The sacking of the U.S. Capitol — the most enduring symbol of democracy in the world — was a shattering blow. Yet, it may have been necessary.
January 6th marked the capstone event of a four-year presidential administration that has — with overwhelming support across the Republican Party — worked diligently to undermine democratic norms and institutions, and destroy public trust in the rule of law. Some kind of massive shock to the system may have been necessary if we are to have a chance of putting the Trump presidency behind us and rebuilding our democracy.
The insurrection was the natural outgrowth of years of incitement by Donald Trump. For years, dating back to his Central Park Five and Birtherism days in New York, Trump has worked diligently to cultivate a loyal following, pandering to the resentments of groups who felt little loyalty to either of the major political parties. Over the course of the past year, intimidation and threats of violence by his supporters have become regular events. In response to Trump’s earlier call to arms in the wake of Covid-related restrictions, they brandished automatic weapons and other firearms as they entered state capitals and plotted the kidnapping of state governors and violent overthrow of the Michigan state government. Before and after the election, long caravans of SUVs and pickup trucks, adorned with giant American and Trump flags flying side by side, careened through the streets of communities across the country, blurring the lines between free speech and voter intimidation.
For weeks, Trump has known that the day when a joint session of Congress was scheduled to meet to officially count the electoral votes would be his last chance to act. In tweets, for all the world to see, he called for his supporters to gather on January 6th for what he assured them would be the climactic moment of his efforts to overturn the results of the election. He needed them — his “patriots” — to heed his call, and they responded enthusiastically. Their purpose was simple: the election had been stolen, and their goal, through sheer force of numbers, was to force members of Congress to give it back.
And as ludicrous as this plan might have seemed to a casual observer, no one should have doubted the seriousness of Trump’s intent to disrupt the counting of the electoral votes and declaration of the winner. Orchestrating riots as a means of intimidation to achieve a political outcome is a tactic that Trump’s aides have used to great effect over the years. In 1992, Rudy Giuliani led the infamous New York City police riot, a deeply racial protest where 10,000 police trashed cars and storefronts and stormed City Hall in an effort to block the creation of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The riot failed to stop the reforms but nonetheless served Giuliani’s purposes: the following year, he defeated Mayor David Dinkins, who had led the reform effort, to become Mayor of New York. In 2000, during the contested Bush/Gore presidential election, Trump advisors Roger Stone and Matt Schlapp orchestrated the “Brooks Brothers riot,” a violent protest that succeeded in stopping the recount that was underway in Miami-Dade County, and contributed to George W. Bush’s successful effort to secure intervention by the Supreme Court and win the presidency.
As Trump supporters gathered on the morning of January 6th, one speaker after another laid out the litany of crimes committed against Donald Trump by state election officials and the courts that together nullified what they claimed had been Trump’s massive landslide victory. Trump attorney John Eastman laid out how the fraud was perpetrated, as he described in detail how Dominion voting machine software had been used to create thousands of illegal votes for Joe Biden and swing the outcome of the election. Rudy Giuliani declared that “trial by combat” was the appropriate remedy for the fraud that had been perpetrated against the nation.
Rudy’s suggestion that violence, rather than the rule of law, was the best way to resolve disputes was met with a roar of approval by a crowd. Finally, Trump took center stage. After he laid out once again the crimes committed against him, he urged the crowd to “stop the steal” and head to the Capitol, where they could disrupt the counting of the electoral votes and secure him a second term. He would be there with them, he promised. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong… If you don’t fight like hell, you are not going to have a country anymore.”
How else could the Trump presidency end? For two months, since he lost the election, it has been all conspiracy theory, all the time. The tag team of Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, John Eastman, Peter Navarro, and the Trump kids drilled contempt for the results of the election and the rule of law into the minds of Trump supporters. The melding of American flags with Trump flags was emblematic of the essential conflating of support for Donald Trump with patriotic duty.
And why would they not answer his call to arms to redress the stealing of the election? Evangelical leader Eric Metaxas summed up the view of those who continue to believe that Trump won a landslide and that the election was stolen: “My attitude is, who cares what I can prove in the courts?… We need to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood, because it’s worth it.” Trump inculcated in the minds of his supporters from early last year that any result in the presidential election other than victory could only be evidence of fraud, and fully believing his rendition of the facts, they marched.
January 6th may have been necessary because it was imperative that the maliciousness of Trump’s intent and the extent of the damage that he and his enablers have done to the country be revealed in its totality. It may have been the only way the Trump presidency could end if the nation was going to have a chance at restoring honest discourse and mutual commitment to the rule of law.
The January 6th insurrection came just a few days after the recording of Trump’s phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was released. Just as it took the Nixon tapes for all but the most devoted Nixon supporters to realize the depth of his duplicity, the hour-long recording of Trump’s call with Raffensperger revealed to any doubters the truth that Ted Cruz explained four and a half years ago: that Donald Trump is either a criminal or a sociopath, if not both. For those erstwhile Trump supporters who were shaken from their stupor by hearing Donald Trump in his own words shake down the Georgia Secretary of State to find him 11,780 votes — just enough to beat Joe Biden by one vote — what they saw on January 6th should have sealed their contempt for the President.
For the good of the country, it was essential that the complete unmasking of the President occur before the end of his term in office. Had Trump made it to January 20th without the explosion that we witnessed, we were bound to spend the next four years battling the brush fires, if not forest fires, of Trumpism and conspiracy theories. As it is, election conspiracy theories will continue to propagate, and meld seamlessly into QAnon. Were it not for the events of the past days, the GOP would likely remain captive of Trump’s power over the party base, and the nation frozen in partisan stalemate.
Instead, the unmasking of the President, first through the phone call and then through the sacking of the Capitol, should cleave a clear line through the Republican Party. Were it not for January 6th, and the explosive culmination of Trumpism, it is hard to imagine how it would have been possible to restore even a modicum of bipartisan commitment to fundamental democratic principles that has been torn apart over the past four years. It still may not be possible, but the events of the past week seem to offer a glimmer of possibility.
January 6th should stand as a lesson that the words of presidents and the language that political parties adopt matter. The image of an insurrectionist holding a flag of the Confederacy, walking through the Capitol in front of portraits of Senator Charles Sumner and Vice President John Calhoun — the first an abolitionist and the second a defender of slavery — is a reminder that the challenges that we face today, as a multi-ethnic nation with a history of enslavement of African Americans and theft of native lands, have been with us since our founding.
At the Neshoba County Fair in 1980, when Ronald Reagan picked up the mantle of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and spoke about states’ rights as he sought to lure southern and working-class whites from the Democratic Party to the GOP, racial dog whistle politics came of age. As laid out by storied Republican political operative Lee Atwater, racial dog whistles — using code words to animate resentment and anger around race to motivate election day turnout — endured as an essential GOP political strategy for decades.
That strategy, once lodged in the Republican DNA, has proved impossible to dislodge. Long after Atwater recanted his racist crimes in a deathbed confession, and RNC Chair Ken Mehlman apologized to the NAACP for Republican tactics leveraging racial resentments for political advantage, Donald Trump unapologetically embraced it. From the Central Park Five and Birtherism, to Charlottesville and to January 6th, the politics of racial division and demonization won him a devoted following on the right, and has been essential to binding those supporters to him. One can draw a straight line from Ronald Reagan’s words in 1980 to the events of January 6th.
Speaking on the floor of the Senate in the hours following the sacking of the Capitol, Mitt Romney castigated his Republican colleagues for contributing to the events of the day. Many, if not most, of them had lied to their constituents, fanning the flames of election fraud conspiracy theories, even though, by Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s account, none of them actually believed Trump’s claims. “Do we weigh our own political fortunes,” Romney asked, “more heavily than we weigh the strength of our Republic, the strength of our democracy… What is the weight of personal acclaim compared to the weight of conscience?”
It was the question that needed to be asked. Trumpism, and its companion, conspiracy theories, are built on lies. If the nation is going to recover, Romney suggested, telling the truth is the only way out.
Restoring truth and facts to political discourse is the essence of the challenge that we face. January 6th was a tragic event, but perhaps it will also be a moment that creates new possibilities. Rather than a pivotal moment of our unraveling, it may come to be seen as the moment when the trajectory of the country changed, and building a common commitment to democratic values became possible once again.