The US supreme court just completed Trump’s January 6 coup attempt

The violent attack on Congress on 6 January 2021, and all the ancillary attempts to steal the 2020 election, were a coup attempt led from the executive branch of the federal government with support from Republicans in the legislative branch. 1 July 2024 – this Thursday – was a more successful coup attempt orchestrated by six judges of the judicial branch.

“With fear for our democracy, I dissent,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in an opinion joined by justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Elena Kagan, after the US supreme court’s conservative majority ruled that Donald Trump holds “absolute immunity” for “official acts” done while president. Part of what’s shocking about the state of the union right now is that an entire party and the US supreme court’s conservative majority have abandoned almost everything – the truth, the rule of law, their own legitimacy, their place in history and the fate of the nation – to serve one man.

They could not have picked a more outrageous man to throw their weight and reputations behind – a psychotic clown who’s also an indicted felon found liable in civil court for sexual assault, barred from doing business in New York, a stealer of state secrets, a would-be thief of an election and the instigator of a violent attack on the legislative branch of government and the constitutionally mandated transition of power after an election. A grifter who in 2016 won a minority victory in a corrupted election – his conviction earlier this year was on charges for one small part of that corruption. A man who has gloated about seizing dictatorial powers and never letting go and a worshiper of tyrants denounced by dozens of his former cabinet members and senior staffers.

January 6 was an attack on the constitution and so was 1 July. That no one is above the law has been a pillar of this nation and a cherished value since the 18th century; to knock it down in the 21st destabilizes structures and values that have stood these two centuries and more. A president with total immunity poses obvious threats to the rule of law, the balance of powers and democracy itself, and if that president is the vindictive criminal on the Republican ticket the dangers are immediate and obvious.

The day before this ruling Trump approvingly shared a post on his own social media platform calling for Liz Cheney, the former Republican congresswoman, to be tried in a televised military tribunal – for boldly opposing his coup attempt and being one of the few members of their party to support his impeachment. She committed no crimes and the military has no jurisdiction over her, but under Trumpism there are no laws, just opportunities.

The people I talked to and saw on social media were stunned, horrified, uncertain of what we do next. When the agency that is supposed to be the final authority on the rule of law becomes lawless, what do you do? There is much we can do, and much of it will be new kinds of campaigns with new goals, because we are in unprecedented territory.

While a lot of elected officials seemed immobilized by this much-anticipated legal ruling, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the representative, vowed to introduce legislation to impeach some supreme court justices – she didn’t say which ones, but it seems likely that Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas top her list. The Politicus newsletter notes that the senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, “has been one of the few members of Congress who has consistently sounded the alarm about Supreme Court corruption for years, and he isn’t letting the Senate’s limitations stop him from planning a massive investigation” of the supreme court.

Of course this has been brewing for a long time. Before these decisions were handed down, journalists were reporting on the Alito household flying apparently pro-insurrection flags in open defiance of norms of judicial neutrality and on more illicit gifts Thomas had taken. Thomas’s wife was an eager participant in the January 6 coup attempt and all the back-room machinations around it; he and Alito were obliged by all norms and ethical principles to recuse themselves from Thursday’s decision, aptly titled Trump v United States, but of course did not.

That was just part of the supreme court majority’s rampage this summer. As Nation legal correspondent Elie Mystal wrote a few days before, of the ruling that is devastating for environmental protection and science-based policy: “In the biggest judicial power grab since 1803, the Supreme Court today overruled Chevron v Natural Resources Defense Council, a 1984 case that instructed the judiciary to defer to the president and the president’s experts in executive agencies when determining how best to enforce laws passed by Congress. In so doing, the court gave itself nearly unlimited power over the administrative state and its regulatory agencies. The US Constitution, flawed though it is, has already answered the question of who gets to decide how to enforce our laws. The Constitution says, quite clearly, that Congress passes laws and the president enforces them. The Supreme Court, constitutionally speaking, has no role.” Until now.

Then came Monday’s bigger judicial power grab, because as another legal pundit, Asha Rangappa pointed out, in saying official presidential acts were above the law, the court “has made itself the ultimate umpire of what is ‘official’ or ‘not official,’ thereby giving itself power to determine which prosecutions are warranted and which aren’t. Basically, they’ve made themselves, not POTUS, the kings here.” Mystal tweeted, “I mean, at a core level, listening to us lawyers is of no more use here. We are beyond ‘law.’ We are beyond principles we studied or researched” while sharing her fellow law journalist Dahlia Lithwick’s declaration, “As an official representative of the legal commentariat I want to suggest that tonight’s a good news cycle to talk to the fascism and authoritarianism experts. This is their inning now…”

We do have fascism and authoritarianism experts, who are often also scholars of civil society resistance and the ways dictatorial regimes can be resisted and toppled. And we do know that this is a time when civil society participation will be crucial. First of all to make sure a Democrat takes the White House in November; from that victory much can be restored. If Trump wins, the pieces of the coup will cohere into not the end of democracy in America but at least its kidnapping and torture by its enemies.

There are remedies within the legislative process and the rule of law to some of this. But we will only get them with massive public participation. Civil society must press the case that this court is fatally illegitimate and Roberts, Alito and Thomas must resign. And we must press our legislators to act. Other countries have survived worse, and most of the countries to the south of the US have been through revolutions, coups, dictatorships and other dramas in the past century, as well as successful non-violent resistance and democratic triumphs.

One thing is clear after this epochal supreme court decision: the fate of the country is in the hands of its people. Or rather two things are clear: the rightwing pursuit of increasingly outrageous minority rule is because they are increasingly a minority; the will of the people and the majority of votes are not on their side when it comes to everything from reproductive rights to climate action. Which is why they have to suppress votes, gerrymander districts, try to steal elections and now torch the constitution. In one way, this demonstrates their strength. In another, their weakness. It’s up to us to make that weakness matter more than that strength.

  • Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. She is the author of Orwell’s Roses and co-editor with Thelma Young Lutunatabua of the climate anthology Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility