‘January 6 Was Practice.’ The Atlantic Publishes Special Issue on American Democracy in Crisis.

Cover story by Barton Gellman on a Republican Party still in thrall to Donald Trump—and better positioned to subvert the next election than it was the last

The cover of The Atlantic's January/February 2022 issue

“The next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect.

The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already. Who or what will safeguard our constitutional order is not apparent today. It is not even apparent who will try. Democrats, big and small D, are not behaving as if they believe the threat is real.”

In a new cover story for The Atlantic, anchoring a special issue of the magazine devoted to American democracy in crisis, staff writer Barton Gellman demonstrates with urgent clarity that Donald Trump, abetted by a complicit Republican Party, is gaining strength for a second attempt to seize office, and that he is better positioned to subvert an election now than he was in 2020. By pushing the Big Lie and enforcing its acceptance by the Republican Party, Trump has built the first American mass political movement in the past century that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including violence. January 6 was practice. Today, Gellman writes, there is a “clear and present danger that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it.”

Gellman’s reporting describes how, over the past year, Trump and his allies have identified weak points in our electoral apparatus and worked methodically to exploit them. They have censured and removed officials who certified the election for Joe Biden or refused to “find” extra votes. They are testing new legal strategies to allow state legislatures to throw out the vote after it’s tallied and instead supply electors of their choice.

Central to this playbook, Gellman’s reporting shows, has been the revisionist narrative of the Big Lie, which has created what one researcher calls “a new, politically violent mass movement.” He writes: “The Trump team achieved something crucial and enduring by convincing tens of millions of angry supporters, including a catastrophic 68 percent of all Republicans in a November PRRI poll, that the election had been stolen from Trump. Nothing close to this loss of faith in democracy has happened here before. Even Confederates recognized Abraham Lincoln’s election; they tried to secede because they knew they had lost.”

The Atlantic is devoting much of the journalism in its January/February 2022 issue to the real threat that American democracy faces in 2024. In an editor’s note to lead the issue, editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg writes that the crisis is in good measure a crisis of the Republican Party. In its catastrophic turn toward authoritarianism, nativism, and conspiracism, the party now “threatens the republic that it was founded to save.” Goldberg continues: “A healthy democracy requires a strong conservative party and a strong liberal party arguing for their views publicly and vigorously. What we have instead today is a liberal party battling an authoritarian cult of personality.”

Also appearing in the issue is a series of pieces that illuminate the political, moral, and cultural challenges we face. They will publish across the next several days and include:

  • Staff writer Tim Alberta’s profile of freshman Republican Peter Meijer, who in the days after January 6 believed that he was part of a mission to rescue the party from itself. Now he laughs at his own naïveté.

  • An investigation by staff writer Vann R. Newkirk II into the extraordinary Republican efforts to prove that voter fraud is real, systemic, and being committed on a massive scale. Newkirk documents that these false notions have become an excuse to enact laws that make voting harder for everyone, but especially for voters of color, those who are poor, those who are old, and those who were not born in the U.S.

  • Staff writer Kaitlyn Tiffany on the conspiratorial thinking that has led well-meaning Americans to raise awareness about a child-sex-trafficking epidemic that simply does not exist.  Kicked into motion by QAnon, the present panic has been sustained by wildly inflated statistics that are passed along on social media. Tiffany asks how a moral panic in the age of the social web comes to an end. Once started, does a panic continue in motion, possibly cleaving communities along lines of those who believe the panic and those who reject it?

  • And an essay by David Brooks, who writes that the rich philosophical tradition of conservatism that he fell in love with has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression. “To be a conservative today,” he says, “you have to oppose much of what the Republican Party has come to stand for.”

In “January 6 Was Practice,” Gellman writes: “Our two-party system has only one party left that is willing to lose an election. The other is willing to win at the cost of breaking things that a democracy cannot live without. Democracies have fallen before under stresses like these, when the people who might have defended them were transfixed by disbelief. If ours is to stand, its defenders have to rouse themselves.”

The Atlantic’s special January/February 2022 issue is launching today, and will publish online over the next two weeks. Please be in touch with questions or requests to interview our writers about this reporting.