The Contested Significance of January 6

Surveying the divide as America marked a fraught anniversary

Tear gas envelops the United States Capitol Building as supporters swarm the grounds after a rally and speech by President Trump at the White House Ellipse on January 6, 2021.
Pete Kiehart / Redux

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

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Conversations of Note

Last week, on January 6, Americans variously marked—or ignored—the one-year anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Today, that event’s meaning and the state of American democracy are top of mind. Some, like the New York Times editorial board, say its ongoing significance is underappreciated:

Our political life seems more or less normal these days, as the president pardons turkeys and Congress quarrels over spending bills. But peel back a layer, and things are far from normal. Jan. 6 is not in the past; it is every day. It is regular citizens who threaten election officials and other public servants, who ask, “When can we use the guns?” and who vow to murder politicians who dare to vote their conscience. It is Republican lawmakers scrambling to make it harder for people to vote and easier to subvert their will if they do. It is Donald Trump who continues to stoke the flames of conflict with his rampant lies and limitless resentments and whose twisted version of reality still dominates one of the nation’s two major political parties. In short, the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy.

Others, like Glenn Greenwald, say its significance is overstated:

That the January 6 riot was some sort of serious attempted insurrection or “coup” was laughable from the start, and has become even more preposterous with the passage of time and the emergence of more facts. The United States is the most armed, militarized and powerful regime in the history of humanity. The idea that a thousand or so Trump supporters, largely composed of Gen X and Boomers, who had been locked in their homes during a pandemic—three of whom were so physically infirm that they dropped dead from the stress—posed anything approaching a serious threat to “overthrow” the federal government of the United States of America is such a self-evidently ludicrous assertion that any healthy political culture would instantly expel someone suggesting it with a straight face.

John McWhorter was torn about what to believe in his weekly video conversation with Glenn Loury. The Fifth Column podcast hosted a reporter who was at the Capitol that day to help flesh out their thoughts.

My own view is closest to the criminal-defense lawyer and blogger Scott Greenfield’s analysis of what that day signified and portended:

What we lost on January 6th was our national innocence, that we, as Americans, would somehow find a way to overcome all obstacles. Instead, what we saw was our national bond unravel, how a lie perpetrated by puny people undermined our faith in ourselves. There are no laws that can restore our faith in the integrity of our nation, our government, our purpose … Without trust, we will find ourselves mired in endless contention over who’s cheating whom, who’s manipulating what, how everything is dishonest and everyone is lying, how everything is awful and nothing is worth saving. If we can’t break out of this spiral of mistrust, then there is nothing to save. The fringes will point at each other, hurl accusations and do anything to create that plausible justification to lie, cheat and steal to win “at any cost” because the alternative is intolerable.

Several prominent journalists reflected on January 6 by discussing How Civil Wars Start by the UC San Diego political scientist Barbara F. Walter. David Remnick summarized part of its thesis:

When white supremacists, militia members, and MAGA faithful took inspiration from the President and stormed the Capitol in order to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election, leaving legislators and the Vice-President essentially held hostage, we ceased to be a full democracy. Instead, we now inhabit a liminal status that scholars call “anocracy.” That is, for the first time in two hundred years, we are suspended between democracy and autocracy. And that sense of uncertainty radically heightens the likelihood of episodic bloodletting in America, and even the risk of civil war.

Fintan O’Toole drew on the Irish experience to warn against prophecies of civil war. “Once that idea takes hold, it has a force of its own,” he wrote. “The demagogues warn that the other side is mobilizing. They are coming for us. Not only do we have to defend ourselves, but we have to deny them the advantage of making the first move. The logic of the preemptive strike sets in: Do it to them before they do it to you. The other side, of course, is thinking the same thing.”

And Jacob Siegel warned against succumbing to exaggerated fears as after past national traumas:

What does it mean when President Biden declares an event in which four people died, all of them Trump supporters and only one by violence, the “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” and The New York Times marks the anniversary by proclaiming that “Every Day Is Jan. 6 Now”? The implication is politics as permanent crisis … This obvious threat-inflation, which should be familiar after September 11, is used by governments and private corporations alike to award themselves more unaccountable power.

The anniversary highlighted divisions among Republicans.

Patrick Healy explored public perception of that day after observing separate focus groups made up of Republicans and Democratic voters, respectively. “While I wasn’t surprised that some Republican participants, when asked by moderator Kristen Soltis Anderson for one-word reactions to ‘Jan. 6,’ said they thought it was ‘way overblown’ and ‘misrepresented,’ I was struck that other Republicans defied Trumpian orthodoxy and reacted to Jan. 6 by saying ‘scary’ and ‘definitely Trump,’” he wrote. “Not only Republicans, but Democrats had some empathy for some of the Americans who stormed the Capitol, seeing them ordinarily as people who had real, understandable frustrations with ‘the system.’ The rioters took it too far, but their frustrations, with the parties, with Washington, seemed recognizable to some of the Democrats.”

In an appearance on ABC’s This Week, South Dakota Republican Senator Mike Rounds affirmed that Joe Biden’s victory and Donald Trump’s loss in 2020 was not due to voter fraud. “We looked at over 60 different accusations made in multiple states,” he said. “While there were some irregularities, there were none of the irregularities which would have risen to the point where they would have changed the vote outcome in a single state. The election was fair, as fair as we have seen. We simply did not win the election, as Republicans.”

In response, Trump lashed out at Rounds, prompting Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney to come to his colleague’s defense. “Mike Rounds speaks truth knowing that our Republic depends upon it,” Romney declared on Twitter. “Republicans like Govs Hutchinson, Baker & Hogan; Sens McConnell, Thune & Johnson; Bush & Cheney; plus 60+ courts and even the right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial page agree: Joe Biden won the election.”

Elsewhere on the right, many commentators marked the anniversary by criticizing the people who stormed the Capitol––then pivoting to criticize leftists who protested violently in 2021. At the Capitol, “the rioters tried to impede the constitutional transfer of power, an essential element of civil peace,” Heather Mac Donald wrote. “If uprisings from losing parties become the norm in the U.S., Americans will forfeit the blessings conferred by the Anglo-American political tradition. The vandals boorishly violated the respect due to our national monuments. The rioters who assaulted police officers undermined conservatives’ claim to be the party of law and order.”

Here’s the pivot: “The crime and riots that the Democrats alternately tolerate and justify also have the potential to unravel democracy,” she argued. “If law enforcement is delegitimated and hindered from doing its job, if property is not secure, if civilians fear being held up at gunpoint … or shot when they enter the public square or even in their homes, then there is no more security and no conditions for prosperity. The George Floyd riots also took aim at the symbols of government—courthouses, prosecutors’ offices, police stations, City Halls, and squad cars.”

In all this, I still find myself most aligned with one concern explored by Barton Gellman: the Trumpist impulse to use parliamentary machinations to overturn election results and the groundwork the GOP is laying to do so more effectively. “Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election,” he reported.

They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.

As David Brooks argues, efforts to safeguard democracy should focus there.

Provocations of the Week

In “The Data Are Pointing to One Major Driver of America’s Murder Spike,” Jeff Asher and Rob Arthur argue:

Many factors may have contributed, such as a pandemic-driven loss of social programs and societal and policing changes after George Floyd’s murder. But one hypothesis is simpler, and perhaps has significant explanatory power: A massive increase in gun sales in early 2020 led to additional murders. New data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) suggest that that indeed may have been the case. According to the data, newly purchased weapons found their way into crimes much more quickly and often last year than in prior years. That seems to point to a definitive conclusion—that new guns led to more murders—but the data set cannot prove that just yet.

In “How Plastic Liberated and Entombed Us,” Jeannette Cooperman writes:

The crazy part is that we knew. All along, we knew … In the early days, you did not dare wash plastic in hot water, lest it twist or melt, or freeze it, lest it turn brittle and crack. Left in the sun, it oozed oil … People used to cry out in dismay—“It’s plastic!”—when they noticed that a bit of a new appliance was no longer made of metal or glass. Exciting as its applications could be, plastic also spelled cheap, ersatz, of inferior quality. And the sudden quantity of inferior junk was unnerving. Once he was safely retired, a DuPont chemist predicted that we would all “perish by being smothered in plastic.”

Is it self-hatred, to embrace with abandon a substance you know to be cheap, tacky, often garish, and entirely synthetic? A substance that, when made into a bag, had to be imprinted with warnings, lest a child think it a toy and suffocate?

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