Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the fifth emperor of Rome, was popular with the lower classes for cutting taxes. Historians have called him tyrannical, self-indulgent and debauched. He was a man with several wives, sexual perversions and an obsession with performing for large crowds. He is also widely regarded as the worst of all Roman emperors.
Just as Nero was said to have fiddled while Rome burned, Donald Trump fiddled with his television remote while enjoying watching his followers’ violent assault on the Capitol of the United States in his name on January 6, 2021. A TV addict, he reportedly spent the first anniversary of his failed supposed coup fuming as he watched his successor lambaste him.
Ever the showman who craves large audiences, Trump subsequently sent an email to his supporters asking for money and inviting them to one of his circuses this week in Arizona. “There’s nothing I love more than being on stage,” he reminded them.
The great tragedy of the January 6 Capitol insurrection is that it was a one-man show and wholly preventable. All it would have taken to prevent the first supposed attempted coup in US history was for Trump, who had lost the popular vote by more than seven million votes and the Electoral College, to do something totally alien to him: Tell the truth.
But his injured ego would not let him accept reality and be a gracious loser, as had all defeated presidential candidates since the birth of the republic. Had he done so, there would have been a traditional peaceful transition of power, no insurrection, no sacking of the capital, no second impeachment and January 6 would have quietly passed as a demonstration of the resilience of American democracy.
Don’t blame the Proud Boys, QAnon, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, Rudy Giuliani, or the assorted bigots, racists, militiamen, white supremacists and garden variety thugs who answered Trump’s call. They were just willing accomplices.
Hundreds have been arrested for the violent insurrection and there will be more. A few dozen are in jail, some are chastened, but many more are remorseless. It is highly doubtful the one man responsible for this day of infamy will be among those paying a legal penalty for their actions, nor his top lieutenants. Justice moves slowly – at least in the US – and there is a questionable US precedent for not arresting top leaders.
Perhaps the US would survive or even heal faster if Trump would go to prison for trying to overthrow the US government. There is a precedent in other democracies for arresting leaders who are criminals. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been sentenced to three years in jail for corruption. Israel has more experience than it would like in holding those at the top responsible for their crimes. In Israel, one former president, one former prime minister and an assortment of cabinet ministers have gone to prison. The most recent prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, is currently on trial for fraud, bribery and corruption.
Democracies survive by holding people in power responsible. Letting them escape is the greater danger.
Joe Biden gave the best speech of his presidency last week, one that he should have given almost a year ago. Trump “held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy” because “his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our constitution,” Biden said.
It must have been a stinging blow to Trump’s ego that Biden never once mentioned his predecessor by name, only saying “he’s a defeated former president.” Loser is a word Trump relishes hurling at others, making it all the more painful for him to wear that moniker around his neck.
There are a few things you should know about Trump. He has not produced a shred of credible evidence that the 2020 election was rigged, only what Biden called a web of lies. An Associated Press investigation into six battleground states found fewer than 475 cases of possible voter fraud, a number which would have made no difference in the presidential election. Many were Trump voters, including three recently arrested in Florida.
As well, Trump has a history of questioning election results for no other reason than he didn’t like them. Facts, as so much with Trump, are irrelevant.
As a notorious birther who challenged the legitimacy of the first African-American president, Trump called Barack Obama’s 2012 election a total sham. In a refrain that would become familiar, he tweeted, “We should march on Washington and stop this travesty… fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice.” As well, he refused to accept that he lost the 2016 Iowa caucuses, claiming Ted Cruz stole it - he didn’t.
Prior to the 2016 election, Trump was preparing for an expected defeat (which, tragically, did not occur) by tweeting “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary.” As usual, he didn’t have a shred of evidence. Even after he won, he rejected reality and lied about voter margins and the number of participants of the inaugural crowds.
He refused to accept defeat in 2020 and immediately began weaving a web of lies, while plotting to overturn the results. “We will never give up, we will never concede,” he tweeted on December 20. “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
On January 6, he fired up the crowd to go to the Capitol building to fight like hell and take back the country. He lied when he said he’d go with them, instead he retreated to the White House.
An excited Trump was delighted to watch the violence, said US Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska). He shrugged off the pleas of his children, aides and friends to call off the mob. His former press secretary Stephanie Grisham told CNN, “All I know about that day was that he was in the dining room gleefully watching on his TV as he often did, ‘Look at all of the people fighting for me,’ hitting rewind, watching it again.” Fiddling with his TV remote as the barbarians attacked the gates.
The public deserves – needs – a full airing of the facts and that those at the top be held fully responsible. Trump was planning the insurrection for weeks. Now is the time for accountability.
A great danger facing the US today is the prospect that Trump and his top-level co-conspirators will not be held responsible for their alleged attempted coup to overthrow the US government. Inevitably, it means they could try again.
Attorney-General Merrick Garland said those responsible for the insurrection will be held “criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy.” The health and success of US democracy depends on it.