Lock Them Up: Jailing Investigators is an Authoritarian Specialty
Fear of Prosecution for Jan. 6 is Accelerating Republican Radicalization
"This is what it looks like when the rule of law unravels," Rep. Liz Cheney tweeted in response to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's comment on Fox television that members of the House committee charged with investigating the Jan. 6 coup attempt deserve jail time.
Cheney, vice chair of that committee, seeks to persuade fellow GOP members to reverse course as they seek to destroy American democracy, not least by making clear the consequences of lawlessness. Yet the radicalization of the Republican Party has only accelerated post-Jan. 6, fueled by an all-consuming quest to gain enough power to shut down inconvenient inquiries into its criminal activities.
For a century, "getting away with it" has been the essence of authoritarianism, a political system and culture in which governance becomes fused with self-preservation for the leader and his enablers. Silencing those who might expose wrongdoing (opposition politicians, dissenters within the party, prosecutors, judges, researchers, and the press) is essential.
It's symptomatic that Gingrich, a far-right ideologue, has materialized to threaten Cheney and other committee members, whom he depicts as a "lynch mob” out to ruin “innocent people” with the blessing of Attorney General Merrick Garland and the FBI. This conspiracy theory spin on the committee's work intends to increase paranoia and animosity toward Democrats among the Republican base.
Yet Gingrich's ominous talk of "wolves" who will become the "sheep" if the Republicans capture Congress after the 2022 midterm elections also echoes the power grabs and vengeful actions that past authoritarians have staged to escape their own judicial reckonings.
The first right-wing police state started when a leader needed to shut down a criminal investigation. Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini was prime minister of a democracy when he heard that his main adversary, Senator Giacomo Matteotti, head of the Socialist Party, had a massive dossier on corrupt Fascist Party dealings with the American oil company Sinclair.
In June 1924, just before Matteotti was to reveal the details to Parliament, he was murdered by Mussolini’s personal secret police. The killers botched the cover-up, though, and by December, the special investigation launched to determine Mussolini’s role threatened Il Duce’s political future.
To end the Matteotti crisis and save himself, Mussolini took the plunge into dictatorship, announcing in January 1925 that he and his party were above the law. “If Fascism has been a criminal association, I am the head of that criminal association,” he told Parliament.
Pardons of political criminals freed up Fascist thugs to serve the regime, while new Fascist-friendly magistrates he put in charge of the investigation issued a verdict of involuntary rather than willful murder. Il Duce was off the hook. He and the Fascist Party ruled for 18 more years.
January 6th, like the Matteotti crisis, galvanized an extremist leader and his party into further radicalization. The actions of the GOP and its allies over the last year show the urgency of getting to a place of political and judicial safety. The attempts to capture the electoral machinery to override the popular vote, the imposition of a party line about the event by enforcers like Tucker Carlson, and the recruitment of dozens of lawless Jan. 6 veterans --participants in the crime under investigation-- to run for GOP offices are among the signs.
So is the return to prominence of Gingrich, whose comments on Maria Bartiromo's show condense his recent Newsweek op-ed titled "The Wolves Will Become Sheep." An air of nervous hysteria permeates the piece, which takes the favorite GOP talking point of Democrats attempting to victimize Republicans and suppress American freedoms to an extreme.
For Gingrich, the "vicious and destructive actions" of House Democrats and their "Republican enablers" on the Jan. 6 committee constitute a version of the "wolf-like behavior" dictators like Joseph Stalin practiced with their enemies. The investigators must be returned to "sheep status," Gingrich concludes chillingly.
“The Italian race is a race of sheep," Mussolini said scornfully in 1940 of those he governed, as he led them into a war against the Allies he knew they could not sustain. He, too, cried victim when his crime came out into the open --until he became the aggressor.
As the Jan. 6 investigations proceed and the circles of complicity and culpability widen, look for the GOP to become more desperate and dangerous. Going after anyone who shines the light of truth on its crime and corruption will be a party priority.