The Legacy of January 6 and the Ongoing Coup
Has the United States had its last democratic election for President?
This is the last in a series of three articles I’m writing about the storming of the Capitol on January 6.
A couple of weeks ago, I didn’t eat or drink from sunrise until the evening, marking the fast of the Tenth of Tevet. The Tenth of Tevet is one of the four annual fasts in the Jewish calendar that commemorate and mourn the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem 2,600 years ago.
I’m not a Christian, but I felt that same sense of sadness, of waste, of the profanation of the sacred on April 15 2019 as Notre-Dame de Paris burned on its island in the Seine. The feeling that something special, holy and irreplaceable was being destroyed.
It took me a while to recognise that same emotion in myself as I watched rioters flood into the Capitol building on January 6. Something was being desecrated, defiled. Perhaps it could be rebuilt, but it would never be the same.
We’re used to a binary division: Inside the corridors of power, grandiosity and calm, pomp and comity. Outside, the anger and frustration of raw political will.
Politics is the process by which we transform and translate the passions of the streets into policy, stability and governance. Organisation, campaigning, political parties, committees, votes — these are how we take the raw material of popular will and refine it into useful outputs.
On January 6, the walls burst. The binary was broken. Politics failed, and the tide of the mob rose until it flooded the island.
It seemed wrong, like watching a historical drama when suddenly there’s an alien invasion. These genres don’t mix. These two expressions are both real, but they shouldn’t share the same space.
The Paradox of Democracy
There’s a concept in political philosophy called the Paradox of Democracy, and it goes some thing like this:
We all have political desires. We want the government to behave in certain ways. Maybe a libertarian conservative wants small government, low taxes, no welfare and an open immigration policy, while an old-school left-leaning union type wants broader welfare, higher taxes on the rich, a more developed state infrastructure and labour protectionism in immigration.
Many people also consider themselves ‘democrats’. They believe that governments should be chosen, directly or indirectly, by the people and that on some level the will of the majority should rule.
To be a democrat is to hold two contradictory desires in your head. On the one hand, I want the government to do the things I believe in. On the other hand, I want a government that’s chosen by the majority and does the things that the majority voted for, even if they’re the opposite of what I believe in.
That’s why democracy is hard. Sometimes it means losing, and then accepting that losing means the other side wins. A commitment to democracy means wanting things you don’t want.
Democracy breaks down when enough people don’t accept that they can lose, and don’t accept that if they do lose, the winners get to be in charge.
For the months before — and the weeks after — the 2020 election, millions of Republicans, led by Donald Trump, refused to accept that losing was possible. Of course their will was the true will of the people. Seven million more people voted for Biden than for Trump, but that didn’t matter. Biden won 74 more votes in the Electoral College, but that could only be fraud. They never had to face the paradox of democracy, because they just rejected a premise: the idea that more people could support the other guy.
A year later, a sizeable minority of the American public still hasn’t had a reckoning with itself. “Election fraud” lies mean never having to accept that the other side is more popular and gained more backing, never having to grapple with democracy itself. It also means never having to reflect on how to modify your message. The message is fine: it’s the system’s fault that Biden won. So they’re focusing on changing that system.
Republicans have responded to the 2020 defeat by making it harder to vote, on the theory that such barriers will help them:
Four states, Georgia, Iowa, Florida and Texas, all passed sweeping, omnibus election bills with long lists of new and more stringent restrictions. Seven states imposed harsher voter ID requirements, while seven states shrunk the time frame for requesting mail ballots. Four states limited the use of mail ballot drop boxes, and seven states made it easier for citizens to be purged from the voter rolls.
But it doesn’t stop at access to voting; they’re also taking political control of the election apparatus itself, to make it easier for state legislatures, often heavily-gerrymandered, to throw out results that they don’t like.
And multimillionaire QAnon promoter Patrick Byrne, who sat in the Oval Office in December 2020 begging Trump to launch military coup, is working with other QAnon influencers and Republican candidates to install state Secretaries of State who will be willing to overturn Presidential elections in their states. Nevada Secretary of State candidate Jim Marchant told a QAnon conference in October:
I can’t stress enough how important the Secretary of State offices are. I think they are the most important elections in our country in 2022. And why is that? We control the election system.
And, of course, Republicans have now accepted the principle that Congress can throw out Presidential electoral votes at will. If Biden is narrowly re-elected in 2024 but the Republicans control the House of Representatives, it’s not hard to imagine what will happen.
The legacy of January 6
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been asked a lot on the media whether I think there will be another outbreak of mass mob violence like we saw on January 6.
I’ve always said no. The confluence of events that created the Capitol riot was unique: first and foremost, Donald Trump was president. He summoned his supporters. He spent months stoking the narrative that he was about to overturn the election.
The next question I’m asked is usually “so where will there be violence?” and the answer to that one is obvious, because it was happening before January 6 and has continued since: violence against mask mandates, vaccination centres, public health staff and anyone (especially school boards and state legislators) who try to manage the pandemic. And, as this year’s mid-terms approach, election administrators might also be targets.
But it’s the wrong question.
The shocking thing about the Capitol riot wasn’t the violence. It wasn’t that the rioters came to D.C., and it wasn’t that they stormed the Capitol.
The shocking thing about January 6 was that, when the Joint Session restarted a few hours after the riot, 139 Republican members of Congress — 65% of the House GOP Caucus — still voted to overturn the election results. The carnage of that day didn’t deter them and it didn’t wake them up; it succeeded.
That success continues to reverberate. Republicans who admit that the 2020 election was free and fair are shunned by the party. Fox News, which briefly returned to sanity after the election, is now back pushing the Big Lie too. One party in the United States’ two-party system has decided that it doesn’t matter how the people voted; the only thing that matters is power. One party gave up on democracy.
One way or another, Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee in 2024, whether literally or figuratively. If Trump himself doesn’t run again, a spiritual successor like Ron DeSantis will.
It’s quite possible that the 2020 was the last free and fair Presidential election in America. If a Democrat wins in 2024, there will be immense pressure at every level of the Republican party to throw out the votes and install a Republican instead.
And the GOP can win the 2024 Presidential election without having to cheat. The Electoral College gives the Republican Party enough of an advantage that they can win 306 Electoral Votes with 3 million fewer voters, as happened in 2016. They can win without voter suppression, without disqualifying Democratic votes or ignoring the result at statehouses or in Congress. They can win by… winning.
Ironically, then, 2024’s best hope of being a free and fair election is if Trump or a Trumpalike wins it, because then they won’t have to overturn it. But if that happens, I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for a free and fair election in 2028.
Missed Chances and the Ongoing Coup
For almost 500 years, the Roman Republic was led by a Senate as its most important deliberative body. After the rise of the Caesars, the Senate didn't go away; on paper, the Imperial Senate was even more powerful than it was during the Republic. It was more decorative than authoritative. It usually did what it was told and real power resided in the Emperor. But it remained a potent symbol, a body people aspired to join.
Even after the Western Roman Empire fell after another 500 years, the Roman Senate continued to exist, surviving a whole century longer than the Empire it purported to rule. The forms and structures of institutions can survive long after those same institutions have become hollow and empty.
Congress in the Trump years became hollow too. Subpoenas ignored, Executive confirmation abolished in place of constant ‘acting’ officials, the power of the purse overruled using emergency powers, even the ultimate sanction, impeachment, happening without hearing trial witnesses because witnesses might have proved he was guilty. Biden’s victory was an opportunity to put things right and constrain the near-omnipotent imperial presidency.
That agenda, though, has disappeared without a trace, and attempts defend elections and the transition of power have failed to overcome Republican filibuster in the Senate.
The mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6 2021 never left. It’s still there. It’s there in the rejection of democracy and the idea that power makes right. It’s there in the fear, at all levels of the Republican party, to admit in public that Joe Biden won fair and square. It’s there in the giddy willingness to overturn democratic elections in the future.
The United States of America was given a glimpse of a future without democracy on January 6. It was given a chance to change. Everyone, especially the Republican Party, passed up that chance.
What comes next won’t be good.
I hope that the gloomy message of this article is wrong. I hope I’m too pessimistic. And maybe I’ll feel differently in a few days. But this is where my head is, and I didn’t want to try and sugar-coat it.
The previous articles in this series:
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