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Opinion | Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater

“In a last-ditch effort, they yelled ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater. There must be consequences for that.”

A banner left by a supporter of President Donald Trump stands in front of the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington. AP PHOTO/MANUEL BALCE CENETA

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, I could barely eat for the next six weeks. My wife, Veronica, can verify that. My stomach was in constant turmoil.

It wasn’t because I was a Hillary Clinton fan. I wasn’t. She had a lot of baggage, including her name. And, of course, the emails. And Benghazi. And Bill.

I was hoping for Bernie Sanders that year. But, alas, as Democrats often do, it was Hillary’s turn. The fact is, however, if voters had turned out for Hillary as much as they turned out for Joe Biden, Hillary would have been the president. She did win the popular vote by 3 million.

And that’s when we should have realized that as president, Trump would live on the Big Lie.

After writing a column declaring that Trump was everybody’s president now, it didn’t take long for me to understand that simply wasn’t true. He was president for the Proud Boys, right-wing conspiracy nuts, white supremacists, racists, misogynists, xenophobes, homophobes and other hate groups. It wasn’t long before I regretted that column, and from that point on, I never referred to Trump as president in any column of mine where he came up. My own personal protest, I guess.

As Trump’s presidency continued, and clear-thinking folks began to see just how bad he was, just how much he depended on the Big Lie, and how he was getting worse, it took quite a bit for me to keep my gut in check.

After the 2016 election was counted, and Trump learned he had, indeed, lost to Clinton by 3 million votes, he told the Big Lie that it was voter fraud that allowed her to win the popular vote. “Illegals” and dead people voted, he said. There were fraudulent ballots, he said. Trump even appointed a commission to look into voter fraud. It was disbanded not long after because there was no evidence to look at.

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We know now that was a warm-up for this most recent election, but in this case, Trump would go completely bats–t crazy pushing the Big Lie. He repeatedly, over the past couple months, claimed he had won the election in a landslide, essentially saying there was no way Biden could win unless there was massive voter fraud. And House and Senate Republicans, plus local Republican parties, including Alabama’s, gave life to the lie — time and time again.

The culmination came on Jan. 6 when Alabama Republican Congressman Mo Brooks, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr. and Trump himself incited the riot that led to a mob of his supporters, including the Proud Boys and right-wing extremists, to storm the U.S. Capitol building.

Even in the days following the Republican-fueled riot, Trump and his enablers — which included every Republican member of the Alabama Congressional delegation except Richard Shelby — continued the Big Lie. Indeed, many of them, hours after the attempted coup, continued to object to Congress certifying the electors who chose Biden by a 306-232 vote.

The Big Lie must have consequences. Oh, there may be some for Trump. He’s been impeached for a second time, and the Senate likely will try him even though he has surrendered his office, as required by the Constitution. But for those members of the House of Representatives and Senate who perpetrated the Big Lie, there should be consequences as well.

The only way to stop future Big Lies is to show there are consequences for telling them. This isn’t a matter of freedom of speech. There are limits on free speech, like it being illegal to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater if there is no fire.

That’s what Trump and his enablers did. What Brooks did. What Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley did. They knew the truth – the facts – yet they continued with the Big Lie about voter fraud and Democrats somehow stealing an election where other top Republicans like now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsay Graham were re-elected while running on the same ballot as Trump.

Biden won the popular vote by 7 million. He won the Electoral College with a clear majority.

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Biden was inaugurated Wednesday and immediately began undoing Trump’s carnage. (My appetite is fine this time around. I slept better Wednesday night than I have in a while.)

Once Trump had clearly run the tables on his spurious “legal” challenges, he and his supporters should have conceded.

Instead, in a last-ditch effort, they yelled “fire!” in a crowded theater. There must be consequences for that.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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