ON THE NIGHT of April 14, 1865, the actor John Wilkes Booth famously shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln. That same night, somewhat less famously, one of Booth’s conspirators, Lewis Thornton Powell, a Confederate soldier and spy, attempted to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward, succeeding only in slashing the sleeping statesman about the face and neck. Also that night, and not famously at all, a third conspirator, an unemployed drunk named George Atzerodt, lost his nerve, failing to even try to kill his intended target, Vice President Andrew Johnson.
All three of these collaborators paid the ultimate price for their crimes. Booth was hunted down by federal marshals and shot dead. Powell and Atzerodt were arrested along with their co-conspirators Mary Surratt and David Harold, tried, convicted, and hanged. But ultimately, their plot succeeded beyond their wildest dreams—because they managed to assassinate Lincoln, yes, but also because they failed to assassinate Johnson.
Andrew Johnson was a former Democrat, at that time the party of slaveowners. Lincoln tapped him as a running mate in 1864, half of a “National Unity” ticket he hoped would help reconcile North and South after the Civil War ended. But Johnson was window dressing. He was never supposed to play more than an ornamental role in Reconstruction. Instead, because of the assassination, he wound up leading the federal government during the crucial years right after the war. Born in Tennessee, Johnson wanted the wayward states to be re-integrated into the Union as quickly and painlessly as possible. Only the highest-ranking Confederates faced any federal consequences for their egregious treason. The same middling Dixie politicians who’d been in Congress before the war, and who happily joined the rebels during it, returned when it was over. Johnson’s bright idea was to have the seceded states reform themselves, which is like Elmer Fudd allowing Bugs Bunny to determine his own punishment. “Not the rabbit hole! Whatever you do, don’t throw me down the rabbit hole!”
Worse, Johnson was, as the historian Heather Cox Richardson points out, decidedly Trumpy in temperament:
Johnson was a former Democrat, and could not stand the idea of the Republican government ending systemic Black enslavement and leveling the playing field among races. He wanted to reclaim the nation for white men. Convinced he was defending America from a mob and that his supporters must retake control of the government in the midterm election of 1866 or the nation was finished, Johnson became increasingly unhinged until he began to compare himself to both the martyred Lincoln and Jesus Christ. He called his congressional opponents traitors who should be executed.
Had George Atzerodt not chickened out, Johnson would have died the same night as Lincoln. Per the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, Lafayette Sabine Foster of Connecticut, the president pro tempore of the Senate, would have succeeded Lincoln. A moderate and a former Whig, Foster was not to be confused with a fiery abolitionist. But he was from a Union state, and unlike the unschooled Johnson, a graduate of Brown University. Perhaps President Foster would not have bent over backwards to appease the traitors from the South, as Johnson had. It’s a helluva historical “What If.”
Andrew Johnson’s failure to properly punish the traitors—and make no mistake: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and their Confederates were all stinking traitors, the vilest in American history—has ripple effects to this day. There is a thruline from the half-assed Reconstruction to Ford pardoning Nixon, and from there to Obama not investigating Bush and Cheney for war crimes.
This is what we do in this country. We repeat the same mistake, over and over and over. We let the bad guys off the hook. The traitors. The murderers. The thieves. The confidence men. The so-called “white collar” criminals. All escape with a slap on the wrist. And if history is our guide, that’s exactly what will happen to the despotic Donald John Trump and his gaggle of venal collaborators—some of whom he has already pardoned!
We cannot—we must not—allow that to happen. The crimes are too serious, the damage to the country and the world too great. For the soul of the nation to survive, we must recognize the crimes of the President and his co-conspirators for what they are: a coordinated attack on our democracy. Trump’s attempt to extort the Georgia Secretary of State to steal the election is only the most recent in a long line of examples.
It’s difficult to wrap our minds around this, I’ll allow. This level of sedition, practiced by this many politicians, has not been seen in this country since the 1860s. We have a media that bends over backwards to “both-sides” the damage Trump and his minions have wrought, and professional propagandists with law degrees—Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell, L. Lin Wood—whose sole function is to minimize, if not normalize, the crimes:Lin Wood @LLinWoodToo bad we don’t get New Year’s wish list. If we did, I know 3 things I would want on my list: 1. Sec. Pompeo @SecPompeo in charge of Senate on 1/6/21 after Pence @VP is arrested. 2. @GenFlynn to be appointed as Vice-President by @realDonaldTrump. 3. 4 more Trump years! 2021!January 1st 202121,147 Retweets73,468 LikesLin Wood @LLinWood@Courie85 @VP @Mike_Pence @senatemajldr If Pence is arrested, @SecPompeo will save the election. Pence will be in jail awaiting trial for treason. He will face execution by firing squad. He is a coward & will sing like a bird & confess ALL.January 1st 20217,004 Retweets17,013 Likes
When a conspiratorial buffoon like Wood sounds off on the treason of Mike Pence, of all people—who’s what Trump has instead of Major and Champ—the intention is to make meaningless words like sedition and treason and traitor. This way, when the breadth and depth of the Trump crimes becomes known, the bad guys will have already lain claim to that language. This goes beyond gaslighting. This is psychological warfare on reality itself.
They want us to believe that a bunch of ass-clowns couldn’t possibly be so terrible. But the truth is what I wrote two-and-a-half years ago in Dirty Rubles: Trump represents the gravest threat to our democracy since the Civil War. Tomorrow, a group of Senators and House Representatives, many of them mixed up with Russia, will come out against the republic. What Josh “Flaccid Dildo” Hawley and his comrades are doing is no mere publicity stunt (although it’s also that). It’s dangerous stuff. And we need to acknowledge it, grok it, and respond accordingly.
Imagine if John Wilkes Booth had killed Lincoln now, in Trump’s America. He would have been captured alive, obviously, because he’s a white man. He’d be given the Mike Flynn treatment: Out on bail, free to spew his bullshit counter-narrative. He’d be a regular guest on Fox News, and Jeff Zucker’s CNN would book him regularly to give “equal time.” He’d launch a podcast. QAnon would insist that he was a great hero, because Honest Abe had laptops full of child pornography and JWB was trying to #SaveTheChildren. Bill Barr would work overtime to get him off. His collaborators, meanwhile, would all be conquering heroes at OANN and Info Wars and the Daily Caller. Mouthbreathers like Doug Collins would Photoshop their faces into political ads. And we’d all watch in horror as the supine media both-sides’d the heinous crime and normalized the criminals: a traitor who killed a president, and his treacherous accomplices.
In real life, as discussed, Booth was hunted down and killed, and his co-conspirators hanged. While this is grotesque and barbaric, neither is it inappropriate. From Hammurabi until a few decades ago, the punishment for treason has been death. There are practical reasons for this. If Paul Manafort, for example, had been executed for his betrayal of the country, he would not have been available to crime with Rudy Giuliani from his prison cell, and he would not now be back on the street with a full presidential pardon. The death sentence is harsh, yes, but not arbitrary: There are compelling national security reasons to prosecute and execute traitors. Do we really think that Jared Kushner, that seditious little shit, is not going to spend the next couple of years auctioning off our intelligence secrets to enemy despots for big bucks, if he goes free? Trump is a billion dollars in the red; he’s going to turn down offers of cash money for national security tidbits? I’m not a supporter of capital punishment, but for straight-up treason, the worst of all crimes, I’m willing to make an exception.
Simply put, the men who sought to destroy our republic—and who came this close to succeeding—are not worthy of our mercy. How many Americans did Trump, Pence, and Kushner kill with their catastrophically negligent, and possibly intentional, bungling of the pandemic response? Three hundred fifty four thousand so far, and the next two months will be even worse. When all is said and done, covid-19 may well claim more American lives than were lost in the Civil War: 618,222. Why should the monstrous Trump/Pence/Kushner troika be shown more mercy than Booth, Powell, and Atzerodt, who, after all, only killed a single individual, albeit a singularly important one? If it were a bunch of Democrats doing the treason, and Republicans managing the prosecution, you can be damned sure execution would be on the table.
Although Bill Barr has brought capital punishment back to the DOJ, including the option of death by firing squad, it is unlikely that Trump or any of his collaborators will get the needle, the chair, or—to borrow Lin Wood’s sinister phrase—the blindfold. But there is a punishment that fits the crime. The traitors should be remanded to the sort of maximum security federal prison reserved for spies like Robert Hanssen—where, for reasons of national security, they are denied any contact with the outside world. In effect, this is locking them away in an oubliette, never to be seen again. At ADX Florence, where he is now incarcerated, Hanssen is in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. After Jared Kushner is convicted, the next time we hear his name in the news should be fifty years hence, when we read that he died of old age in prison.
This really is a battle for the soul of America, just as Joe and Kamala claim. It is absolutely essential that the traitors be brought to justice. There is no way forward otherwise. If Trump and Kushner walk free, the republic is doomed. The Blue Wave of 2018, the 80+ million of 2020, would have been for nothing. These are the worst traitors this country has encountered since the Civil War, the most dangerous, the cruelest. The damage they have done to the republic is incalculable. The public debate should not be about whether they should be prosecuted, but rather, how they should be punished.
Photo credit: Currier and Ives depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. L-to-r: Maj. Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Pres. Lincoln, and Booth, 1865.