Convictions test convictions (2)

The sentences for the January 6 insurrectionists are getting far more harsh. Partly, it’s because the first sentences reflected plea bargains, and then prosecutors worked up to the trials of the worst offenders–and they’re not done yet.

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, was just sentenced to 18 years in prison after being found guilty of seditious conspiracy–among other charges. Unrepentant on the stand during his criminal trial months ago, Rhodes expressed regret only that his forces weren’t better armed in the onslaught on the Capitol. Up to the moment of sentencing, he reiterated his belief that the 2020 election was “stolen,” and his commitment to work for regime change–and not through electoral politics. Another half-dozen insurgent leaders await sentencing on similar charges.

In another courtroom on the same day, Richard “Bigo” Barnett was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for a clutch of crimes that included posing for the cameras in then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. He said he got distracted while looking for a stun gun he misplaced, and acknowledged remorse that he’d gotten so angry. A retired fire fighter, Barnett got caught up in the Trump-induced frenzy about the election, and then in the madness of the day.

Rhodes, in contrast, had been working up to the invasion for years, orchestrating the Oath Keepers’ invasion without setting foot in the Capitol himself. A graduate of Yale Law School, Rhodes offered a more developed plan to keep Trump in office and suppress any forces that might want to honor the results of the election. He says he’s going to keep working on such plans.

Rhodes’s estranged wife, who’s been seeking divorce for years, used the term “sociopath” to describe her husband, and says she prayed for a sentence long enough to keep the man out of her life and the lives of their children.

They’re different offenders with very different stories, but they present the same set of dilemmas to regular Republicans. The test is one of separating political beliefs from criminal action. Candidate Donald Trump has promised to pardon many of the January 6 insurgents if he gets back into the Oval Office, citing the legitimacy of their grievance–that Trump was being forced to leave office.

Not to be outdone, newly declared presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis announced that he too would aggressively consider pardons for the insurgents if he makes it to the White House. DeSantis, however, is running a campaign based on Donald Trump’s record as a loser, so he needs another rationale for the pardon, and blames the Justice Department for political enforcement of the criminal code, and promising a reversal.

Broad protection of a free society is premised on encouraging free expression of diverse ideas, but punishing criminal conduct regardless of political motivation. When Republican regulars are forced to choose between the law and putative supporters who may be criminal or just crazy, the choice should be easy. The fact that it’s not is an ominous threat to American democracy.

I hope that enterprising reporters will keep asking about pardons, but not about a diverse group like the Capitol rioters. They should ask about Bigo and the stun gun. And about Rhodes and the Oath Keepers. And certainly about the series of prison sentences sure to follow.

Watching Rhodes, by the way, other Oath Keeper and Proud Boy convicts may decide that testifying against others is a better bet for a shorter sentence than hoping for a favorable election and a pardon. Be sure that those who spent January 6 down the street from the Capitol, strategizing in the White House, are well-aware of that possibility.

Note that it’s not just criminal verdicts that pose the test. When Trump was judged responsible for sexual abuse and libel of writer E. Jean Carroll in a civil trial, regular Republicans got another reason to pause and consider on the road to nominating Trump for a third run at the presidency.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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