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Who Says the Comedy Writers Are on Strike?
Within minutes of the release of the Fulton County grand jury’s charges in the Georgia election fraud investigation, the media was ablaze with dissections of the indictment of Donald Trump, eighteen of his followers, and a potential thirty additional co-conspirators. Pundits, lawyers, and network anchors all joined in, feverishly debating the legal and political ramifications of a case that would have been unique in American history had it not been preceded by three others.
What was missing from these analyses, however, was sufficient emphasis on the phenomenal stupidity with which those who were charged had behaved. Not only did a former president, a former big city mayor, a former powerhouse congressman, and at least a half-dozen high-priced lawyers demonstrate that they were not criminal masterminds, but also that they lacked the skill and the smarts of a cabal of high school students plotting to steal a copy of a final exam from a department chairperson’s office.
The 98-page indictment is rife with eye-widening passages that could have been composed in the writers’ room of The Daily Show. For example, at a hearing before the Georgia House of Representatives, Rudolph Giuliani claimed with total sincerity but not a scintilla of evidence that two female election workers, who also happened to be Black, “were ‘quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they’re vials of heroin or cocaine’…to be used to infiltrate the crooked Dominion voting machines.” It was a statement that was not only despicably racist but also incredibly easy to refute—as it was. (After being sued by the women he accused, Giuliani was forced to acknowledge that his statements were “actionable” and “false.”)
Giuliani was not alone. Most of his fellow conspirators were blithely transparent, proceeding without even a soupçon of caution. In addition to Trump’s famous find-me-votes telephone call to Brad Raffensperger, John Eastman, Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell, and Kenneth Chesbro—lawyers all—made telephone calls, sent emails, and wrote memos proposing activity that was clearly and obviously illegal, thus providing an audit trail of their activities that Inspector Clousseau could follow.
In Coffee County, a rural, deep red, thinly populated area in southeast Georgia, local election officials encouraged members of an unauthorized pro-Trump auditing firm to conduct an illegal examination of voting machines and allowed themselves to be filmed by their own cameras while doing so. The result was the sort of viral YouTube posting generally reserved for bears breaking into a pastry shop and helping themselves to the jelly donuts.
Assuming that most of the nineteen who were charged, especially the lawyers, were capable of a level of critical thinking just a wee bit higher than what they exhibited in this episode—if not, we might think about closing down law schools—it is worth taking a moment to consider just why they would have conducted themselves with such blatant disregard for potential consequences.
Since many of those indicted had made it clear that they knew their actions could put them in legal jeopardy, and in addition, like Giuliani, that they were perpetrating a fraud, the only explanation that makes sense is that they didn’t care, which leads to the conclusion that they didn’t think they had to care.
Much has been written about how Donald Trump and those around him have shattered democratic norms, and how quislings in Congress, state governments, the media, and (occasionally) on the bench either actively or passively supported them. But that the Georgia conspirators, many of whom were national conspirators as well, felt so sanguine about their eventual immunity to criminal prosecution, or being pardoned for seditious behavior, points up just how grave is the current threat to the survival of the United States as a genuine, albeit imperfect, democracy.
That they thought they would get away with it is, alas, not at all outrageous. The behavior of the Kevin McCarthys, the Jim Jordans, the Ron DeSantises, and many, many other Republicans is firm indication that they might well have been right. That these conspirators are a minority faction within a minority political party is scant comfort. Coups are almost always initiated by just such splinter groups.
And so, the nation is extremely fortunate that this crew was both arrogant and incompetent, because some of the schemes they were proposing were seductively attractive. In one, for example, Vice President Pence, while presiding over the January 6 congressional certification of the electoral votes, was to accept half and keep half in abeyance until the claims of massive fraud could be adjudicated. Given the number of Republican senators and representatives who voted not to certify the results, a willing Pence just might have been able to pull that one off.
But Pence, to his credit, demonstrated more backbone than he had in his four years as Trump’s toady and refused to violate both the Constitution and his oath of office. In that, he was joined by a number of conservatives whose honor may well have saved the republic—men and women such as Arizona’s Rusty Bowers, Georgia’s Raffensperger and Geoff Duncan, and representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. Significantly, except for Raffensperger, each of these, yes, heroes, is now out of office.
But it will not be enough to trust that honorable men and women will always be there to throw themselves in front of the oncoming freight train or that, even if they did, it would be sufficient to thwart another attack on American democracy. We might not always get a gang of fools, clowns, and blind followers of a blustering schoolyard bully to warn us of the magnitude of the threat.
While it is true that the events that culminated in the Georgia indictments sometimes had a dark, theater of the absurd humor about them, whatever laughter they elicit should be rueful.
Next time, the nation and those of us who value its institutions might not be so lucky.