Members Only | May 5, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The memory-holing of Trump’s putsch

Neither Pearl Harbor nor 9/11 were as bad.

January 6

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In his first State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called the January 6 insurrection “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” This is an apt comparison. The insurrection was the worst attack on our democracy since the shelling of Fort Sumter, because the president of the United States schemed to overturn a free and fair election and remain in power against the will of the people, a high crime for which he was impeached. It was pure luck that the insurgents didn’t assassinate the vice president for refusing the president’s order to steal the election.

Revisionists are already trying to memory-hole the full significance of the attack and cast it as a mere riot rather than as a coordinated assault on American democracy orchestrated by a sitting president. While the out-and-out hacks allege January 6 was a false-flag operation masterminded by BLM, the more intellectually respectable apologists are trying to muddy the waters with spurious historical objections. 

Bloomberg Opinion columnist Eli Lake tweeted: “The Capitol Hill riot was terrible. All of this is true. At the same time, what happened on January 6 is not the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War. Some perspective would be nice here.”

If it had succeeded, the US would have been led by a dictator rather than a democratically elected president, writes Editorial Board member Lindsay Beyerstein. The tradition of the peaceful transfer of power would have been broken.

Asked what would count as a greater attack on our democracy than January 6, Lake suggested the Kennedy assassinations, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Conservative commentator Mollie Z. Hemingway bizarrely suggested that four days of race riots in 1967 constituted a greater attack than the January 6 insurgency. 

As shattering as these crises were, they weren’t attacks on our form of government in the same way as the Confederate States of America trying to break up the union or Donald Trump and his Republican Party allies scheming to install a dictator. 

The insurrection was a putsch, an attempt to throw out the results of a free and fair election to keep Trump in power against the will of the people. If it had succeeded, the United States would have been led by a dictator rather than a democratically elected president. The tradition of the peaceful transfer of power would have been broken. 

Some of the cataclysms that conservatives are pointing to as greater attacks on our democracy were more lethal, but there was no sense in which 9/11 or Pearl Harbor directly threatened democracy. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t throw the future of democratic government in the United States into doubt. Furthermore, these assassinations were the acts of lone assailants, not plans laid at the highest levels of the United States government. 

The January 6 insurgency was the culmination of an anti-democratic bid by the  president’s advisors, senior Republicans in Congress and Trump himself to overturn the 2020 election and keep the president in power. There’s much we still don’t know about what role, if any, the president and his advisers had in coordinating the actual assault on the capitol, but what’s in the public record is damning in and of itself. 

Trump called his supporters to Washington for the counting of the electoral votes. He’d been stoking his supporters’ anger for weeks with baseless allegations of election fraud. At the very least, he wanted them to be a vocal presence in the streets to cheer on the procedural coup he and top Republican allies were planning. The plan hinged on the Electoral Count Act of 1877, which allows members of Congress to object to the counting of the electoral votes. Trump and his cronies hoped to keep Biden’s Electoral vote tally under 270, so that the election would be decided by the House, a vote Republicans could actually have won despite not holding a majority in the chamber. 

It all came down to Vice President Mike Pence.

The president publicly and privately pressured him to throw out electoral votes during the ceremonial joint session of Congress during which these votes were to be counted. Without Pence, pro-Trump senators and congresspeople could object to the certification of results, but they couldn’t hope to change the outcome. “I hope Mike Pence comes through for us,” Trump said at a rally in Georgia on January 4, adding that, “Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him so much.” Trump’s pressure campaign continued in public and in private, but Pence was unmoved. 

Pence flatly refused to go along with Trump’s unconstitutional and anti-democratic scheme. The vice president doesn’t get to approve or deny electoral votes any more than the emcee of the Oscars gets to pick the Academy Award winners. 

On January 6, Trump riled up the mob and sicced them on the chamber where Pence was presiding. “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country,” the president warned. As the throng headed off toward Capitol Hill, Trump fired off one more tweet assailing the vice president.

Soon members of the mob were chanting “Hang Mike Pence” as they marched. Pence was whisked out of the chamber about a minute before rioters burst into the Capitol building. If the insurgents had been just a little quicker, they would have had the opportunity to assassinate Pence or force him to steal the election as commanded. 

Trump allowed the mob to ransack the Capitol for hours, watching the events unfold on television and ignoring aides who were begging him to intervene. Even when he finally told the insurgents to go home, he made a point of telling them how special they were and how much he loved them and reiterated that the election was stolen. 

The January 6 insurrection was not an isolated riot.

It was a campaign to subvert democracy that continues to this day. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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