“You are great patriots… We love you… You are special”— President Donald Trump, Jan. 6, in remarks directed to the rioters at the U.S. Capitol.
The frightening events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol generated shock and horror, not only for our citizens, but for people around the world. We were witnesses to the impossible, to the unfathomable, to our greatest fears. Democracy and the U.S. Constitution were under attack. The lives of 538 legislators and the vice president were at great risk.
I assume that most of us are still reeling from the recent insurrection – the only attempted coup in U.S. history. In our wildest dreams, we could never have anticipated that a sitting President would be the architect of this violent assault on our democracy. The most unnerving aspect of this political crisis was that this threat came from within the Republic, led by our president and American citizens. Our nation was borne out of disagreement and has been dominated by perpetual disagreement. After all, democracy is, by its very nature, messy.
Insurrection was predictable
However, for more than two centuries, we have accepted “guardrails” designed to respect and protect our institutions and practices as well as our Constitution. Those protections failed, and for a moment, we realized our form of government might perish.
For years, I have predicted that something like this could/would happen. All democracies are fragile, and perhaps ours is more fragile than most. In reality, we have always been a problematic democracy. Our political system has survived an array of challenges including a civil war, but recently many of us have worried about an assault by our president on our Constitution, limits to presidential power, accountability and truth. Our political system has suffered massive erosion in the strength and resiliency of our democratic practices. Many of our citizens do not vote, lack even a fundamental understanding of how our system works, dislike our two-party system, and have little/no optimism about our future.
A foundation of ignorance and fear
We also know that a portion of America is afraid – and our elected officials have ignored that. Our current president built a political movement on this foundation of ignorance and fear. This lack of understanding or buy-in has made us vulnerable, but a recent rise in public support for autocratic rule has exacerbated our problems and added to our divisions.
Some 20% of Americans now favor the attributes of fascism. That’s a devastating percentage for a democracy – especially ours. Perhaps for the first time in American history, a cult of personality emerged as a recognized political force. We saw that in full display on Jan. 6. Sure, the insurrectionists were carrying a few American flags – especially of the 1776 variety – because they fancied themselves as 21st century patriots standing up to corrupt and abusive power. We also saw even more Confederate flags reaffirming the ugly presence of open racism in contemporary politics.
The most common flag (and associated marketed merchandise) bore the name of “Trump.” As an intentional uprising, the focus of the vast majority of this mob was on the glorious leader, Donald Trump, not on more lofty principles and concerns.
The President of the United States engaged in sedition. Trump is driven by his fear of prosecution once he steps down as president. He certainly will either pardon himself or try to get Pence to do it, but that just protects him in the federal jurisdiction. New York state has seven separate cases awaiting Jan. 20 at noon. Trump fears he and his family will face charges of tax evasion (personal and corporate), and fraud (Trump University, Trump Foundation, Trump Steaks). A recent report that Trump would resign the presidency by Jan. 19 and fly off to Scotland reflects a strategy of “getting out of Dodge” ahead of the sheriff. We remember he talked at campaign events about the need to leave the country if he lost the election. Others think he and his family will wind up either in Moscow, or a Middle Eastern country (Saudi Arabia or The Emirates – none of these countries have an extradition agreement with the U.S.).
The insurrection is the culmination of 4 years of a president that engaged in constant self-promotion, misinformation, outright lying, and had little/no knowledge or respect for our Constitution, institutions, or democratic principles. He told us six months before the Nov, 3 election that if he didn’t win, it would be because the election was rigged. Then he expanded that lie into a legal strategy – and fundraising campaign – to overturn the election results in the six battleground states, including Nevada. The massive failure of those feeble lawsuits brought us to Jan. 6 and the last opportunity for Trump to derail 2020 election results. He was clearly desperate. His revealing call to the Georgia secretary of state and his pressure campaign against Pence are evidence of an out-of-control president willing to do anything to upend the election. He almost succeeded. We now reside in a political universe where “alternative facts” reign
We came extremely close to the end of our democracy on Nov. 6 – if elected members of the House/Senate had been assassinated, the president would have been able to invoke emergency rule – which would have pre-empted the certification of the Electoral vote and the inauguration on Jan. 20.
The insurrectionists received help from some of the Capitol Police. We have all seen the videos of some Capitol Police taking selfies with the insurrectionists, having friendly conversations AND removing barriers/opening doors to the Capitol to let more than a 1,000 insurrectionists into the Capitol building. And after all of the damage was done, some Capitol Police escorted them out of the building without arresting them. I’m convinced that something nefarious is evident in this. I think many in Washington, D.C. would agree that some level of collusion existed.
It wouldn’t be a first. We have seen sheriffs in a number of states outed as members of Posse Comitatus, for example. We know Trump has played up his support for law enforcement, especially related to Black Lives Matter protests and the “defunding the police” efforts. This may simply be an extension of the tribalism that characterizes contemporary American politics: Trump backers helping other Trump backers. I know there are media efforts to tie law enforcement’s underwhelming response to the race of the protesters, but collusion makes more sense.
The Trump rally set the stage for the insurrection. That rally, featuring Don Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani, and President Trump, prepped the crowd for the march on the Capitol. Donald Trump had promised the rally would be wild. And it was. He incited the mob and aimed it down Pennsylvania Avenue. We now know that the rally and march were preceded by weeks of coordination and planning that counseled violence and even targeted elected officials including Vice President Pence. That is clearly seditious activity. They intended to use violence to prevent the joint session of legislators from completing their Constitutional duty to finalize the Electoral Vote count and to affirm Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the winners of the 2020 election.
President Trump has done irreparable damage to the GOP. The division in the Republican Party has been described as a civil war, but the Trump insurgency within the party has been structured to replace the traditional party composition with a family-cult party or Trump Dynasty. Many traditional Republicans have elected to leave the party or have been driven out. Loyalty tests are everywhere within the party structure. After Trump leaves the White House, will that level of influence and control dissipate? Many fear it will not. The problem for Republicans is that Trump has never appealed to a majority of Americans. This destruction of the traditional party may make what’s left of the GOP even narrower. The Republican Party is doing much better at the state level, but it is possible it will cease to be relevant at the national level going forward.
President Trump may have done irreparable damage to his own future in the party. In the days since Jan. 6, the world has changed for the president. He is far more isolated. Those who had sworn their allegiance have now renounced his seditious behavior. Pence defied him and certified the vote of a fair and free election. Lindsay Graham denounced him on the floor of the Senate. Now Mitch McConnell seems to be supporting Trump’s impeachment at a time when he is portrayed as even more moody and dangerous. He has had several prominent protest resignations from his inner circle and Cabinet. He really may have to live in exile given the pending legal issues in New York State and the new legal issues from his actions on Jan. 6. Most importantly, he is being portrayed as more dangerous than ever. A growing number of Republicans are joining Democrats in their very public concern about how unstable he has become. It will be very interesting to see the next round of opinion polls.
Lights in the darkness
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, we have seen several positive developments in an otherwise dark week for America. When Congress returned to the joint session, they mostly worked together to demonstrate that American democracy was still resilient. A seriously inadequate approach to Capitol security was uncovered and can be addressed. Many Americans are now angry about what happened on Jan. 6 and how the past four years of the Trump administration has amplified division rather than unity, extreme partisanship rather than bipartisan cooperation, and a “them vs. us “mentality instead of our shared history and destiny.
Perhaps we’ve been afforded a wake-up call reminding us there is still time to change our ways. The incoming Biden administration faces massive challenges, but perhaps Joe Biden has always been the one American that can find that middle ground and begin to heal our very broken Republic. Let’s give him a chance to do that.
Fred Lokken is a professor of political science and Department Chair of Business, Political Science and History at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.
CORRECTION, 1/10/21: This essay was corrected to read "Georgia" rather than "Arizona" in the reference to a call by Trump to that state's secretary of state.