It wasn’t enough, but next time, it could well be enough. And the fact that it’s been rehearsed makes me worry. This is what historians and political scientists who study coups d’etat say. They say a failed coup is practice for a successful one.
—Yale history professor Timothy Snyder
We will never give up. We will never concede.
I have no doubt that we won, and we won big. The headlines claiming that Biden won are fake news—and a very big lie.
A year ago today the US Capitol was violently ransacked in an attempted coup.
But the problem with that framing is that it places the attempt to subvert democracy in the past. January 6, 2021, was not the end. It wasn’t the beginning, either. The Bundy terrorists in 2014 and 2016 were omens, as was every white supremacist with a gun or a bomb who was emboldened during the Trump years.
A year ago today was a dry run. None of the conditions that invited a coup—a powerful rightwing media apparatus paid handsomely to spread lies, woefully insufficient federal laws protecting the right to vote, a reactionary Supreme Court willing to act as robed politicians—have been meaningfully addressed. If anything, the next attempt is more likely to succeed, given four years of planning and coordination.
Of even greater concern, the legal underpinnings of American democracy are still being altered and replaced, piece by piece, by far-right actors who will do anything to ensure Trump or one of his acolytes takes power in 2024. It often feels as though no one with the power and resources to stop them is sufficiently aware of the ongoing threat, much less willing to take the necessary steps to address it.
Next time will be worse.
* * * * *
It is not a small thing that the New York Times Editorial Board recently referred to the Republican party as an “authoritarian movement.” Whatever your thoughts on the Times or that Board, its decision to use that language was not made lightly. More importantly, they’re right.
In the two months between the 2020 election and January 6, the former president’s legal team put together a memo, a PowerPoint, and a plan to subvert the election results and install him as president. If this had happened in any other country, every American newspaper and cable show would confidently label it a coup attempt. Instead, it’s more often referred to as an “election plot” or an “attempt to overturn the election.” It was those things—but neither has the same valence as “attempted coup,” which is what it was. This is America™, and we are a Democracy™, and neither of those things means that a coup can’t happen here.
Three former generals have sounded the alarm on the potential of active-duty military forming ad hoc units to fortify a future coup attempt, saying the “signs of potential turmoil in our armed forces are there.” Last time, with coordination only among certain small segments of the insurrectionists, Capitol Police were killed and gravely injured as people wandered the halls of the Capitol looking for Democrats to kill. Reconstructed video, radio, and mapping shows that they were mere minutes away from succeeding. Add organized soldiers to the mix, armed with assault rifles and fealty to their carnival-barking master, and the potential for mass assassination and bloodshed rises dramatically.
If I sound deeply alarmed, that’s because all the available evidence points towards that being the appropriate state of mind. I wrote back in May that a CNN poll found 70% of Republicans believe Joe Biden did not legitimately win the election. That is a staggering number. That is roughly 34 million people made entirely blind to reality by powerful politicians and major “news” outlets—and those are just the registered voters.
CNN now has that number at 78%, or an additional 4 million voters. ABC has it at 71%. Per NPR, only 33% of Republicans say they will trust the results of 2024 if their candidate loses, compared with 82% of Democrats, and 75% percent of Republicans think Trump was cheated out of 2020. And the kicker? Among those who believe there is a “serious threat” to democracy: 89% of Republicans but 79% of Democrats. One side is chasing shadows with glocks, and the other doesn’t realize they’re in the crosshairs. America’s hold on a functioning democracy, to the extent that it exists, is tenuous and slipping.
I think this ties into Katie’s piece last month on the moral value of knowledge. We have similar conclusions—knowledge is not inherently good, and judging people for lacking knowledge, especially when it has been intentionally withheld from them, is wrong. Knowledge is not itself a moral aspiration. My only minor disagreement is with her ending, that it is “rarely lack of knowledge that stymies the solutions to our collective suffering.” I couldn’t agree more with the follow-up that the larger hurdle is the “will of the powerful,” but the tension is when those two phenomena are symbiotic. Widespread lack of knowledge—substituting breathless conspiracies as true knowledge—relating to the 2020 election, January 6, and politics generally, is a major cause of our democratic collapse. But the ill-informed, conspiratorial beliefs that were compelling enough to incite a coup attempt were carefully and profitably amplified by highly educated, wealthy, and powerful demagogues like Tucker Carlson, Mark Meadows, Dan Bongino, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Laura Ingraham. These politicians and media figures who created, nurtured, and empowered lie after corrosive lie know that Joe Biden won the election. They know that it was Trump supporters who violently stormed the Capitol. They know that what happened was an attempted coup. But they also know that pushing lies to their fans and constituents will increase their odds of attaining more power, by whatever means necessary. And so they do.
Huge swaths of the country fervently believing utter fabrications is how we got to where we are. Fox News and other conservative media outlets have been laying that groundwork for over twenty years (see, e.g., birtherism and swiftboating). Donald Trump turbocharged their efforts, and his party and partisans gladly joined in. Because of a complex and sustained campaign of information warfare, 55% of Republicans are now more likely to vote for someone who questions the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and only 11% are less likely. It seems to me that it would be helpful, if someone could just snap their fingers, to make sure everyone knows the actual facts; not for their own sake, but as a decisional guide. I believe that there are many people in this country who have been horribly misled for a very long time but are now simply in too deep to realize it.
But to synthesize my and Katie’s points, that knowledge is fundamentally hidden or obscured by the will of the powerful. I don’t know what the solution to that core problem is, but I know it’s unlikely to come anytime soon. Elected Republicans in almost every state are trying to pass laws that would empower state legislatures to overturn the will of their voters in federal elections, in addition to your standard voting rights restrictions, and are often succeeding. The Supreme Court, a functional branch of the Republican Party, will bless every passed bill they’re asked to review. The party line is now that only Republicans can be legitimately elected, and anyone who says otherwise is insufficiently loyal.
Next time will be worse because the lies have grown more prevalent, more deeply entrenched, and more conspiratorial, rather than dying out. I expect additional armed attacks on the US Capitol and possibly on Democratic-held state capitols if the Republican candidate loses in 2024. I expect more violence between now and then. Even if I’m wrong, the legal system underlying American democracy is already being shaped to intentionally favor the Republican Party—and more specifically, authoritarian Trumpians.
So as we commemorate this awful anniversary, remember that it isn’t over. And though I don’t want this to be a call to hopelessness, I’m struggling to come up with any ideas that aren’t trite. What can we do against such reckless hate? For myself, I’ll continue voting for progressives and advocating for policies that protect our democracy and the people in it. I’ll try to call out lies when I see them. But at the end of the day, the problems here are entrenched and systemic, and it’s easy for me to feel individually useless. I can’t shake the feeling that we’ll simply have many anxiety-filled years to come, watching our collapsing state together.