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Did the January 6th Coup Fail?

By warping the Republican party, Trump made another coup attempt possible.
January 5, 2022
Did the January 6th Coup Fail?
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

January 6th should have been the point of no return, the pivot point at which even the most blinkered sugarcoaters of Trumpism recoiled in disgust from what they had wrought. For a nanosecond, it seemed that it was. In the first days after the desecration of the Capitol, a number of previously timid Republicans found their voices. As I noted at the time, Sen. Pat Toomey said the president had committed impeachable offenses and was unfit to serve. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said, “I want him out.” Sen. Lindsey Graham expressed his disgust on the Senate floor: “Trump and I, we had a hell of a journey . . . but today all I can say is: Count me out. Enough is enough.” Rep. Kevin McCarthy said Trump was responsible for the storming of the Capitol, and warned Republican House members not to criticize those who voted for impeachment because it might endanger their lives.

For everyone who had convinced themselves that, whatever Trump’s flaws, the true threat to the American way of life lay on the left and only on the left, January 6th was a blaring klaxon. Yes, Trump was a buffoon and incompetent and unfamiliar with the levers of power—and yet this clown nearly brought a 232-year-old democracy to its knees. Had it not been for 1) a half-dozen or so Republican officeholders at the state level who demonstrated basic integrity, and 2) the unwillingness of Mike Pence to perform as Trump had commanded, the outcome could have been very different. As George F. Will said, “I would like to see January 6th burned into the American mind as firmly as 9/11 because it was that scale of a shock to the system.”

The most threatening aspect of January 6th was not the ferocious attack on the Capitol but the response of Republican officeholders thereafter. Even after the unleashing of medieval mob violence; even after the erection of a gallows; even after members had been forced to run for their lives; even after the deaths and injuries; even after all of that and more, 147 Republican members of Congress voted not to certify Joe Biden as the winner of the presidency. The transformation of the GOP from a political party into an authoritarian personality cult became official that day. McCarthy’s bootlicking visit to Mar-a-Lago in late January 2021 merely provided the visual.

In the year since, most Republicans (with some extremely honorable exceptions) have descended further into cultishness. They blocked the creation of an independent January 6th commission, attempted to pack the congressional January 6th committee with Trump Dobermans like Rep. Jim Jordan, and engaged in flagrant gaslighting about the events of that day. Rep. Andrew Clyde was typical. He had been photographed screaming in alarm on January 6th and barricading a door to the chamber. But he told his constituents in May that January 6th had been a “normal tourist visit.”

Now, with the arrival of the first anniversary of the most shameful day in recent history, Republicans and right-wing opinion leaders have returned to their comfort zone: blame the media.

Pence, who frankly showed uncharacteristic independence that day, has been testing the waters and understands what works with the GOP audience. “I know the media wants to distract from the Biden administration’s failed agenda by focusing on one day in January,” he told Fox News. He and Trump are on great terms, he said, and he’s focused “only” on the future.

“I don’t think January 6th is going to help the Democrats like the media seems to think it will,” tweeted radio host Erick Erickson. “But there is a genuine obsession in the press about it. It was a bad day, but it doesn’t outweigh crime, inflation, COVID, school closures, etc. for voters.” A day later, responding to those who dug up his (subsequently deleted) January 6 tweet demanding that we “shoot the protesters, waive the rules, impeach!” Erickson was at pains to emphasize that he isn’t now minimizing what happened at the Capitol, but merely responding to a “press corps obsessed with it as the worst thing ever.”

This is not to say that there’s no such thing as press overreaction or hysteria. It’s as common as water, particularly among people who earn their living through clicks. But the right has been engaging in distraction and evasion for years with the “but the media” trope. In the wake of January 6th, it looks not just dishonest but absurd. January 6th is not an “issue” like crime or COVID or inflation. It’s the heart of our system. Without bipartisan allegiance to the verdict of voters and the willingness to cede power to those you oppose, no other “issues” can ever be addressed.

Erickson doesn’t even go as far as some on the right. W. James Antle III allows that the events of January 6th were “terrible” and “had the potential to be even worse in terms of injury or loss of life.” But the House January 6th Committee’s “obvious desire to elevate Jan. 6 to a 9/11-level event—and to treat a ragtag group of rioters, who made up most of the death toll, as a serious attempt to overthrow the federal government—is laughable.”

Just a ragtag group of rioters. Note that Antle includes only “injuries or loss of life” as the possible consequences, not the subversion of democratic governance.

In the Wall Street Journal, Barton Swaim was equally dismissive:

The idea that the Capitol rioters threatened the American republic is a fantasy. Even to pose such a threat, they would have needed to do far more than break into an unguarded Capitol building and stop Vice President Mike Pence from certifying the count of the Electoral College. To stage a coup, these renegades would have needed the backing of the military; and to govern afterward they would have needed cooperation from other institutions, including the news media and the federal bureaucracy. They had no support from those quarters and no hope of getting it. Their effort was witless and pointless, a dud grenade thrown at an armored division.

Encounter Books editor Roger Kimball mocked the gravity of January 6th. Trump might have been “imprudent” to stir up the crowd, but “was it an effort to overthrow the government? Hardly.” The trouble, of course, is the media:

I know this is not the narrative that we have all been instructed to parrot. Indeed, to listen to the establishment media and our political masters, the January 6 protest was a dire threat to the very fabric of our nation: the worst assault on “our democracy” since 9/11, since Pearl Harbor, since the Civil War!

In fact, Kimball claims, the media narrative amounts to a “January 6 hoax” to pair with the “Russia hoax.” Don’t be fooled by these warnings about the state of democracy, he advises:

Note that phrase “our democracy”: Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and various talking heads have repeated it ad nauseam. But you do not need an advanced degree in hermeneutics to understand that what they mean by “our democracy” is their oligarchy. Similarly, when Nancy Pelosi talks about “the people’s house,” she doesn’t mean a house that welcomes riff-raff like you and me.

Bow-tie-sporting Kimball is also the editor of the arts journal the New Criterion. He received a degree from Bennington College in classical Greek and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale. But he suffers from “riff-raff” envy. Or, more likely, he understands that in our time, power resides in the mob, and far from identifying with them, he has such contempt for them that he assumes they don’t check Wikipedia.

Unlike some of those cited above, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is not an apologist for Trumpism. He doesn’t blame the media, but, like Swaim, he doubts that Trump has the wherewithal to subvert our system. Yes, Trump did try to steal the election, Douthat writes, but:

If you compare all those Trumpian intentions with what actually transpired . . . what you see again and again is his inability to get other people and other institutions to cooperate . . . a variety of conservative lawyers delivered laughable arguments to skeptical judges and were ultimately swatted down by some of the same jurists—up to and including the Supreme Court—that Trump himself had appointed to the bench.

The political branches were resistant as well, Douthat argues. While Trump did pressure state legislatures and governors to “deliver” for him, “every state government dismissed it: No statehouse leader proposed setting aside the popular vote, no state legislature put such a measure on the floor, no Republican governor threatened to block certification.”

And while Douthat does say he underestimated the mob, he urges that “You can’t assess Trump’s potential to overturn an election from outside the Oval Office unless you acknowledge his inability to effectively employ the powers of that office when he had them.”

That’s a comforting thought, but it fails to grapple with two things. One is the GOP’s systematic purging of officials who did the right thing in the 2020 election. Remember Aaron Van Langevelde, a GOP member on the Michigan board of canvassers who refused to lie about the vote count? He’s out, and his family needs police protection. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been removed from the board overseeing election certification, and is being primaried, as is Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. Local GOP groups are censuring Republicans who voted for impeachment. Across the country, Republican officials who stood in the breach when it counted and did the right thing are being hounded from office. Members who voted to impeach are resigning or close to resigning.

It’s true that Trump didn’t quite know where the pressure points were last time, but he’s learning. He has supported secretary of state candidates who deny the validity of the 2020 result in four swing states. Meanwhile, Republican-controlled legislatures in a number of states have passed laws withdrawing power over election certification from local election administrators and handing it to legislatures.

But the most profound reason to fear a repeat of something like January 6th is that Trump has corrupted the minds of a substantial percentage of Republican party members. As Lincoln said in a debate with Stephen Douglas, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.”

The polls consistently show that about two-thirds of Republicans believe the Big Lie that the election was stolen. Nearly a third believe that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Among rank-and-file Republicans, January 6th is not even viewed as regrettable. One poll found that 52 percent identified those who entered the Capitol as “defending democracy.” As Jonathan V. Last put it last year, “What the Republican party has done over the last two months is akin to having dropped polonium into America’s political groundwater.”

Institutions are not self-sustaining. They are composed of people, and if people have lost faith in them, or have given themselves permission to break the rules, they will crumble. John Adams cautioned that character is essential to self-government:

We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

An updated version of Adams might add that a people beguiled, deluded, and propagandized cannot be trusted to uphold the pillars of the democratic process. Trump failed at his improvised coup, but he succeeded in warping enough of the electorate to make another attempt—and even success—all too possible.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].