In recent campaign appearances for their respective presidential nomination campaigns, both former president Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pledged to pardon participants in the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. In doing so, both candidates sent a terrifying but useful reminder to the American public that the insurrection of that day has continued, in altered form, up to the present day.

Coming from Trump, the promise means that he sees nothing wrong with his 2020 coup attempt, and would view a return to office as an opportunity to complete the demolition of American democracy. Coming from DeSantis, the pledge demonstrates how the rot of this same insurrectionary mindset has infected even Republican politicians who portray themselves as mainstream; his defense of the January 6 attackers constitutes a not-so-subtle denigration of our American democracy, and an endorsement of the idea that our system of government deserves to be replaced.

Both Trump and DeSantis have tried to obscure the plain meaning of their words and anti-democratic animus by pairing their declarations with explicit attacks on the American justice system. Specifically, they attempt to move the focus of discussion from the crimes committed during the Capitol putsch to the supposed injustice inflicted on the insurrectionists.

This deflection was evident when Donald Trump began making rioter pardons part of his campaign last year, accusing the justice system, which he described as “this radical left system,” of mistreating the defendants,” as summarized by the Washington Post. In a similar vein, DeSantis recently remarked: “We’re going to find examples where that government has been weaponized against disfavored groups, and we will apply relief as appropriate,” echoing a nearly universally believed right-wing talking point that any law enforcement actions against Republican criminals are inherently wrong.

Unfortunately for Trump and DeSantis, these are fairly transparent attempts to distract the public and the press from the terrible events of January 6. The defendants are being prosecuted because they have been accused of attacking the U.S. Capitol, the attack itself being part of a larger scheme orchestrated by Trump and his allies to undo a free and fair election that he lost. There has been no credible reporting of bias or corruption in the prosecutions. To say that the defendants have been mistreated is to say that insurrection should not be punished, which is another way of saying that insurrection is fine — which of course makes sense for Trump, since he’s the one who instigated it in the first place.

Similarly, you don’t have to dig very deep to get to DeSantis’s insurrectionary premise. The phrase “government has been weaponized against disfavored groups” intimates some awful abuse of power — but when you stop to consider that the “disfavored groups” are right-wing rioters who tried to reverse an election, seriously injured scores of police, and sought to murder the vice president, you can see why DeSantis would want to hide his actual meaning behind lawyerly palaver.

It only gets worse for DeSantis when you realize that “weaponized” is his way of saying that the Justice Department is simply prosecuting these people for their crimes. DeSantis’s words attempt to turn reality upside down, to have us believe that the government is engaging in criminal behavior by trying to prosecute those who tried to overthrow our democracy. In doing so, he allies himself with their cause.

But by pairing their pardon intentions with explicit attacks on the American justice system currently working to bring those insurrectionists to justice, Trump and DeSantis aren’t just retroactively trying to validate the Capitol attack — they’re actually working to advance its ends in another way. The justice system is a central part of how the country defends itself — in this case, by putting behind bars those who have sought to damage and overturn our government, and by signaling to American society at large that we as a nation do not tolerate such actions. To falsely claim that the federal government cannot be trusted to prosecute those accused of such threatening crimes is tantamount to saying that the country must not be allowed to defend itself — a breathtaking and frankly absurd proposition.

But it’s even worse than this. In emphasizing their planned use of the presidential pardon power, both Trump and DeSantis suggest that justice is better served by a single strongman making decisions, rather than a system of juries, judges, and lawyers. And so, beyond asserting that the legal system can’t be trusted and that the country can’t defend itself, they end up making a case for authoritarian government — the same apparent goal as the January 6 coup attempt by Donald Trump, which if successful would have seen him remain in power indefinitely despite his election loss.

So we need to understand that this pardon talk is no run-of-the-mill political pandering, like talking about the unsurpassed beauty of ethanol at an Iowa barbecue or promising Wisconsin dairy farmers to slap stinky French Brie with a hefty tariff. These are appeals that expose the fundamental unfitness for office of the candidates who make them. They signal both Trump’s and DeSantis’s clear comfort with the violent methods and anti-democratic ends of the January 6 attack, made all the worse by the way they also attempt to gin up doubts about our legal system and make martyrs out of the grotesque band of militias, white supremacists, and Republican extremists who attacked the Capitol.

Not insignificantly, the discussion of pardons also demonstrates their belief that the key to victory lies is inciting elements of the Republican base with a dark fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen from Republicans, a theft so awful that violence was necessary to rectify it on January 6. But more damningly, this talk also works not so much as a dog whistle as a rebel yell to extremists that their dreams and plans of violence are legitimate; after all, if people who attacked the Capitol didn’t do anything wrong, what can’t a patriot do to take back the homeland? Both candidates’ words threaten to incite terroristic violence against the American government and the American people. Trump and DeSantis are giving aid and comfort to extremists, reassuring right-wing militias that major figures have their backs and want their support, and creating a permission structure for future acts of violence. They are also acting as de facto recruiters for violent extremists, by signaling that the U.S. president stands ready to pardon them for future crimes. In the case of Trump, his past actions argue that he’s aware of and indifferent to these horrific downsides of his words. In the case of DeSantis, he’s witnessed Trump’s relationship with right-wing extremists, and appears to be interested in making them his own allies.

It’s bad enough for Trump to be making this pardon pledge — after all, the self-serving elements are obvious, since he has every interest in pretending that he committed no crimes or offenses in connection with the January 6 attack. But DeSantis’s adoption of it should make clear that even supposedly mainstream alternatives to Trump subscribe to the same authoritarian playbook as the former president, in which violence is fair play and a president rules best when he’s unfettered by the rule of law. It’s notable that DeSantis also indicated he’d consider pardoning Donald Trump were the latter to be convicted: pardoning a lawless president would in itself be an act of lawlessness, but just as importantly shows how DeSantis views Trump’s authoritarian attitude toward the presidency as creating a template for him to follow.

DeSantis has also been keen to highlight the white nationalism that motivated many of the January 6 actors, and that he believes will motivate Republicans to vote for him. He noted in an interview that, “some people may have a technical violation of the law. But if there are three other people who did the same thing but just in a context, like [the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020] and they don’t get prosecuted at all, that is uneven application of justice, and so … we will use the pardon power.” By referencing supposedly lax treatment of BLM protestors, DeSantis reminds the Republican base that it is white nationalists and white supremacists whose cause was particularly well served by the January 6 attackers, and mainly White Americans who are now behind bars for their actions that day. But DeSantis isn’t creating this connection on his own — he’s drawing on the text and subtext of widespread right-wing discussions of the BLM movement and the attack on the Capitol, though with his words he has given these racist messages his personal imprimatur.

To stay with DeSantis with a little longer — it’s startling to note that he made some of his remarks about pardons the same day that Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his role in January 6. Whether or not DeSantis timed his remarks to coincide with the sentence, it’s an ominous reminder that those who would stand to receive pardons include those convicted of organizing to disrupt the outcome of the presidential election. For DeSantis to not even bother to carve out an exception for high-level offenders like Rhodes in his public remarks is remarkable. At Rhodes’s sentencing, Judge Amit Mehta remarked that, “You, sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country and to the republic and to the very fabric of this democracy.” I would be curious to know whether DeSantis agrees with this assessment, and if not, why. It is yet more extraordinary when you consider that DeSantis, a Navy veteran, seems to feel no outrage at members and ex-members of the military who betrayed their oaths in attacking the Capitol, including members of the Oath Keepers led by Rhodes. Much mockery has been unleashed around DeSantis’s lack of the basic people skills that seem to be standard issue for most politicians, but weirder still is his robot-like lack of outrage at fellow veterans who tried to kill democracy.

Pardon talk by Trump and DeSantis constitutes nothing less than an attempt to re-write the history of January 6 into something heroic and patriotic, aimed at feeding the paranoia of Republican voters about a stolen 2020 election while sending clear signals to violent extremists that their support is desired and their methods are sound. Such talk is unambiguously disqualifying for both men’s presidential candidacies.

The fact that the press has not focused its coverage more on these statements is part of a broader degradation in the public discourse that is tending to normalize behavior that should be considered by all to be illegitimate in a democratic nation. When the media fails to give such anti-democratic attitudes proper weight, politicians take notice, and are either encouraged to amp up the rhetoric (in the case of Republicans) or discouraged from making it into a bigger issue (in the case of Democrats). And when the public doesn’t hear either Democrats or the media calling something out as taboo, this cultivates confusion, indifference, and cynicism. Yet an ability to identify lines that can’t be crossed is essential to the health and survival of a democracy.

For Democrats, this is not to say that they should just obsessively reference January 6 and the Republicans’ general wish to douse that day in amnesia, misinformation, and martyrdom for the insurrectionists. As I’ve written elsewhere, January 6 is very much a skeleton key for elucidating the GOP’s broader agenda. Talking about Republican radicalism around the attack on the Capitol is both necessary in itself and also provides a way to illuminate other elements of the GOP’s anti-democratic and reactionary worldview. For instance, the violence of that day casts an even more sinister light on more peaceful and legalistic means of unraveling our democracy, such the GOP’s widespread state-level efforts at gerrymandering and voter suppression. As the right remains obsessed with whitewashing and advancing the goals of January 6, Democrats are also well positioned to ask why the GOP doesn’t have more interest in addressing the actual challenges of the nation, from climate change and health care to an economy hobbled by immigration restrictions and citizens unable to afford a college education. Why are Republicans like Trump and DeSantis so deeply concerned about the freedom of insurrectionists who are rightly doing time for their crimes against the nation, while remaining so unconcerned about the freedom of millions of Americans to live their lives with economic security, political equality, and dignity?

A previous version of this essay was published by The Hot Screen