More than a year after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, there are still uncertainties and perplexities about just what happened and what might have happened. The House of Representatives Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, Attack on the U.S. Capitol intends to issue its report to the nation sometime later in 2022.
Thanks to the ubiquitousness of smartphones, authorities have collected nearly 1,000 pieces of video evidence of the incident, most of them recorded by the insurrectionists themselves. That doesn’t count the 14,000 hours of surveillance video provided by the Capitol Police.
At last count, nearly 800 individuals have been charged with a range of crimes: seditious conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging official duties, entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly or disruptive conduct and others.
Five people died during or shortly after the riot, including one insurrectionist who was shot by the Capitol Police. In the weeks and months that followed, four law enforcement officers committed suicide. Their deaths are regarded by most observers as inseparable from the traumas of that terrible day.
Much is still unknown. Much of what we do know is both tantalizing and deeply troubling.
A Riot By Any Other Name
For starters, it’s hard to know just what to call what happened Jan. 6, 2021. On the day of the siege, commentators said the protesters were “storming the Capitol.” Some even said “sacking” the Capitol. Historians noted that it was the first time the Capitol had been assaulted since the British attacked Washington, D.C., in August 1814, during the War of 1812. Later, the term “insurrection,” came to dominate the discussion, though Republican defenders of the incident preferred “protest” or, at most, “riot.” A few, straining the English language, said the insurrectionists were just “slightly unruly tourists.”
If a “terrorist act” is activity that terrorizes groups of people, Jan. 6 was domestic terrorism. We had scores of accounts of senators and representatives (and their staffs) preparing to defend themselves from attack, cowering beneath desks and making what might have been last calls to their families and friends.
The Capitol was cleared and secured within four hours Jan. 6. Congress defiantly regrouped and completed the process of certifying the election of Joe Biden. On that stunning day, several senators and representatives spoke passionately in defense of constitutional due process, and in unambiguous condemnation of the attack on the Capitol, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and one of the president’s close friends, Lindsey Graham.
The second great imponderable is what would have happened if the insurrectionists had cornered Vice President Mike Pence or House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi — or the right’s favorite target, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)? They did not get their hands on any single member of Congress during the four-hour siege. We just can’t know what they would have done. It’s hard to believe that the majority of those who breached the Capitol intended actual violence against members of Congress or their staffs.
Still, mobs take on their own personality. Mobs have the capacity to swallow up the individual will and corrode individual conscience. Mobs commit atrocities that no single individual would dare to attempt. Some of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists chanted, “Hang Mike Pence, hang Mike Pence,” and a somewhat flimsy gallows was erected on the Capitol steps. One protestor, Dawn Bancroft of Pennsylvania, later admitted that she had come to Washington solely to hear the president speak on the Mall, but she got swept up in the moment and entered the Capitol through an already broken window. In a video message to her children, Bancroft said, “We were looking for Nancy [Pelosi] to shoot her in the friggin’ brain. But we didn’t find her.” Would she have shot Ms. Pelosi? With what weapon?
Protestors who breached Pelosi’s office left a note on a manila file folder saying, “YOU WILL NEVER STEAL THIS COUNTRY” and another saying “WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN.” But they did not tear down the drapes, overturn the speaker’s desk or trash the office. Photographed sitting in Speaker Pelosi’s chair with his left leg propped up on her desk, Richard “Bigo” Barnett scrawled a greeting to Pelosi, third in the constitutional line for the presidency: “Nancy, Bigo was here, you bitch.” A few months later, Barnett’s attorneys filed a court document explaining that what he actually wrote was “Hey Nancy Bigo was here biatd.” This is revisionism worthy of the savage satire of Jonathan Swift.
Breaching The Capitol
If the insurrectionists had gotten their hands on any of their perceived enemies in Congress (not all Democrats), would they have held them for ransom (overturn the election or else)? Would they have roughed them up? Would they have executed them? If they got Mike Pence in their hands and he refused to do their bidding at the joint session of Congress, would they have assaulted or killed the sitting vice president of the United States? We don’t know, but at this point in our chaotic and disturbed time, actual violence cannot be ruled out.
Against that background, it is perhaps not surprising but still alarming that a poll from the COVID States Project indicates roughly a quarter of Americans say it’s sometimes appropriate to use violence against the government — and 1 in 10 Americans say violence is justified “right now.”
And what would have happened to the United States if the mob had killed one or more members of Congress that day, or even beaten them up? How would the people of America have reacted to that, including the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump in 2020? How would the defenders of the events of Jan. 6 have defended that? Would Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde have said, “You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the sixth, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit”?
Given what happened (and what didn’t), it is tempting to conclude that the country was subjected Jan. 6 to something that had as many farcical as tragic elements. And yet we must not forget that five Americans (by some counts nine) died because of the riot, and more than 140 law enforcement officers were physically assaulted, some of them brutally.
I wasn’t there, of course, but the Jan. 6 incident feels a little informal and half-hearted to me. The insurrectionists could have done vastly more damage to the Capitol building. They could have set the building on fire. They could have toppled some or all of the statues in Statuary Hall. They could have ripped paintings, some of them priceless, off the walls and slashed them with knives. They could have destroyed historic desks in the United States Senate chamber, desks that have been used by more than 1,800 U.S. senators, including Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John F. Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Harry S. Truman.
What happened on Jan. 6 was not the storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789), and its subsequent demolition. In some respects, it more resembles the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich (Nov. 8-9, 1923) than unrestrained fury. Terrorists take selfies live in the postmodern world. One rioter who is a real estate agent from Texas made a pitch for her professional services while live-streaming the attack.
Counting The Cost
The total damages to the Capitol campus have been assessed at $30 million — and climbing. No important work of art was destroyed, but the Capitol’s art conservators say that pepper spray and other substances will have to be removed from paintings and statues. John Trumbull’s epic paintings of the American founding in the Rotunda escaped vandalism.
Some of the insurrectionists have already gone to jail. Scores of others are sure to follow. Whether the U.S. Justice Department will indict Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone or former President Trump, among others who planned or inflamed the insurrection, is not yet clear. Probably not.
What Now, What Next?
Perhaps the most important imponderable is the question of what now, what next? What if the Jan. 6 incident was just the beginning or an era of political violence reminiscent of the rise of fascism in the 1930s in Europe? Some commentators believe that the assault on the Capitol was intended to touch off a widespread national insurrection. That did not happen — at least so far.
Although security forces erected an intimidating perimeter fence to prevent subsequent attempts to breach the Capitol, and fears of a second assault on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration (Jan. 20, 2021) did not materialize, there are plenty of rumblings on social media that further attacks are contemplated, some in advanced planning stages. Estimates vary, but most experts believe there are several hundred active right-wing paramilitary or domestic terror cells in the country.
Nothing happened on the day of the inauguration of Joe Biden. Nothing happened on the first anniversary of the insurrection. It appears that fears of a nationwide flurry of right-wing violence were overwrought. But what if there had been simultaneous attacks on state capitols Jan. 6? Under what conditions would the insurrection have spread throughout the nation?
From this safe distance, it may seem to some as if the insurrection was no big deal because it ended in a whimper rather than a coup d’état. However, one doesn’t need to read very deeply in the literature of collapsed republics — most notably the Roman republic in the last years of the final century BCE — to realize that when violence displaces due process and the rule of law in a formerly stable civilization, people are just as likely to emulate the lawlessness and violence that they have witnessed as to shrink back from the brink and insist on lawful transfers of power. As a social system begins to collapse, violence becomes the new norm.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about the Jan. 6 incident is that most elected officials in the Republican Party refuse to acknowledge the threat it represented (and perhaps invites) to American political and social stability. If, as Aristotle taught, wisdom is calling things by their right names, those moderate Republicans who nevertheless defend the character and behavior of Donald Trump on that day are endangering the future of the United States by letting themselves be bullied either by Trump or his millions of ardent followers. By the time they realize what they have done and invited, it may be too late to save the country.
We can all take solace in the failure of the insurrection, but there is no reason, a year later, to feel optimistic about the state of the American republic. The fact is that a very large percentage of the American public still believes (or pretends to believe) the 2020 election was stolen. A smaller but very significant percentage of the people believe that it is acceptable to overturn the results of a national election with violence, if necessary, thus repudiating one the most important American norms — best represented by Al Gore in the contested 2000 election and John McCain in the 2012 election — of graceful concession no matter how bitter the result. The last four presidencies have been damaged by legitimacy crises — G.W. Bush in 2000 (Florida and hanging chads), Barack Obama in 2008 (birtherism), Donald Trump in 2016 (the discrepancy between the Electoral College and the popular vote) and Joe Biden in 2020 (Stop the Steal).
These contested elections represent only one contributing factor to the disintegration of America, but they have helped to put the most consequential nation in the world into political paralysis. The best historians and political scientists have been nearly unanimous in expressing concern, even pessimism, about the future of American democracy in the face of the last six years. The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection has to be seen as a potential harbinger of dark things to come. We may hope that Jan. 6 was an end and not a beginning, but this is one occasion when Thomas Jefferson’s call for “eternal vigilance” will be required to save the American republic.
Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes — actively solicits even — your comments and critiques of his essays, interviews and reviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.