There's Nothing "Conservative" About a Coup
Rethinking the vocabulary of our politics
Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner
The more we learn about what led to and transpired on January 6, 2021, the more surreal it gets. And the scarier.
As reporters, we are trained to avoid hyperbole, to choose words carefully, not to let the drama outpace the facts. But in this instance, as with so much of the Trump era and the actions of his enablers and acolytes (in short, the driving forces behind today’s Republican Party), I fear this instinct toward journalistic caution is obscuring the full scale, and horror, of the truth.
We can see clearly the contours of a violent coup, one far surpassing the militant rioters we saw storm the Capitol. This was a blueprint to end American democracy. It was strategized and planned and came much closer to execution than many want to admit. We were teetering on the precipice, and we can return once more to a point of existential peril.
The sheer audacity and outrageousness of these events careen us well beyond the guardrails of the democratic consensus that seemed to exist prior to Trump's rise. We cannot become inured to how dangerous the situation is.
The revelations from recent documentary evidence — audio recordings and text messages — add further plot points to a narrative that, as I have said many times, would rival the imaginative powers of even the most creative Hollywood screenwriter. We now know definitively what many suspected: that aiding and abetting the destruction of our democratic process was a close and active collaboration between members of Congress and the White House. That this statement is so obvious should not rob it of its power to enrage and disgust us.
Thanks to contemporaneous reporting, we also know that Republican leadership, namely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, recognized, with complete clarity, the dangers at the time. What is also evident is that these men, and others like them, hoped that the problem of Trump would collapse under the weight of its own outrageousness, done under by the sheer force of his destructive behavior. When that didn’t happen, these “leaders” tragically resorted to form: profiles in cowardice. That is where we are today.
We have written many times before on Steady about the events of January 6 and what they mean. Although we continue to learn details, the menacing contours of that day and all they embodied and portended were known at the time. But we cannot let this story become “old news.” Even as many immediate foreign and domestic crises rightfully demand our attention, the attack on our democracy and the hold it still has over the Republican Party (a hold that has grown only deeper) must be front and center in our national consciousness. It is the stage upon which the other actions of our time are occurring.
And in this new reality, we should find ways to convey the full extent of the dangers we face. This was a coup rooted in lies and fueled by cynical bad faith. This was, and is, the purview of autocracy and would-be dictators. It represents a complete disdain for the rule of law and our Constitution. These people sought to overthrow a free and fair election, which represents the antithesis of democracy and tramples our most cherished freedoms.
This is a new chapter in American history, and a dark one. With it should come a new vocabulary and narrative structure. To use the nomenclature of the past is to suggest that the present is just a continuation of what we have witnessed before. That approach, in which the terms are familiar — Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, the right and the left — does a disservice to the public and to the truth. Resorting to the familiar phrases and framing minimizes the collapse of our democratic norms.
In this regard, I want to highlight an article I read in The New York Times. I do this not to pick on this particular newspaper or its reporters but rather to explore how we should reconsider our language on the topic.
Headlined “New Details Underscore House G.O.P. Role in Jan. 6 Planning,” the article contains a comprehensive rundown of these “new details,” including Marjorie Taylor Greene’s call for “Marshall law,” a misspelling that understandably prompted derision despite the grave subject matter.
Early in the article are two paragraphs that capture the stakes:
It has been clear for more than a year that ultraconservative members of Congress were deeply involved in attempts to keep Mr. Trump in power: They joined baseless lawsuits, spread the lie of widespread election fraud and were among the 147 Republicans who voted on Jan. 6, 2021, against certifying President Biden’s victory in at least one state.
But in a court filing and in text messages obtained by CNN, new pieces of evidence have emerged in recent days fleshing out the degree of their involvement with the Trump White House in strategy sessions, at least one of which included discussions about encouraging Mr. Trump’s supporters to march to the Capitol on Jan. 6, despite warnings of potential violence. Some continued to push to try to keep Mr. Trump in office even after a mob of his supporters attacked the complex.
This is clear and powerful reporting, calling out lies and the makeup of the mob that attacked the Capitol. But there is one phrase in these paragraphs that caught my particular attention: “ultraconservative members of Congress.” That word, “conservative,” pops up three more times in the article. We read about how these members of Congress “appeared to embrace a plan promoted by the conservative lawyer John Eastman that members of both parties have likened to a blueprint for a coup.” And toward the end: “Conservative members of Congress also amplified Mr. Trump’s efforts to fight the election results, echoing his aggressive posture on social media and in television interviews.”
I looked up “conservative” in Webster’s online dictionary and found these definitions:
a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions
b : marked by moderation or caution
c : marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners
None of the actions of those who attempted this coup can or should be considered “conservative.” Again, I am not picking on this particular article; I have used the term “conservative” in the past as well. It is ingrained in American political discourse. But it is also a word with a meaning, and to ascribe it in our current national environment is to help whitewash the truth.
There is nothing “conservative” about plotting to overthrow American democracy. It isn’t “conservative” to undermine our institutions. Quite the contrary. It isn’t “conservative” to preach extremism and marinate oneself in lies. It isn’t “conservative” to usher in a radical new vision of American government, one supported by intimidation and violence and rooted in minority rule.
I would argue that the term “conservative” should be rethought within our legal system as well. There is nothing “conservative” about ripping up decades of precedent. There is nothing “conservative” about undermining the way we vote. It isn’t “conservative” to use the power of the bench to further political aims. Nor is it “conservative” to in effect legislate from the bench, which has long been the criticism of so-called “liberal” judges.
Again, “conservative” is not being used as a proper noun. It should not be a synonym for Republican. It suggests restraint, moderation, and caution – attributes completely absent from the modern Republican Party. And when someone talks about a “conservative” politician advocating for the destruction of American democracy, this oxymoron reinforces branding benefiting that politician with a smokescreen that hides reality.
We live in a time when those labeled “conservative” are taking a wrecking ball to the very institutions that secure our stability. Meanwhile, those called “liberal” or “progressive” — terms that typically indicate desire to disrupt the status quo — seek to preserve the fundamental operations of our democracy, such as the sanctity of the vote.
This is a historic moment that demands clarity and the truth. We can’t fall back into familiar framings. As we titled this piece: There is nothing conservative about a coup.