Former President Donald Trump has never stopped holding rallies and drawing crowds, even after losing the 2020 Presidential election decisively to Joe Biden. At a January 29 rally in Conroe, Texas, Trump gave a preview of what his next term would look like if he were to win back the White House in 2024.
“Another thing we’ll do, and so many people have been asking me about it, if I run and if I win, we will treat those people from January 6th fairly,” Trump said to the crowd. “We will treat them fairly. And if it requires pardons we will give them pardons. Because they are being treated so unfairly.”
Trump continued by attacking the Select Committee created by the US House of Representatives to investigate the January 6th insurrection. “What that unselect committee is doing and what the people are doing that are running those prisons, it’s a disgrace,” Trump said. “We will treat them fairly and we will take care of the people of this country, all of the people of this country.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., responded by tweeting that “Trump uses language he knows caused the Jan 6 violence; suggests he’d pardon the Jan 6 defendants, some of whom have been charged with seditious conspiracy; threatens prosecutors; and admits he was attempting to overturn the election. He’d do it all again if given the chance.”
The January 6th insurrection was the largest attack on the US Capitol since the War of 1812. At least 700 people have since been arrested for having a connection to the riot, and 11 have been charged with seditious conspiracy. Trump has already given out pardons to political allies convicted of committing crimes. Most notably, he pardoned Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor who pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his dealings with a Russian diplomat. He also pardoned Steve Bannon, his former campaign chief strategist, who was charged with defrauding contributors to a private effort to build a wall on the US border with Mexico.
Political scientists have long argued that Trump exhibited authoritarian tendencies. Harvard professor Steven Levitsky said Trump’s actions could damage US democracy. “Trump was easily identifiable as someone who is not committed to the democratic rules of the game,” Levitsky said in 2018. “There is real cause for concern for the health of our democratic institutions.”
Some political scientists go even further. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian political scientist, has said it is possible that the US will be governed by a right-wing dictatorship by 2030. “We mustn’t dismiss these possibilities just because they seem ludicrous or too horrible to imagine,” Homer-Dixon said. “By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.”
When Trump promises pardons to his political supporters, it makes it much harder to hold those who break the law accountable. In addition to undercutting attempts to discourage future sedition, those currently under indictment are less likely to make deals with prosecutors if they are convinced Trump will regain the White House and pardon them.
Authoritarians routinely trample on the law and the rules and norms of political institutions. If Trump continues to do so without real consequences, the damage to American democracy could be deep and lasting.