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Is ignorance of reality an excuse?


I think it was George Fletcher who once pointed out that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” is almost the only general proposition regarding the criminal law that most people are not ignorant of.

In a similar vein, Ben Mathis-Lilley asks if the cognitive shambles that could be described as Donald Trump’s mind provide some sort of ready-made excuse for criminal liability:

For someone to know something is true when they’re saying it, there must be an operation that their brain performs in which some sort of homunculus takes an elevator to a level called “reality,” looks around, and decides whether or not to accurately convey what it’s seen to the part of the brain that does talking. If I were Donald Trump’s attorney, I would simply attest that this process, if it ever happened inside his brain, has not occurred for at least a decade, having been replaced by a system in which the homunculus fills whatever details would best meet the needs of a different, tiny monster that represents the concept of “whatever Donald Trump wants.” Could even the finest jurist prove otherwise?


I’ve noted that the mental and moral void that is Donald Trump is such a vast Pascalian space that it is licit to speculate on the question of whether someone like him even really counts as a person any more, as opposed to a resident of the uncanny valley. John Cassidy points out that one function of the televised 1/6 hearings — the first installment was seen by more than 20 million people, which seems encouraging — is to remind everybody from the public at large to Republican officials of what it would mean if this mental and moral void becomes president again:

If the Feds don’t indict Trump because they don’t think there is enough evidence to secure a conviction from a jury, the job of protecting democracy from the former President will fall on his quislings in the Republican Party and, eventually, on American voters at large. In this context, the hearings provide an important public service in two ways.

First, they remind elected Republicans, whose ultimate loyalty is to themselves, that if they don’t somehow find a way to move past Trump they will spend years defending the indefensible. Because, as sure as the sun rises, Trump is going to make them do it. Hours before Thursday’s hearing started, the former President posted this monstrous statement on his social-media app Truth Social: “January 6 was not merely a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again. It was about an Election that was Rigged and Stolen, and a Country that was about to go to HELL.”

Tucker Carlson and some other media figures who make millions monetizing Trump’s grievances and legitimizing his fantasies may be willing to continue down this road with him. But is it politically viable in the long term for establishment Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (some of whose staff members were shown in the January 6th committee’s video presentation scurrying away from their Capitol offices in terror of the maga rioters)? What about the “multiple” G.O.P. lawmakers who, according to Cheney’s presentation, contacted the White House in the weeks after January 6th and asked for Presidential pardons for their role in promoting Trump’s Big Lie? Some of them may privately prefer to move on as well.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that, two years from now, Trump and his maga hordes steamroll their way through the G.O.P. primaries, as they did in 2016, and it’s left to the American people to stop him at the voting booth. In that alarming scenario, it will be essential to have a full and accurate account of January 6th, including the attack itself, the events that led up to it, and its chaotic aftermath—when Betsy DeVos, Trump’s ultra-conservative Secretary of Education, discussed invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment with Pence and other Cabinet members; when the spineless McCarthy talked (and only talked) about asking Trump to resign; and when General Mark Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly sought to limit the ability of a raging Commander-in-Chief to launch a nuclear strike.

Of course, there is no guarantee that establishing the full truth about January 6th will defeat Trump: in a democracy, the voters remain free to make awful choices. But in using the testimony of the Attorney General at the time, Bill Barr, along with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and others who were on the inside of this horrid saga, the members of the select committee have made a good start in laying out Trump’s culpability with fresh details and conveying it to anybody who is willing to watch and listen.

The shades of P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken would no doubt suggest not putting too many eggs in this particular basket, but you go to political war with the polity you have, not the one you wish you had.

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