September 24, 1968, was a long time ago. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had both been assassinated and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago had ended with riots in the streets and Hubert Humphrey poised to lose to Richard Nixon in November. The war in Vietnam was clearly hopeless. After the 1968 Tet Offensive even Walter Cronkite said so – and he was “the most trusted man in America” at a time when no one trusted anyone. All that had happened before September 24, when Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace popped up Sunday evening television, just before Ed Sullivan, with something new – 60 Minutes – a CBS television news magazine dedicated to investigative journalism.
This was new and soon the show was on every Sunday evening, not just every other week, with surprising scoops of all sorts, and Andy Rooney being home-spun-acerbic every Sunday evening from 1978 to 2011. Yeah, he died, but the show never died. But it became less interesting. Newspapers did exposés. News magazines did exposés. Other networks got in on the action, launched their own news magazines, and did exposés. Much of that turned into low budget true-crime voyeuristic murder-porn and true-life-behind-bars cheap thrills for the masses – but “60 Minutes” kept doing what it did. There were fewer exposés but they snagged key interviews. And it’s kind of like 1968 again, the nation tearing itself apart, and again they snagged the key interview.
This is worse than 1968. This time it’s actual sedition. The New York Times Katie Benner covered the story:
Evidence the government obtained in the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol most likely meets the bar necessary to charge some of the suspects with sedition, Michael R. Sherwin, the federal prosecutor who had been leading the Justice Department’s inquiry, said in an interview that aired on Sunday.
The department has rarely brought charges of sedition, the crime of conspiring to overthrow the government.
But in an interview with “60 Minutes,” Mr. Sherwin said prosecutors had evidence that most likely proved such a charge.
Yes, these people were trying to overthrow the government, and that’s new:
The last time federal prosecutors brought a sedition case was 2010, when they accused members of a Michigan militia of plotting to provoke an armed conflict with the government. They were ultimately acquitted, and the judge in the case said the Justice Department had not adequately proved that the defendants had entered a “concrete agreement to forcibly oppose the United States government.”
That was an odd case:
Judge Victoria A. Roberts of Federal District Court dismissed all charges against five members of the Hutaree militia, who the authorities claimed had plotted to kill a police officer and then ambush those who attended the funeral. She dismissed the most serious charges against the group’s founder, David Brian Stone Sr., and his son Joshua, but said they must remain on trial for some lesser weapons charges. All of the defendants had faced possible life sentences if convicted.
“The government’s case is built largely of circumstantial evidence,” Judge Roberts wrote in her ruling. “While this evidence could certainly lead a rational fact-finder to conclude that ‘something fishy’ was going on, it does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendants reached a concrete agreement to forcibly oppose the United States government.”
They wanted to kill a cop and the kill those who attended his funeral, but that’s not an attempt to overthrow the government:
The defendants’ lawyers had maintained that while Mr. Stone and others in the group openly talked about their dislike of the police and other government officials, they were not planning to take any action and thus were protected by the First Amendment. During opening statements, one lawyer said the Hutaree, which held training exercises in the woods near Adrian, about 70 miles southwest of Detroit, was essentially a “social club.”
“It shows how hard these cases are when you’re talking about groups engaged in political speech,” said Peter J. Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University and a former federal prosecutor. “This was a fairly disorganized group that talked big but didn’t seem to be doing much.”
In short, they were a bunch of local assholes. That’s all. Benner, however, notes that no one has to try to overthrow the government to be in deep trouble:
The statute on seditious conspiracy also says that people who conspire to “oppose by force the authority” of the government or use force “to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States” can be charged with sedition.
The government has charged some defendants in the Jan. 6 case with conspiring to derail the final certification of President Biden’s electoral victory.
That’s the loophole. That’s close enough. And this guy had seen enough:
Mr. Sherwin witnessed the crime as it unfolded. After he dressed in his running clothes and entered the crowd at the rally near the White House, he observed a “carnival environment” of people listening to speeches and selling T-shirts and snacks.
“I noticed there were some people in tactical gear. They were tacked up with Kevlar vests. They had the military helmets on,” he said in the “60 Minutes” interview. “Those individuals, I noticed, left the speeches early.”
“Where it was initially pro-Trump, it digressed to anti-government, anti-Congress, anti-institutional,” Mr. Sherwin said. “And then I eventually saw people climbing the scaffolding. The scaffolding was being set up for the inauguration. When I saw people climbing up the scaffolding, hanging from it, hanging flags, I was like, ‘This is going bad fast.’”
Of course some of this was simple murder:
Mr. Sherwin told “60 Minutes” that the government had charged more than 400 people. Among them are hundreds accused of trespassing and more than 100 accused of assaulting officers, including Brian D. Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer who died after fighting with rioters.
Mr. Sicknick and two other officers were sprayed with an unidentified chemical agent that one of the assailants said was used to repel bears.
A medical examiner has not determined how Officer Sicknick died, Mr. Sherwin said, so two suspects were charged with assaulting an officer instead of murder. But that could change, he said.
“If evidence directly relates that chemical to his death,” Mr. Sherwin said, “in that scenario, correct, that’s a murder case.”
But that’s not the main case:
Mr. Sherwin said that only about 10 percent of the cases so far dealt with more complicated conspiracies planned and executed by far-right extremists – including members of the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters and the Proud Boys – to organize, come to Washington and breach the Capitol.
That was sedition. They’re in the deepest trouble, but then so is Donald Trump:
He reiterated assertions he made shortly after the attack that prosecutors were examining the conduct of former President Donald J. Trump, who had told his supporters to attend the rally on Jan. 6 and egged them on with baseless claims that he had won the election.
“It’s unequivocal that Trump was the magnet that brought the people to D.C. on the 6th. Now the question is, is he criminally culpable for everything that happened during the siege, during the breach?” Mr. Sherwin said.
“We have people looking at everything,” he said.
He did seem to be trying to overthrow his own government, for something he thought was better, and the Washington Post adds detail:
On Friday, authorities unsealed the latest indictment, charging four Proud Boys leaders from Washington state, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania with conspiracy to aid and abet the obstruction of Congress’s confirmation of the 2020 presidential election and police attempts to protect the Capitol from rioting that led to five deaths and 130 police assaults.
Prosecutors and the FBI also have accused 10 members and affiliates of the Oath Keepers with conspiring to obstruct Congress. The Justice Department is now looking at whether a larger conspiracy case can be made, including against senior figures in the group, which recruits military, law enforcement and first-responder personnel and claims authority to disobey government orders that some think are part of a conspiracy to strip Americans of their constitutional rights.
And there’s this:
In unaired portions of the interview, Sherwin debunked claims about left-wing extremists posing as Trump supporters and discussed tours of the building that took place before Jan. 6, “60 Minutes” reported.
Sherwin said investigators are examining whether suspects who toured the Capitol days before the attack were “casing or doing reconnaissance runs” or on “a basic tour.” He called the possibility troubling.
Who in Congress was showing them around, if that is what happened, and then there’s this:
Sherwin, a career prosecutor from Miami, was named by then-Attorney General William P. Barr to be the top D.C. federal prosecutor last spring, while he was on detail to Barr’s deputy. Sherwin stepped down March 3, allowing the Biden administration to rename Channing D. Phillips as acting U.S. attorney while the White House and Attorney General Merrick Garland select a permanent nominee.
What? Sherwin wasn’t one of Biden’s people? What is going on here?
Nothing is going on here. Just ask that guy from Wisconsin:
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) on Saturday offered an alternative reality of the deadly Capitol insurrection earlier this year by falsely claiming a lack of violence on the Senate side during the attack.
Speaking to a group of conservative Wisconsin residents at a local political event on Saturday, Johnson pushed claims of more activity on the House side of the Capitol when the mob of Trump supporters breached the building, according to CNN.
CNN also reported that Johnson doubled down on his previous assertion of not feeling threatened amid the deadly Capitol insurrection that left five dead.
“One of the reasons I’m being attacked is because I very honestly said I didn’t feel threatened on January 6. I didn’t,” Johnson said, according to CNN. “There was much more violence on the House side. There was no violence on the Senate side, in terms of the chamber.”
Ah, no, not exactly:
Video footage documenting the breaching of the Capitol hours after then-President Trump told his supporters during a rally to “fight like hell” to overturn Joe Biden’s electoral victory show insurrectionists breaking windows on the Senate side and packing the halls near the Senate chamber. Videos of the Capitol insurrection were aired during Trump’s second impeachment trial last month.
You didn’t see what you saw. No one saw what they saw. Trust him.
What? Who is this guy? Trip Gabriel and Reid Epstein offer a profile:
Senator Ron Johnson incited widespread outrage when he said recently that he would have been more afraid of the rioters who rampaged the Capitol on Jan. 6 had they been members of Black Lives Matter and antifa.
But his revealing and incendiary comment, which quickly prompted accusations of racism, came as no surprise to those who have followed Mr. Johnson’s career in Washington or back home in Wisconsin. He has become the Republican Party’s foremost amplifier of conspiracy theories and disinformation now that Donald Trump himself is banned from social media and largely avoiding appearances on cable television.
Twitter benched Trump. Johnson entered the game for Donald Trump:
Mr. Johnson is an all-access purveyor of misinformation on serious issues such as the pandemic and the legitimacy of American democracy, as well as invoking the etymology of Greenland as a way to downplay the effects of climate change.
That last part was just fluff. He said he has no idea how Greenland got its name, but it must have been green at some time, or it would not have that name, so global warming is a hoax. Got it? No? Don’t worry. He has plenty more:
In recent months, Mr. Johnson has sown doubts about President Biden’s victory, argued that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was not an armed insurrection, promoted discredited Covid-19 treatments, said he saw no need to get the coronavirus vaccine himself and claimed that the United States could have ended the pandemic a year ago with the development of a generic drug if the government had wanted that to happen.
But the evil government wanted the pandemic to get worse! No, this was Trump’s government at the time. He must be talking about the other government, the Deep State. Trump fought that.
Got it? No? Don’t worry. He has plenty more:
Last year, he spent months as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee seeking evidence that Mr. Biden had tried to pressure Ukrainian officials to aid his son Hunter, which an Intelligence Community report released on Monday said was misinformation that was spread by Russia to help Mr. Trump’s re-election.
Mr. Johnson has also become the leading Republican proponent of a revisionist effort to deny the motives and violence of the mob that breached the Capitol. At a Senate hearing to examine the events of that day, Mr. Johnson read into the record an account from a far-right website attributing the violence to “agents-provocateurs” and “fake Trump protesters.”
Those were fake Trump people doing all that bad stuff! Gabriel and Epstein note the damage done:
His continuing assault on the truth, often under the guise of simply “asking questions” about established facts, is helping to diminish confidence in American institutions at a perilous moment, when the health and economic well-being of the nation relies heavily on mass vaccinations, and when faith in democracy is shaken by right-wing falsehoods about voting.
Republicans are 27 percentage points less likely than Democrats to say they plan to get, or have already received, a vaccine, a Pew Research Center study released this month found. In an interview, Mr. Johnson repeatedly refused to say that vaccines were safe or to encourage people to get them, resorting instead to insinuations – “there’s still so much we don’t know about all of this” – that undermine efforts to defeat the pandemic.
He doesn’t seem to care, but that may be a Wisconsin thing:
The drumbeat of distortions, false theories and lies reminds some Wisconsin Republicans of a figure from the state’s past who also rarely let facts get in the way of his agenda: Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose witch hunt for communists in and out of government in the 1950s ruined lives and bitterly divided the country.
“Wisconsin voters love mavericks, they really love mavericks – you go way back to Joe McCarthy,” said Jim Sensenbrenner, a long-serving Republican congressman from the Milwaukee suburbs who retired in January. “They do love people who rattle the cage an awful lot and bring up topics that maybe people don’t want to talk about.”
They love jerks who ruin everything? That’s not a Missouri thing:
On Sunday, Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, denounced Mr. Johnson’s distortion of the events of Jan. 6. “We don’t need to try and explain away or come up with alternative versions,” he said on the NBC program Meet the Press. “We all saw what happened.”
Of course, but Gabriel and Epstein think that may not matter anymore:
Conspiracy theories and a defiant disregard of facts were a fringe but growing element of the Republican Party when Mr. Johnson entered politics in 2010 – notably in the vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin two years earlier. But under Mr. Trump, the fringe became the mainstream. Fact-free assertions by the president, from the size of his inaugural crowd in 2017 to the “big lie” of a stolen election in 2020, required Republican officials to fall in line with his gaslighting or lose the support of the party’s base voters.
Mr. Johnson proved himself remarkably adept at adopting the misinformation that increasingly animated Fox News commentators and right-wing talk radio.
“Through the years, as the party has morphed into a muscular ignorance, Q-Anon sect, he’s followed along with them,” said Christian Schneider, a former Republican political operative in Wisconsin who embedded with the Johnson campaign in 2010 to write a glowing account for a local conservative magazine. “Now, he’s a perfect example of that type of politics.”
That would be what Politico’s Derek Robertson explains here:
For a political party whose membership skews older, it might be surprising that the spirit that most animates Republican politics today is best described with a phrase from the world of video games: “Owning the libs.”
Gamers borrowed the term from the nascent world of 1990s computer hacking, using it to describe their conquered opponents: “owned.” To “own the libs” does not require victory so much as a commitment to infuriating, flummoxing or otherwise distressing liberals with one’s awesomely uncompromising conservatism. And its pop-cultural roots and clipped snarkiness are perfectly aligned with a party that sees pouring fuel on the culture wars’ fire as its best shot at surviving an era of Democratic control.
So they fire away:
In just the past month, Sen. Ted Cruz self-consciously joked at the Conservative Political Action Conference about his ill-timed jaunt to Cancun, decried mask-wearing as pro-statist virtue signaling, and closed his speech by screaming “Freedom,” a la William Wallace; House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted a video of himself reading a Dr. Seuss book in protest of the supposed censorship of the children’s author (whose estate decided to stop publishing six titles on account of stereotypes in their illustrations); Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene erected a sign outside her congressional office in Washington declaring “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE” across the hallway from the office of Democratic Rep. Marie Newman, whose daughter is transgender; even Rush Limbaugh, the late talk radio giant and progenitor of liberal “ownage,” got in one last braggadocious slap from beyond the grave: the occupation listed on his death certificate is “greatest radio host of all time.”
That may seem like random gleeful nastiness, but it’s more than that:
In one sense, this is the natural outgrowth of the Trump era. Inasmuch as there was a coherent belief that explained his agenda, it was lib-owning – whether that meant hobbling NATO, declining to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory, floating the prospect of a fifth head on Mt. Rushmore (his, naturally), or using federal resources to combat the New York Times’ “1619 Project.”
But in a post-Trump America, to “own the libs” is less an identifiable act or set of policy goals than an ethos, a way of life, even a civic religion.
“‘Owning the libs’ is a way of asserting dignity,” says Helen Andrews, senior editor of The American Conservative. “‘The libs,’ as currently constituted, spend a lot of time denigrating and devaluing the dignity of Middle America and conservatives, so fighting back against that is healthy self-assertion; any self-respecting human being would… Stunts, TikTok videos, they energize people, that’s what they’re intended to do.”
But it’s a bit absurd:
“I can envision a time where [pro-Trump Florida Rep.] Matt Gaetz could pin a picture of [Democratic New York Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to his own crotch, and smash it with a ball-peen hammer, and he’ll think it’s a huge success if 100,000 liberals attack him as an idiot,” says Jonah Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the anti-Trump conservative outlet The Dispatch. “It’s a way of taking what the other side criticizes about you and making it into a badge of honor.”
And so it goes:
A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, viral videos of mask burnings and other forms of lockdown protest proliferate… In certain parts of the country, modified pickup trucks “roll coal,” spewing jet-black exhaust fumes into the air as a middle finger to environmentalists. Popular bootleg Trump campaign merchandise read simply: “Fuck your feelings.”
And thus they own the libs, who by now may have decided to shrug and move on. Outrage is a chump’s game. There are things to do. But this should have worked:
“It’s a spirit of rebellion against what people see as liberals who are overly sensitive, or are capable of being triggered, or hypocritical,” says Marshall Kosloff, co-host of the podcast “The Realignment,” which analyzes the shifting allegiances of and rise of populist politics. “It basically offers the party a way of resolving the contradictions within a realigning party, that increasingly is appealing to down-market white voters and certain working-class Black and Hispanic voters, but that also has a pretty plutocratic agenda at the policy level.”
In other words: Owning the libs offers bread and circuses for the pro-Trump right while Republicans quietly pursue a traditional program of deregulation and tax cuts at the policy level.
No, they don’t. There are few such Republicans left:
That’s led to predictable tensions, as the party’s diminishing cadre of wonky reformists lament a form of politics that seems more focused on racking up retweets and YouTube views than achieving policy goals. Even so, Trump-inspired stunt work is, for the moment, the Republican Party’s go-to political tool. “Owning the libs” is no longer the domain of its rowdy, ragged edges, it’s the party line, with the insufficiently combative seen as inherently suspect and outside the 45th president’s trusted circle of “fighters.”
And they have no use for policy or governance or any of that boring Washington stuff. They want to own the libs. But flummoxing or otherwise distressing liberals with their awesomely uncompromising conservatism has nothing to do with running the country. In fact, that’s sedition. The nation may not survive this.