On January 6th, we saw the consequences of leaders who put the pursuit of power over the principles and norms that form the foundations of our democracy. Trump may have been the one who incited the mob to descend upon the Capitol in frenzied insurrection. But there are plenty more who must shoulder the blame for the parts they played over the past four years that led to one of the darkest days in our nation’s history.
One of the most complicit is Representative Chris Stewart, who spent his past two terms in office reinforcing the view that it’s okay to support “our Mussolini” as long as your party can stay in power and achieve its desired policy outcomes. Quickly ensnared within Trump’s “cult of personality,” Stewart reveled in his newfound role of vehemently defending some of the President’s worst impulses. He repeatedly spread and amplified the false claims undermining the legitimacy of the 2020 election, going so far as to attempt to overturn Pennsylvania’s presidential election results only hours after the violent mob ransacked the building where he cast his undemocratic vote.
Equally complicit is newly-elected Burgess Owens, who, only days after taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution, also voted to overturn the results of a democratic election in an effort to keep an increasingly unhinged autocrat in the White House. As one of his first official acts, this vote is enough to define his legacy as a congressman from Utah, but it should not be forgotten that Owens spent his campaign legitimizing an online cult and an online cult and bizarre conspiracy theories that have resulted in a growing number of Americans living in an alternate reality constructed with “alternate facts.”
Meanwhile, Senator Mike Lee has used his platform to stoke conspiratorial fears about the federal government, including publishing a book that argues Americans must fight back against the so-called “deep state.” Utah’s self-described “constitutional scholar” declined to participate in the election heist this week, but he has repeatedly chosen to invent “scholarly” arguments that could be used to defend Trump’s latest attack on our democratic norms and constitutional principles. Lee’s influence could be seen this week as a member of the mob raised the “Title of Liberty” outside the Capitol building, a clear tribute to the man who Senator Lee likened to Captain Moroni only months before.
While the spotlight has given our federal lawmakers more opportunities to show their priorities and loyalties, other politicians closer to home have also contributed in their own ways to enabling and normalizing the Trump era. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, a devoted Trump loyalist, eagerly used personal time to meddle with the votes of our neighboring Nevadans before joining his fellow members of the Republican Attorney Generals Association in an unprecedented lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to negate the votes of millions of Americans in battleground states. After Trump was impeached by the House, Senate President Stuart Adams, co-chair of Trump’s re-election efforts in Utah, and House Speaker Brad Wilson issued a citation letter praising Trump after he was impeached.
These Utah politicians supported Trump explicitly, even enthusiastically. But there were also many more who sat by quietly, never using their platform to denounce Trump or what he stood for. They brushed him off as if he were a sideshow or an aberration, rather than the top-most ranking member of their own party.
This is not a blanket condemnation of all Republicans. As Senator Mitt Romney has proven time and time again, it is entirely possible to be a stalwart conservative and also possess the moral backbone to stand up for democracy. The failure and complicity of these Utah Republicans was never inevitable. It was a choice that each individual made.
Utah politicians have enjoyed fighting in a culture war over the past four years, steadily adding kindling to the bonfire they now claim surprises them. In some cases, it is unclear whether they truly believed the things they said, or whether they simply chose to slide down the path of political expediency in order to advance their own careers. Perhaps they thought that pandering to the far-right side of the base or turning a blind eye to Trump’s behavior would not amount to much beyond a more successful re-election campaign for them.
Whatever the reason, they were wrong. And in every case, whether or not they truly “meant it” is not the important question. The important question is what we will do to hold them accountable, now that the ugly fruits of the seeds they planted have emerged.
Chase Thomas is the Executive Director for Alliance for a Better Utah