“Nothing about the text messages presents any legal issues.” That was the terse comment from Virginia “Ginni” Thomas’s attorney about her recently revealed text messages. The conservative activist had sent the messages to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in the weeks after the 2020 election, urging him to try to overturn the results.
Thomas’s lawyer may well be right. As far as we yet know, Thomas herself broke no law of the United States. She broke laws of reason, logic, common sense, and decency, perhaps, but not laws of the United States. Thomas’s husband, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, arguably transgressed the judicial code of conduct by not recusing himself from ruling on any January 6 litigation that could have exposed his wife’s embarrassing texts to view. But the judicial code’s impartiality standard is a guideline, not a law, and for Supreme Court justices, the code is self-enforced.
You likely already had an opinion about Clarence Thomas before this latest controversy broke. Maybe you have had it for years; he’s been a polarizing figure in U.S. politics since the mid-1980s. You may also have an opinion about Ginni; she has been highly visible in conservative politics for nearly as long as her husband has been on the Court. The news that she texted some 29 overthrow-the-election messages may disgust you, but it probably does not much surprise. Washington has always been full of polarizing people like the Thomases, and always will be. What’s been different in the Donald Trump years has been the complicity and cowardice of the people who should have kept those polarizing figures in check.
The surprise here is not about Clarence and Ginni Thomas, known quantities both. The surprise here is the same outrage that was evident in real time in late 2020 and early 2021: An American president, beaten at the polls, led an effort to overturn the results of the election. Even Meadows couldn’t have been surprised by Thomas’s text messages; after all, he was hearing the same things from his boss, President Trump.
Because the law is such a crude and sluggish instrument, democracies work by drawing informal lines. Nobody believes that all political advocacy—even all fervid advocacy— should be off-limits for judicial spouses. (Suppose Ginni Thomas had blasted Meadows with 29 messages demanding that he do more to protect the ducks in the Potomac from air traffic overhead. Who would object?) It’s extreme advocacy, antidemocratic advocacy, that crosses the line. Ginni Thomas, though, believed that she was engaged in prodemocratic advocacy. The American majority was with her and with Trump, she texted Meadows. The 2020 election was a heist, a fraud, an anti-constitutional sham, she repeated over and over. These claims were false, but they don’t seem to have been made in bad faith.
Conspiracy-haunted people like Ginni Thomas will always be with us. In the old days of newsrooms, they often appeared at the night desk, hauling in garbage bags full of documents. Today, they stalk Facebook. In politics, such people should be restrained by institutions and by leaders. In 2004, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. promoted election fantasies almost as wild as those now advanced by Ginni Thomas. Kennedy recklessly charged that Ohio voting machines had been manipulated to deliver that state—and the presidency—to George W. Bush. Rolling Stone published those fantasies. But the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, went nowhere near them, and so they remained the talk of the fringes.
What if Kerry had devoted the next two years of his life to urging every loyal Democrat to believe the false claims about 2004? Bitterness over the Iraq War characterized 2005 and 2006. Kerry would have found a hearing. He could have roused people. He did otherwise, as Al Gore did otherwise in 2000, as George H. W. Bush did otherwise in 1992, as Gerald Ford did otherwise in 1976, as Richard Nixon did otherwise in 1960. When disappointed candidates accepted election outcomes, other Americans found them hard to challenge.
Trump smashed that tradition. He incited a violent attack on the constitutional transition of power. Almost every senior person around him knew he was wrong: his own vice president, his own attorney general and the rest of his cabinet, his own senior White House staff. But until Vice President Mike Pence defied him at the end, few if any of those officials restrained or defied him. They either enabled him, kept quiet, or exited the scene, as Attorney General William Barr did in December 2020.
Trump’s conspiracy mongering is the proper context for Ginni Thomas’s messages. Reading Meadows’s replies, it seems clear that he regards Ginni Thomas as an oddball to be conciliated, not a source of useful counsel or rational insight.
But Meadows never said, “Stop.” He never said, “Biden won, and President Trump and I are busily working on the transition to the next administration.” He never said any of the things he should have said. Meadows said none of those things because doing so would have meant contradicting his boss, the president of the United States. The then-president was imbibing all the same craziness that Ginni Thomas was imbibing. From a platform a lot more powerful than Ginni Thomas’s cellphone, he spread it to his tens of millions of supporters.
The January 6 attack happened because Trump provoked it. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor of the Senate after the 2021 impeachment vote:
There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.
After the also-bitter election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address expressed confidence in the strength of the new Union: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Two hundred and twenty years after Jefferson, the “any among us” who wished to overturn republican institutions were led by the president sworn to uphold them. The combat this time was not between “error” and “reason” but between a violent mob and the Capitol’s outnumbered and unprepared police force.
Ginni Thomas’s delusive worldview is unnerving. Her language is alarming. But the necessary condition that made her behavior threatening was the unprecedented refusal of a defeated American president to accept an election result. Now that president is seeking to return to office. Mercifully, more and more voices have risen to restrain him—most recently, that of Mo Brooks, the former Trump-loyal member of the House now seeking the Republican nomination for Alabama’s open U.S. Senate seat. But too many remain complicit or afraid.
Trump appears to be running again. He’s running this time with a plan to subvert the election system he failed to overturn by violence. Republicans who defend elections, such as Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, face rejection by their own party. Republicans who belatedly express worry about Trump’s lawlessness still vow to support him should he win the 2024 nomination.
Without that permission structure for Trump, Ginni Thomas would be just another social-media eccentric. And even if Ginni Thomas deleted all her accounts, and ceased all future political activity, Trump and his enablers would still menace democracy in America.