A Year Later, the Capitol Riot Looks Like a Scary Rehearsal for the End of Democracy (Column)

·6-min read

One year after the fact, the uprising that took place, before millions of horrified and amazed eyes, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021 — a protest, an insurrection, a riot, an act of mob vandalism, a piece of made-for-the-media guerrilla theater, and a primal assault on democracy — looks, if anything, scarier now than it did then.

A group of anarchists posing as freedom fighters, busting into the Capitol, threatening and committing violence, taking cues (one almost wants to say orders) from on high — that is, from the President of the United States. However ramshackle it may have been in execution, this was an attempted coup, and the meaning of it should never be far from our minds. The reason you could say it’s scarier now is that the riot, at the time, was contained; it was a slipshod coup that failed. But with a year of hindsight, it looks more than ever like a rehearsal for the future.

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It in no way trivializes the ominous actions of January 6 to say that there was a performative element to what went on that day. You saw it most brazenly in the presence of Jacob Chansley, who sported American-flag face paint, a furry hat with horns and a bare chest with cultish tattoos (plus yoga pants!). He was like the Cosplay Mascot of January 6.

Okay, not everyone at the riot looked like they had just arrived from QAnon Comic-Con. But I would argue that for many who were on the scene that day, there was a dress-up element to the whole conflagration. In contemporary America, to walk around toting a weapon and a bad attitude — during the Capitol Riot, or at Wal-Mart — may constitute a threat to civility that is all too real, but it’s also a kind of pose, an exhibitionistic piece of acting out. It’s got a taking-the-law-into-your-own-hands aspect that can feel, for the weapon carrier, like the fulfillment of every demagogic lone-wolf revenge thriller of the last 50 years. “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish” and “Walking Tall” and “Rambo” and “Commando” and “Die Hard” and every Seagal/Norris/Van Damme/Statham potboiler you could name. The Capitol rioters were real, but they were also living out the rebel action movie in their own minds. And so their actions, in a way, were also unreal.

And that’s why if you simply focus on their actions — the plans to stage a non-peaceful protest; the breaking and entering; the attempt to disrupt the government by force — you’re not really seeing the most threatening dimension of the story. That would be what the Capitol rioters actually believed: that they were acting as patriotic souls, because they were attempting to overturn a “stolen election.”

That’s the really scary part. Because we know now, far more than we did then, how not alone they were. Were the rioters extremists? I would say that believing in your own reality — in alternative facts — constitutes, by definition, an extreme position. So yes, you could say they were extremists. Yet what happens when an “extreme” view goes mainstream?

In hindsight, the most sinister moment in America after the 2020 presidential election was not when Donald Trump, on election night, proclaimed that he’d won, and that the Democrats had pilfered the election through fraud. To see a sitting president peddle this fantasy was disturbing, all right, but by then we expected it; it was Trump being true to form. And four days later, when Joe Biden was officially declared the winner, the fear seemed to ease away. The system had worked. It had undergone its biggest stress-test in decades, but it upheld the truth and maybe came out stronger. As elections on the state level were vetted, mostly by Republican officials who confirmed Biden’s victory, those officials did the right thing. We could still believe in our democracy.

That’s why the truly sinister moment arrived when Mitch McConnell, days after the election had been won, said that he still needed to wait and see. McConnell, a weasel rooted in the real world, knew perfectly well that Biden had won. But his sudden charade of skepticism was a political cue. It was a signal that some Republicans — even the smartest and most powerful Republicans, who were worldly enough to know what a charlatan Trump is — would consider throwing in their lot with the Biden-stole-the-election forces, not because they believed it but because they saw that it could work for them. That’s how authoritarianism begins.

When does opportunism slide into cult belief? In the case of too many Republicans, that’s a tough one to pinpoint. But maybe the ultimate answer is that it doesn’t matter. The rise of authoritarian regimes is about fake belief systems and it’s about cynicism. It’s about a corrupt leader believing that he’s a kind of deity, and it’s about that same leader manipulating his followers with shrewd and cunning lies. A power grab.

And that, on a grandly threatening scale, is what Donald Trump is now orchestrating from the sidelines. He’s attempting, quite openly (and successfully), to have all those election officials purged and replaced with true MAGA believers, so that they’ll be able to overturn the results of the 2024 election and nudge it Trump’s way. Without predicting the future, let’s ask a simple question: What’s to stop them from doing this? “The courts”? In high school, it was drilled into us that the way the Electoral College works, the electors are not legally bound to cast their votes for the candidate who won the majority of votes in their state. Doing so is a convention, rooted in what was once thought of as a gentleman’s respect for democracy. Well, three decades into 21st-century America, here are a few things that seem to have left the building: respect, gentlemen, and Republicans (like Liz Cheney) who don’t pander to QAnon-level conspiracy fantasy.

Far more than the events of January 6, that’s now the true existential threat to our democracy. Yet the Capitol Riot stands as a surging, raw-video billboard (if not a recruitment tool) for how that threat could play out. Forces in Congress, all from the Democratic side, have been working to call the events of January 6 to account — to investigate, in the most scrupulous detail possible, just what happened that day, as if it were a disaster comparable to the JFK assassination. That’s the right thing to do. But it is also, in a strange way, beside the point. By all means, uncover the culprits, lay bare the threads of (actual) conspiracy, arrest and bring to justice those who broke the law. Yet what’s harder to investigate, let alone legislate, is the deeper crime that went on that day: the attack on reality. When you’re living inside your own action movie, or exploiting those who do for political ends, the meaning of America can get turned on its head. What the Capitol rioters acted out is what it looks like when our freedom becomes the freedom to destroy freedom.

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