“Is this America?” Capitol police officer Harry Dunn wondered aloud after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection that left five people dead and approximately 140 officers injured. Dunn had just spent the day fending off violent rioters (and suffering racial abuse, having repeatedly being called the “n” word) who were attempting to undermine the democratic process by seeking to disrupt certification of the 2020 election that was won by Joe Biden. It has now been a year since the insurrection. Was what occurred on that day, in retrospect, America?
The riots on Jan. 6 were not, technically, a coup attempt. Coups, as defined by political scientists Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, two leading scholars on the subject, are “illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive.” The rioters do not fit that description (though disturbing evidence has come to light that former national security advisor Michael Flynn and other military veterans were involved in a plan to evoke emergency powers to delay or prevent election certification). The events of Jan. 6 differed from the coup in Myanmar, for example, which occurred less than a month after the Capitol insurrection, in which the military seized power, deposing the democratically-elected civilian government. The riots in the U.S. were carried out by protestors without the status or influence to potentially seize power after breaching the Capitol Building.
Their actions were, nonetheless, deeply troubling. The rioters on 1/6 attempted to subvert democracy in America, trampling on our sacred institutions and violently attacking those committed to protecting our nation. Those involved in the attack should be unequivocally denounced. They should not be praised as being “great people,” or as being “patriotic” and motivated by “love,” as former president Donald Trump has said. And Trump himself should be held accountable for his role in inciting the riots, his willful negligence as the rioting escalated on Jan. 6, and his attempts to cling to the presidency despite losing the election.
It may be tempting to dismiss the rioters as being part of an unrepresentative radical fringe. But that would underestimate the extent to which beliefs that motivated the rioters have permeated the Republican Party. Surveys have consistently shown that a majority of Republican voters believe that the 2020 election was stolen, a belief that has persisted despite court rulings and recounts confirming the results.
The reaction of Republican leaders to Jan. 6 in the year that followed has been telling. Only 10 Republican members of the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump for the role that he played on Jan. 6.
Of the 10, two (Adam Kinzinger and Anthony Gonzalez) are leaving Congress and the rest are facing Trump-backed primary challengers. Liz Cheney, who has been outspoken in her condemnation of Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 and is now serving on the select committee to investigate the insurrection, has been a particular focus of Republican ire.
Only seven of 50 Republicans in the Senate voted to convict Trump after his second impeachment by the House of Representatives. They have faced significant backlash.
And in Georgia, Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensberger has been targeted with death threats and recriminations for resisting pressure from Trump to “find” votes needed for him to win the state and for maintaining that the election results from Georgia were not fraudulent (as some continue to believe even though a recount upholding the results was conducted).
Some within the Republican leadership may be hesitant to condemn the attack and hold Trump accountable for his actions on Jan. 6 because they face reelection and do not want to alienate Republican voters. If so, it indicates a troubling unwillingness to put the Constitution and our nation above political ambition.
For those who are true believers among Republican Party leaders and voters, the continuing perseverance of belief in the Big Lie reveals, among other things, the disturbing extent to which misinformation and conspiracy theories have gained currency on the right. Polls have shown that more Republicans than Democrats, in significant numbers, believe in conspiracies such as that vaccines cause autism, COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips implanted at the behest of the government or Bill Gates for tracking purposes, and the QAnon core belief that there is a global cabal of satanic cannibalistic pedophiles engaged in sex trafficking who sought to undermine the Trump presidency. Such conspiratorial thinking has carried over into the rejection of basic facts and objective reality concerning the 2020 election.
The Jan. 6 riots damaged parts of the physical infrastructure of our Capitol. But the events of that day carried with it much broader psychological significance, revealing and exacerbating troubling levels of distrust and cynicism in the electoral process and democracy in the United States. Widespread belief that elections are not legitimate enables would-be autocrats, such as Trump, to proclaim to “save” democracy by subverting it. We must, as a consequence, remember the riots for what they truly were and hold accountable those who damage the proper functioning of democracy by promoting false narratives.
While Jan. 6 does not define America, the events and reaction to it highlight disturbing trends. We must do better. The health of our democracy and future of our nation depends on it.
David R. Dreyer is a political science professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University.