January 6 Was Scary. The Democrats’ Inability to Respond Has Been Scarier.
The January 6 Capitol riot may have been a laughable failure, but it highlighted the frailty of American democracy. Unfortunately, the Democrats running the ongoing hearings investigating the riot seem to have no idea what to do about it.
Analyzing January 6 can be tricky because it was several things at once.
On the one hand, it was an attempt to carry out something like the (briefly) successful right-wing coup in Bolivia. On the other hand, it was a slapdash, amateurish effort that failed, among other things, to get buy-in from most of the key officials needed to pull it off.
On the one hand, the storming of the Capitol was an obviously alarming and dangerous event and could have ended in the murder of congresspeople and possibly worse. On the other, almost all of those who actually did that storming turned out to be unarmed, cable-news-obsessed dopes who didn’t know what to actually do once they — by blind chance — caught the proverbial car.
On the one hand, Donald Trump’s actions, if not that of every Republican who colluded with him, are clearly criminal and worthy of prosecution. On the other, Trump is a just one factor in the whole debacle, which was the sad end point of a series of festering problems with US politics and society that are still going unaddressed.
We might sum it up this way: looking at the media sensationalism, misinformation, and political hyperbole, the reality of January 6 fell far short of what we’ve been told over and over again happened that day. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been much worse than it was. And it doesn’t mean that it still couldn’t be — say, in two years’ time, when the country faces another presidential election, and the antidemocratic forces behind Trump have one dry run under their belt and years of prep time to do it properly.
Some Cynicism Warranted
Parts of the Left have gotten flack for being somewhat cynical about January 6, both the event and the congressional hearings, and have been charged with not taking either seriously enough. Whatever the truth of that charge, one thing is clear: the events of that day and the machinations surrounding it showed how easy it is for anyone who’s bent on engineering a political crisis to simply gum up and subvert the United States’ arcane election processes.
Hard-right forces have learnt from their first go-around. Capitalizing on the Democrats’ 2020 state-level collapse, Republicans have been maneuvering legal changes and appointees into place to make sure the next time they try it, they’ll have the necessary pieces ready to steal an election properly. Factor in the right-wing domination of the Supreme Court and lower courts, and you’re looking at something close to a Trumpist checkmate.
All of this is truly alarming. But you can realize this while also acknowledging that the strategy to chosen to combat this by the “pro-democracy” forces in power — namely, a series of televised extravaganzas about the event meant to lead to a flood of votes for Democrats this November — doesn’t seriously address the problem.
Have a look at the supposedly blockbuster revelations from the latest hearings, and it’s hard not to think the enterprise is by now running on fumes: Trump didn’t lift a finger as rioters stormed the Capitol; he softened the language he used to denounce them afterward; the claim made weeks ago that Trump was furious about being taken away from the Capitol has now been corroborated; he was told by both Republican officials and those around him that there was no fraud, and urged to change course; a few brave Republicans stood up to the former president; Mike Pence’s secret service detail was scared. Several press outlets listed the fact that there will be more hearings in the future among their top revelations.
If you’ve followed the January 6 saga, you might be feeling a sense of déjà vu. A year and a half into this, we’re well aware of virtually every “new” disclosure on this list. Trump’s post-January 6 speech gag reel might be funny, but what does it add to or change about the copious information we already have about Trump’s actions that day? Is the idea that Secret Service agents who were stuck in the Capitol grew anxious when thousands of people charged into it really a game-changing piece of information?
Of course, its proponents would say that that’s not the point. The Democrats, as the Associated Press summed it up, were “aiming to convey a consistent message about Trump and his actions before, during and after the insurrection,” namely that he lied about election fraud, spurred on the riot, and then did nothing about it. It was “intended to be the final piece of its narrative puzzle that painted former President Donald Trump as responsible for the violent attack on the US Capitol — and more broadly, American democracy,” explained CNN. Or as commentator Frida Ghitis put it:
It is vital to establish Trump’s role because he has all but announced he is running for president in 2024. . . . The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution says no one can hold office if they engaged in insurrection after earlier taking an oath to the Constitution. Will this apply to the former president?
In other words: Trump, Trump, Trump, and, to a lesser extent, a Republican Party unable to stand up to him. The idea is that if we can just really, really get it into people’s heads — particularly GOP voters, presumably the main target audience for these hearings — that Trump is an irresponsible, dangerous man, that he’s a liar, that he’s unscrupulous and power-hungry, and that he may even have committed a crime, he might be defeated at the ballot box or simply disqualified from running at all.
And this is exactly the problem.
It’s hardly cynical to ask if, seven years into the Trump experiment, the silver bullet for killing Trumpism here is really that more people simply need to know how reprehensible and unfit for office he is. Maybe I’ve been watching a different country’s politics these past years, but it seems we’ve tried this approach before already without a lot of luck. Polling bears this out: while the hearings have slightly moved the needle among independents when it comes to blaming Trump for what happened that day, the general picture is that astoundingly little has changed. Even the New Yorker acknowledges that on the ground, despite the hearings, enthusiasm for Trump in red-voting parts is still as strong as ever, while the former president still dominates in polling among the GOP field.
Trump and his abettors should, of course, be prosecuted based on the ample evidence we’ve had from the start, because that’s exactly what should happen to coup plotters in democratic societies. Fear of prosecution was one of the reasons his underlings refused to go along with Trump’s scheme, and letting this go by with no consequences — yet another act of high-level lawbreaking left unpunished in the United States as low-level offenders have the book thrown at them — would only mean unshackling future plotters. It remains to be seen, but Democrats have already suggested this isn’t going to happen, and that whatever outrage the hearings generate will instead be channeled into the party’s reelection campaign.
Even if Trump is prosecuted or barred from running again, the candidate most likely to replace Trump is the odious Ron DeSantis, with his repellent war on American civil liberties and any unpopular minority he can bully. At least he wouldn’t try to steal an election, the argument presumably goes. But wouldn’t he? DeSantis was one of the most prominent Republicans backing up Trump’s lies about election fraud, to the point that he’s signed a bill into law to tackle the phantom. More importantly, the GOP already stole one election more than decade before Trump even joined their party and have spent far longer ruthlessly suppressing the votes of those least likely to support them. Trump, as always, isn’t so much the problem as one particularly ugly manifestation of it.
Shortly after the Capitol riot — as officials and commentators did what they do with every crisis and used it as an excuse to further expand the government’s repressive powers — I suggested a nonexhaustive suite of responses that might help reduce the chances of a repeat: cleaning house of far-right infiltration of law enforcement around the country; making structural reforms to the United States’ corporate-controlled, concentrated media ecosystem; clamping down on the free flow of big money that fueled the event and empowers right-wing antidemocratic forces more generally; and looking into the astonishing security failure that was the only reason that day’s stampede was able to happen.
I made this point again a year later. Then again a few months after that. And now I’m doing it again. It’s boring as a writer to write the same thing over and over, but unfortunately, as the recently concluded January 6 hearings have reminded us, still none of this has been considered.
Ignoring the Real Problems
The obsession with Trump means that comparatively little attention’s been paid to the way the Democratic failure to deliver the economic goods for the US public has empowered the very antidemocratic forces they’re warning about now. As I argued last month, if political theater is going to be the chosen tool, then primetime congressional hearings focused on attacking corporate greed — coupled with a strategy that forces the Right to go on the record with their opposition to the popular parts of the Democratic agenda — might have been an actually useful bit of political theater, especially if the goal was to win over GOP-leaning voters, who are overwhelmingly most concerned with the dire state of the economy.
Instead, the hearings are largely being used as a Hail Mary to distract from those economic problems. It’s hard to avoid the impression that all this reflects a decision by Democrats to quadruple down on the white, affluent, college-educated, and already largely Democratic-leaning segment of voters who tend to see January 6 and its vast web of story lines as their biggest concern.
The obsession with Trump has sidelined another core issue: the still-unexplained security failure by law enforcement that was the only reason pro-Trump protesters were able to barge into the Capitol at all. We’ve had a whistleblower allege serious misconduct and dishonesty by top Capitol police officials regarding the failure — and accuse Congress of having “purposefully failed” to tell the public the truth about it. More recently, we found out that the notoriously Trump-supporting Secret Service, whom Mike Pence suspected were in on Trump’s plan to overturn the election, deleted text messages from that day, directly after they were requested by the office of the inspector general.
You’d think these would be urgent matters to investigate if we’re talking about an attempted coup. But having turned both law enforcement and the Secret Service into heroic, sympathetic characters in a story line all about demonizing Trump, this is a no-go area for Democrats, and the result is we still have no idea how or why this failure was allowed to happen, who was responsible, or any possible motives that were involved, and so we have less hope of stopping it the next time. The Democrats’ deliberate inattention to this betrays the unseriousness of the entire project.
Commentators can cry cynicism at those who look at the hearings with a jaundiced eye, but there’s no one more cynical than those supposedly leading the charge on saving American democracy. At the same time Democrats have turned the whole matter into a hours-long campaign ad for themselves, they’ve deliberately funded and promoted the very kind of right-wing extremists they say threaten American democracy. One of them, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, would be in a prime spot to carry out election-denying shenanigans in a crucial state come 2024 if he wins.
Does this sound like a party that believes its own messaging?
A Danger, Unmet
Both the January 6 hearings and much liberal analysis of the event itself is still softly colored by the same mistaken beliefs that underlay all Trump coverage these past six years: that Trump alone is at the center of what’s happened to the GOP, that keeping him out of power will solve what put him in there in the first place, and the determination to ignore the structural issues that have brought about the chaos of that day and the entire past half-decade. As a result, hearings or no hearings, the United States really is severely ill-prepared to deal with any threats to its democracy.
January 6 should be taken seriously. It was another reminder that America’s democratic institutions are fragile and easily gamed by anyone with enough ruthlessness and purpose, and while the original was mostly a laughable fiasco, the sequel could easily end up being everything they claimed the first one was. The Left should learn from Bolivia how to organize a successful, popular resistance to an antidemocratic power grab and be at the spear tip of that movement if and when the time calls for it.
But those fixated on January 6 also need to understand something: namely, that however seriously they take that episode already, their political leaders plainly do not, and that preventing another, more successful one is going to take a lot, lot more than just reminding people that Trump is an asshole.
There are good reasons to fear for American democracy. So far, those in power are failing to provide good solutions.