Since we broke, Joe Manchin threw a hissy fit in which he all but killed the Build Back Better Act, then kinda backtracked to suggest they’ll still pass something pretty close to the deal he’d been negotiating with the White House. It’s just very unclear at the moment, but the last Big Tent of 2021 was all about the prospect of BBB’s failure and I stand by it.

Without weighing in on Don’t Look Up discourse, I liked Bill McKibben on what I’ve called the media’s “new news bias.” 

The operatives are right and the, uh, other operatives (?) are wrong. 

Good for Emmanuel Macron who is, whatever his shortcomings, very well situated for re-election.

Speaking as a fellow Jewish Harry Potter abstainer, YEAH WTF??

Longread recommendation: Jonathan Katz on a long-forgotten, alleged scheme to steal democracy, thwarted by a U.S. war hero with a pedigree in subverting democracy abroad.

Seen

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