One year ago, the storming of the U.S. Capitol marked a final, violent attempt to subvert a national election after earlier efforts by the former president and his allies had failed.
Those efforts principally sought to nullify states’ election results by filing dozens of lawsuits predicated on fictitious claims; coercing and possibly criminally soliciting state and local officials to commit election fraud; attempting to enlist the Justice Department in a campaign to overturn results; urging state lawmakers to “decertify” results themselves; pressuring the then-vice president to delay or block the counting of electoral votes by Congress; and petitioning the Supreme Court to delay certification in the event the vice president would not. As the Jan. 6 certification approached, the former president assessed how he might declare martial law in order to seize voting machines and “redo” the election. Then, he and allies incited a violent mob to ransack the Capitol. Threading these efforts together was the Big Lie: the former president’s Orwellian claim that others had in fact corrupted the election, and that he was its victim.
Since then, not a single political leader has been held to account. Unsurprisingly, those leaders and their enablers appear emboldened.
Today, at the behest of the former president and his allies, lawmakers across dozens of states are rewriting statutes that would empower them to discard certain votes and overturn results, while others are normalizing fringe legal doctrines that purport to give state legislators the constitutional cover to do so. Election officials who reject the Big Lie are being driven from office — including through threats of violence — or stripped of their nonpartisan authorities, while politicians who reject it are being summarily exiled from the Republican Party and stripped of their leadership positions. The share of Americans who believe in the Big Lie has held steady, including an overwhelming majority of Republican voters. As 100 leading democracy scholars have observed, “radical changes to core electoral procedures… are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”
In a paper that our organization is reissuing today, we lay out how scholarship and international experience point us toward a recurring, basic insight: pursuing accountability generates all sorts of risks, but avoiding accountability is riskier still. In light of the consequences otherwise, the pursuit of accountability for serious wrongdoing must be a given.
Constructing a Comprehensive Record
Absent accountability, false narratives perpetuated by political leaders harden, warping the public’s understanding of recent history. Wrongdoers, newly emboldened, recruit and mobilize others to adopt similar tactics. Some inevitably regain positions of power and repeat worse versions of past offenses. Democratic norms give way to more permissive prescriptions of acceptable political behavior. And a retreat from the rule of law predictably weakens the rule of law, legitimizing past transgressions. The absence of accountability is not neutrality, but affirmance: an invitation to wrongdoers to escalate wrongdoing and for others to follow suit.
What, then, does it mean to hold wrongdoing to account? We favor an expansive definition of accountability as a process of working towards non-recurrence: one that, as the paper states, “constructs a full record of wrongdoing; pursues deterrence through consequences for wrongdoing; rebuilds prescriptive norms of acceptable political behavior; and generates shared narratives.” Efforts across these dimensions add up to something comprehensive and self-reinforcing. If evaluated against this framework, the national response to January 6th and the campaign that preceded it suggests limited successes alongside profound failures. Consider at least three basic means of accountability.
First, while efforts to construct a comprehensive historical record are still, by and large, in their infancy, they mark an essential piece of the accountability puzzle driven by both congressional and nongovernmental fact-finding. In only a matter of months, the House January 6th Select Committee’s inquiry has deposed more than 300 witnesses and obtained over 35,000 records as part of a broad inquiry into the facts and causes of the insurrection. The investigatory work has been aided by publicly available information as a result of sustained and substantial investigations by the national press and academic and civil society groups.
Such comprehensive fact-finding and truth-telling can combat disinformation and work towards creating a more shared reality; lay the political groundwork for institutional reforms; and generate support for other critical accountability measures, such as criminal prosecutions. Of course, progress on these dimensions is precarious. Numerous Republicans in Congress are propagating disinformation about the attack and attempting to undermine the investigation, while the former president and his allies are engaged in a legal effort to keep facts hidden from the public. Both the current administration and federal courts will determine whether the former president succeeds in handicapping a comprehensive accounting.
Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions Lag
Second, criminal investigations and prosecutions have so far been inadequate. While more than 700 individuals have been charged with crimes related to January 6th, not one is a political leader responsible for mobilizing or inciting the throngs of foot soldiers who laid siege to the Capitol, or who orchestrated the attempts to subvert the election prior. To borrow the paper’s lexicon, none are “executive decision-makers” or “enablers” — only low-level “implementers.” Pursuing accountability for only the latter obscures the origins of wrongdoing, entrenches a sense of impunity for the most powerful, and signals permission to other emerging political leaders to replicate offenses. There are currently no known investigations by federal law enforcement of former senior officials, despite potential wide-ranging violations of various federal statutes criminalizing seditious conspiracies, insurrection, and rebellion. The only pending criminal probe of the former president is by state prosecutors in Georgia. Meanwhile, despite an ongoing national campaign of terror threats against hundreds of election workers, less than half a dozen individuals have been arrested by law enforcement.
Although no substitute for criminal prosecution, various civil suits have been filed against the former president and other former officials seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the January 6th insurrection’s victims, as well against other nongovernmental entities that potentially violated the law in their quest to undermine the election.
Evidence from other countries’ experiences is clear. Investigations and, if warranted, prosecutions of political leaders for grave misconduct deter similar behavior in the future (and disincentivize such actors from running for office). Particularly in countries like ours with strong judicial systems, prosecutions reaffirm rule of law norms that govern political behavior, drawing bright lines that delineate what’s acceptable from what’s not. The absence of prosecutions also, of course, broadcasts certain messages: mainly, that elite criminality is rewarding. As one former trial attorney with the Justice Department observed in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis: “A petty thief that evades prosecution has virtually no impact on the rule of law, but a CEO that evades prosecution … is an advertisement.”
Third, rebuilding prescriptive norms of acceptable political conduct requires that nongovernmental parties also play a proactive role. Various professional communities across academia, business, journalism, and law can refuse to rehabilitate the professional reputations of wrongdoers, financially reward transgressions, or otherwise normalize dangerous conduct. On this front, the general track record in the wake of January 6th is troubling. Of the hundreds of major American companies that pledged to suspend campaign contributions to members of Congress who voted to overturn the election, only 38 to date have done so; the rest have reneged. Likewise, the nation’s largest law firms have contributed half a million dollars to these members alone since January 6th, including firms that pledged not to. Meanwhile, only one implicated lawyer’s license has been suspended (though other complaints are outstanding).
That the former president and his consiglieres are publicly laying new groundwork for further election subversion nationwide — without any apparent fear of consequence — itself indicates a distressing failure of accountability. Recurrence, and worse, seems likely.
Accountability Beyond January 6th
January 6th continues to capture national attention. But pursuing accountability for abuses of power that may have faded from public consciousness is no less an imperative, lest we invite the next would-be autocrat to do the same. The Trump administration spied and retaliated against the press; spied upon, interrogated, fired, and defamed its own officials suspected of being insufficiently loyal to the former president; politicized and weaponized independent institutions such as law enforcement and career scientists; used government to propagate a deluge of disinformation; assumed the constitutional powers of other branches for itself; inflicted grievous harm on vulnerable communities; condoned and incited political violence; exploited access to government for extraordinary personal and financial gains; and, of course, embarked on a national campaign to corrupt elections.
Not only do these represent gross violations of democratic and rule of law norms; they also constitute a vast catalogue of likely criminal misconduct among senior officials and the former president himself. As more than 1,000 former federal prosecutors stated nearly three years ago in the wake of the Mueller investigation: “Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person… result in multiple felony charges.” None, of course, have been brought.
To be sure, accountability efforts alone will not prevent further democratic decline. For instance, the prior administration revealed the scope and gravity of longtime institutional features across the federal government vulnerable to the ambitions of a would-be autocrat, from the decades-long aggrandizement of executive power to the statutory loopholes of electoral certification by Congress. Equally ambitious institutional reforms will be decisive in structuring the probability of recurrence. Though even here, accountability efforts play a supportive role: exposing institutional weaknesses, illustrating their consequences, and generating support for new policies. On this front, too, the record is worrying. While packages of historic reforms have been passed by the House this year, none have been made into law.
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Soon after January 6th, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy argued that “everybody across this country” shared in the blame for what happened that day. He pointed to Democratic opposition to the Trump administration, social media, and a botched public safety response.
The comment reflects at least one way out of apportioning responsibility among individuals for grave misconduct and holding that misconduct to account. Instead, responsibility is diffused and obscured, as if transgressions are more the result of unfortunate trends and system failures than the actions of particular actors. In a Senate investigative report on January 6th issued last June, various bureaucratic failings are examined at some length — failings across the Capitol Police, intelligence agencies, the Department of Defense, the FBI, and so on. Conspicuously absent is any assessment of any senior officials who sought to subvert the election. This conveniently obviates the need for much accountability, particularly through mechanisms that enforce consequences on specific individuals.
Hannah Arendt, in her essay “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” regarded this diffusion of responsibility as “the quintessence of moral confusion… a highly effective whitewash of all those who had actually done something, for where all are guilty, no one is.” This method of reckoning with wrongdoing, Arendt argues, comes mostly from a place of fear: a fear of “passing judgment, of naming names, of fixing blame.” (In McCarthy’s case, likely a fear of retribution by the former president.) Of course, Arendt was less than sympathetic to it. She regarded the approach as little more than “desperate intellectual maneuvers.”
Caution and forbearance should certainly underline any efforts to pursue accountability for the Trump era’s alarming abuses of power. Those efforts will involve difficult challenges, risks, and trade-offs that ought to be thoughtfully managed. But fear of recurrence – not accountability — should ultimately animate any reckoning.
(This article is adapted from the preface of the recently reissued paper “Towards Non-Recurrence: Accountability Options for Trump-Era Transgressions.”)