As we approach the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection/attempted coup/riot/assault on democracy/pro-Trump demonstration gone awry/righteous protest to stop the steal/patriots come to save America/false flag operation, one thing is clear a year later — that Americans can’t begin to even agree on how to describe the assault.
And that’s just the beginning of the problem. It not only reflects the ever more dangerous divide in our country, made worse not only by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and the rest of the Trump political sycophancy, but also by Tucker Carlson and others in the ultra-right-wingosphere for minimizing the assault or still pretending — as Carlson does in his online, uh, special called “Patriot Purge” — that the assault was actually a “ false flag” operation and an excuse for Democrats to prosecute and eventually persecute Trump supporters.
You’d be tempted to laugh — have you been reading about the January 6 trials and those born-again rioters who now say they were duped by Trump? — and I admit I did, momentarily. And then I remembered that Carlson reaches millions of Americans every night as the leading voice on cable TV news, if, that is, you accept the prime-time offerings of FoxNews as something other than propaganda.
Or until you read the polls, like the recent one from the Washington Post/University of Maryland, which found, disturbingly but no longer surprisingly, 34% of Americans believe violent action against the government is sometimes justified. That’s 40% among law-and-order Republicans. More than 60% of those polled say Trump bears a “great deal” or “good amount” of responsibility for the Capitol riot, but 72% of Republicans and 83% of Trump voters disagree.
There’s more. Yes, despite the fact that all the phoney-baloney 2020 election audits found no evidence of widespread fraud, 62% of Republicans still claim to believe the Big Lie of a rigged election and 58%, even now, say they believe Joe Biden’s presidency is illegitimate. Are the Big Lie numbers really that high or is this something that Republicans feel obliged to say? I don’t know. I also can’t decide which would be worse.
On the anniversary date, Democratic politicians will lament the assault on democracy, the contagion of state-level voter-suppression laws and the dangerous place we’ve reached with a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court ready to overturn Roe v. Wade and then take up other battles in the culture wars.
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The question for Democrats is whether they’re sufficiently moved by these issues, which may determine nothing less than the nation’s future as a democracy. Try to picture a 2024 election in which critical red states, having passed laws allowing state legislatures to basically overturn election results, decide that Donald Trump has won an election he lost. What would happen when neither side — red or blue —- accepts the legitimacy of any election if their party loses? What are we left with then?
Meanwhile, on Jan. 6, Donald Trump will counter-program with a news conference, in which he’ll say that the real insurrection took place on Nov. 3, Election Day. What Trump won’t do is blame the January 6 insurrectionists, the ones he said he loved and called “very special people” and refused for hours to call down.
So here we are, wherever that is.
By nature and by profession, I am not an alarmist, but smart people who have studied these issues for years don’t just state the obvious, that Republicans, particularly at the state level, have put our democracy at real risk. Some blame the outmoded American system, with its unrepresentative Senate and an Electoral College that doesn’t work. But some of these same people are even saying that we might be approaching civil war — although most don’t think of this as an 1861-style Civil War, but as a rise in political violence, born of what some academics call “pernicious polarization.”
One academic sees a comparison to Italy’s long bout of violence in the ’70s and ’80s — the so-called Years of Lead — with violence from left and right. Others see the possibility of right-wing authoritarianism, as we have seen develop in Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, was recently endorsed by, yes, Donald Trump. Could Trump be making the case against Trumpism any more openly?
As the January 6 committee has learned, so much of what took place before and during the riot happened in plain view. And then once the committee dug a little deeper, it found text messages and calls to Mark Meadows from members of Congress, from Fox media, uh, personalities and even from the likes of Don Jr. to stop the riot. We’ve learned of Ivanka Trump’s failed pleas to her father to call off his supporters even as Trump watched — gleefully, we’ve been told — the insurrection play out on his wide-screen TV. They knew — we all know — this was a Trump-activated mob, openly hunting Mike Pence and openly allied with the president.
We know, too, what should have happened after Jan. 6, but didn’t. Republicans had a chance to reclaim their party, to break the Trumpian spell. But after a few tries from a few of the leaders early in the game, they caved, virtually one and all. And now no one will be surprised if Trump is the GOP nominee in 2024, particularly given that the Department of Justice has shown little interest in pursuing whatever the January 6 committee reveals.
Remember Good Mitch McConell, who on the day he refused to vote to convict Trump of impeachment charges, blamed Trump for the insurrection and said the mob “did this because they’d been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth because he was angry he lost an election”? Soon, McConnell was saying that he would vote for Trump if he runs in 2024, and there hasn’t been a Good Mitch sighting since.
For his part, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy spoke loudly after the riot that Trump bore more than a little responsibility and then oh-so-quietly slipped away to Mar-a-Lago to make amends and to promise to never say anything like that again.
It was Bad Mitch who doomed any chance of Senate approval of an independent commission to study the January 6 assault. And so the House had to set up one of its own, which Democrats hoped to make sufficiently bipartisan. But the only two semi-responsible Republicans the committee could successfully recruit were anti-Trumpists Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney.
It was Cheney who said last Sunday that Republicans were faced with an existential choice — “We can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can be loyal to the Constitution. But we cannot be both.”
Democrats are faced with a similar choice. While Biden’s $1.9 trillion safety-net, climate-change bill is being blocked by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, the far more important issue — even more important than the checks, now stopped, from the poverty-fighting expanded child tax credit program — is the protection of voting rights. That can’t happen unless Senate Democrats — all 50 of them — vote to reform the filibuster, this time in a carve-out for voting rights bills.
Biden has now said he supports the filibuster carve-out, but his support has been sporadic and not nearly as pointed as it needs to be if he and Chuck Schumer are going to convince Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema that saving democracy with voting-reform bills is more important than saving a Senate rule.
On Jan. 6, we will stop for a moment and presumably try to recall just what it is that American democracy means. And some will even wonder how many more chances we’ll get to make things right.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.