How to make a coup disappear
Edited by Sam Thielman
When I was a kid, magicians were celebrities; the most famous by far was David Copperfield. His most renowned trick came in the fall of 1982 when, in front of a small live audience, he made the Statue of Liberty disappear. It was broadcast as a prime-time special the following April on CBS. An estimated 50 million people — one in five Americans at the time — tuned in.
The technical part of the illusion was stupidly simple: Copperfield and his audience were on a rotating stage. A curtain was raised, then the stage rotated very slowly, until the statue was out of the audience’s and the TV cameras’ carefully concocted line of sight. Loud, bass-heavy music pumped from speakers on the platform masked vibrations from the wheels and motor.
But as any magician will tell you, the key to performing an illusion is making an audience want to believe it. Copperfield did this with a bit of inspirational (and possibly partly fictitious) patter, delivered halfway through the trick, just before he made the statue “reappear”:
“I want to tell you why I did this. My mother was the first one to tell me about the Statue of Liberty. She saw at first from the deck of the ship that brought her to America: She was an immigrant. She impressed upon me how precious our liberty is and how easily it can be lost. And then one day it occurred to me that I could show with magic how we take our freedom for granted.”
Four decades later, the cult around another 80’s celeb is outdoing Copperfield in audacity. Immediately after Jan. 6, 2021, Americans almost universally agreed that a major political crime had occurred. It wasn’t just earnest liberal institutionalists who thought that way: A Pew Survey conducted the week after the riot found that three in four U.S. adults, including over half of Republicans, thought Donald Trump bore at least some personal responsibility for the assault. A full 87% told pollsters “it was very or somewhat important for federal law enforcement agents to find and prosecute those who broke into the Capitol.”
The anger was so intense that Trump, who was just weeks away from being ushered out of office, became the first in the entire 232-year history of the presidency to be impeached twice. As the Jan. 6 Committee alleged this week, an as-yet-unknown number of Republican members of Congress begged Trump for pardons “for their roles in attempting to overturn the 2020 election” — suggesting that even this group not known for its fear of accountability was convinced the hammer was about to come down. (The Jan. 6 panel named Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania as one who asked Trump for a pardon. Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia may have been another — according to video evidence submitted by the panel, Loudermilk led at least one participant in the insurrection on a Jan. 5 tour beneath the Capitol complex that included hallways, staircases, security checkpoints, and other sites “not typically of interest to tourists.”)
On Jan. 7, 2021, Trump White House attorney John Eastman — the former Clarence Thomas clerk who was later revealed as the author of the plan to have Vice President Mike Pence unilaterally throw out the results of the election — was told by his colleague Eric Herschmann: “Get a great f’ing criminal defense lawyer. You’re going to need it.”
Yet just over a year after the failed putsch, it’s questionable whether any of those pardons or lawyers will even be needed. Even as evidence of a multi-pronged self-coup accumulates, Americans’ conviction about what they saw happen in real time has started to wane. From January 2021 to January 2022, the number who told Pew that Trump bears “a lot” of responsibility for the attack slid from 52% to 43%. Forty-four percent told a Quinnipiac poll in that same month that “too much is being made of the storming of the U.S. Capitol and it’s time to move on.” Just 53% of respondents had heard as of April that a federal judge found that Trump (and Eastman) had “more likely than not” committed multiple federal crimes — including conspiracy to defraud the American people — in their effort to steal the election.
What keeps so many of us from noticing the ground shifting underfoot? Just like the speakers on Copperfield’s stage, some of it is the noise.
In the seventeen months since the Capitol attack, Americans have been inundated with news and takes about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Haitian migrant crisis at Del Rio, the (still ongoing) Russian invasion of Ukraine, inflation, the “critical race theory” panic, the transgender-rights panic, the Buffalo supermarket massacre, the Uvalde school massacre, and no fewer than four COVID waves — and that’s just off the top of my head. There’s a reason the “current thing” meme recently shared by Elon Musk on the site he’s threatening to buy (oh right, that was another one), gets so much traction. There really are a lot of different things, of varying degrees of threat and seriousness, competing for our attention at once. The belated but ongoing Jan. 6 committee hearings are meant to address that fact — though who knows how long the renewed attention will last.
You’ve also got the involvement of all kinds of malefactors in the media: from political reporters who insist on standing on the midpoint of every “partisan” issue (even if it’s staking out a compromise with the end of democracy), to Tucker Carlson, to the discredited shitheels who bellow and moan and make any excuse possible for the putschists, even when those excuses are almost guaranteed to immediately fall apart. (And it should be noted how a couple of the latest “crises,” notably “CRT” and trans issues, are purely the creation of such goons.)
There is also the sheer structural congestion of the shrinking media economy, and the need to always have the freshest and most distinctive take on everything. That means that simply restating the obvious (Trump is a fascist who has never respected an election, even those he’s won, and tried through both illegal procedural and violent means to reverse his 2020 loss and remain in power indefinitely) means the speaker risks either irrelevance or being called a (*shudder*) cringe liberal NPC. I’ve got little to gain by stating it myself, except that it’s true.
But just as with Copperfield’s illusion, a lot of it comes down to motivated reasoning on the part of the audience. It’s not for nothing that more than half of Republicans told Reuters last week that “left-wing protesters led the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot to try to make then-President Donald Trump look bad.” Fully 65% of Republicans in a Navigator Research poll released in April said the House Jan. 6th investigation was “too focused on the past.” (If right-wing respondents really thought covert Antifa radicals tricked their buddies into breaking all kinds of federal laws, you’d think they’d want to get to the bottom of it.)
Even their hated liberal institutionalists (thinking especially of you, Merrick Garland) would do seemingly anything to avoid having to hold anyone with real power accountable — whether it’s pressing any number of obvious charges against the former president, or even bringing the political-operative wife of a clearly compromised Supreme Court justice in for questioning. (Literally as I’m writing this paragraph, news just broke that, after weeks of wavering, the Jan. 6 committee is finally going to ask Ginni Thomas to testify.)
Finally, there are two other factors here that bear noting. One is that the coup failed. Mike Pence did not bend to the literal tyranny of the mob and either hand the election back to Republican secretaries of state, or simply gavel in Trump for another term. Congress reconvened that night and, votes from a large number of putschist Republicans notwithstanding, recognized that Biden had indeed won. It was close, it could have gone a number of different ways. But in the end, the result was the same old boring one that has followed every previous constitutional Jan. 6: the winner of the election took the oath of office a short time later. That means that, for those disinclined to pay attention to the details, or care about them, it seems possible to ignore how close the United States came to its first successful federal coup d’état — at least for the moment.
But I think the illusion’s biggest success so far is the fact that, to date, no one central to the planning of the coup has been held accountable in any way. Humans are social creatures; we respond to external cues. If Trump or a publicly visible member of his inner circle had been rung up on federal charges — if someone the general public has heard of had been frog-marched into jail (sorry, Peter Navarro) — it would be harder to pretend that none of this mattered.
That is the only reason I can think of that anyone outside of the violent and vocal minority of Trump supporters can take seriously the idea that a twice-impeached, openly seditious president can plausibly run again, much less be allowed to hold the office he tried to re-occupy through force. Or that Republican voters Pennsylvania nominated a man who helped organize the Jan. 6 putsch as their candidate for governor — a position he has been quite open about using to simply hand the state’s 20 electoral votes to the GOP candidate in the 2024 election.
It’s why I sincerely hope that this month’s committee action is successful in showing forgetful Americans how the trick was attempted — and that Garland in particular is serious when he says he is “watching all the hearings.” Because Copperfield was right about one thing: liberty can easily be taken away from us while we’re watching something else.
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Copperfield’s mother, Rebecca Klotkin (née Gispan), was born in Jerusalem to Yemenite and Palestinian Jewish parents. But his grandmother’s travel records, which I found on Ancestry, suggest the family arrived by ship in Providence, not New York, in 1929, when Gispan would have been about five years old. (The rabbit holes I go down for you, dear Racketeer.)
At Thursday’s hearing, held just after I hit send on this newsletter, the Jan. 6 committee published an email from Eastman to Giuliani after the coup plot failed, in which he said: “I’ve decided that I should be on the pardon list, if that is still in the works.”