Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
the national interest

Republicans Can’t Decide Whether to Celebrate Trump’s Coup Plot or Ignore It

What the “legitimate political discourse” fight reveals.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The Republican Party is embroiled in a minor internal tiff over three words: “legitimate political discourse.” The awkward coinage appeared in a Republican National Committee resolution censuring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for investigating Donald Trump’s efforts to negate the election results. RNC chair Ronna McDaniel is furious with the news media for highlighting those words out of what she regards as proper context. Many Republican officials are furious at McDaniel for passing the resolution in the first place.

The dispute offers a revealing window into the state of the party’s internal deliberations over Trump’s coup plot.

Begin with McDaniel. The resolution condemned Cheney and Kinzinger for participating in “Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” a reference to the January 6 committee. The New York Times highlighted the anodyne description, which appeared to describe the violent assault on the Capitol.

The New York Times reports that the resolution’s original language referred to the committee investigating “nonviolent and legal” activity. The resolution changed this to “legitimate.” Taken literally, this change implies the party is defending activity that is not nonviolent and legal but is legitimate.

Even if we assume, more generously, that the party was not thinking literally about the meaning of its words, but instead was merely casting about for an appropriate euphemism, this hardly exonerates it. Exactly what forms of pro-Trump activity were legitimate is a vital question for the party to resolve. Some Republicans believe Trump’s plot was legitimate right until the moment demonstrators began beating up cops. Some think the cop-beating was also fine.

The term “legitimate political discourse” begs the question of which activities were legitimate rather than answer it. This calculated ambiguity allowed the RNC to avoid defining any specific actions as illegitimate. Anti-violence Republicans could read “legitimate” to exclude the physical attacks, but pro-violence Republicans could read it the other way.

McDaniel claims to have had in mind by this term a specific target of the committee: her friend Kathy Berden, who was subpoenaed and asked to explain her participation in a plot to submit fake electors. The Washington Post reports that McDaniel raised Berden’s plight in an interview before the resolution, and brought it up in several conversations with Republicans afterward.

In an angry op-ed lashing out at both the media and the committee, McDaniel complains, “Now she could face costly legal bills even though she was nowhere near the Capitol on January 6th and had nothing to do with the violence that occurred.” Berden was not personally involved in violence, she was merely attempting to overturn a presidential election.

Bear in mind that Republicans habitually threaten voters who cast a single illegal ballot, even by mistake, with prison. McDaniel believes a person submitting fake election results for an entire state should not be forced to testify. Her personal definition of “legitimate political discourse” apparently includes the entire legal plot to steal the presidency. This is a defense that may be worse than the accusation.

It is also important to understand the specific nature of the Republican backlash against this resolution. McDaniel is not facing recriminations within her party because she embraces Trump, or defends his efforts to secure an unelected second term. Republicans are angry instead that she is going off-message.

McConnell, reports the Post, “was frustrated that the party was focused on ‘the only liability we have’ when he believes Republicans are otherwise well-positioned to win in the November midterms.” McConnell’s wing of the party believes it should avoid talking about the 2020 election at all. They oppose Trump’s ongoing campaign to vindicate his coup attempt, but they also oppose efforts to anathematize it.

Hence Nikki Haley swiping at Mike Pence for asserting that he had no right to overturn the election: “I’m not a fan of Republicans going after Republicans.” Pence, a Republican, went after Trump, also a Republican. Bad! “I never talk about January 6,” blurted out conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. It’s a bad issue for the party. “By debating, passing resolution to censure Cheney, Kinzinger, the RNC got sucked into Democratic-Trump effort to keep Republicans focused on 2020, and not on the future,” complained Byron York.

So when a Republican like Henry Barbour complains, “Resolutions shooting at other Republicans are never going to be helpful,” he is gesturing toward a position that the party should not be condemning Cheney for upholding democracy, but that it also should not be condemning the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene. The Big Tent philosophy calculates that authoritarians alone aren’t a large enough coalition to win; authoritarians and non-authoritarians must work together.

Of course, this leaves the legitimacy of Trump’s attack on American democracy unresolved. Indeed, it allows him to maintain his status as nominee-in-waiting even as he refuses to abide democratic rules. Their plan is to worry about it after they’ve gained power.

The GOP Rift: Celebrate Trump’s Coup Plot, or Ignore It?