As Trump’s impeachment trial continues, we have all been reminded of the horrific attack on American democracy carried out by a pro-Trump mob on January 6th. The incident culminated in several deaths, the theft (and attempted sale to foreign adversaries) of computers containing classified information, the humiliation of the United States on the global stage, and a determined attack on the American democratic process. Ideally, the conspiratorial loons that attacked the legislature would have possessed sufficient intelligence to realize they were being duped by an inveterate narcissist seeking to manipulate them in order to cling to power and avoid admitting defeat. For if they knew they were being conned, they probably wouldn’t have risked life and limb to attack Congress. But these rioters belonged to a personality cult, and cults are very difficult to escape. So it seems likely that some kind of incident was going to happen, even if Capitol security forces had been bolstered. Given that an attack by pro-Trump extremists was a likely, if not inevitable, outcome, things went about as well as they could. The incident was sufficiently deadly to put people, including Republicans, on notice regarding the danger that Trump’s unhinged rhetoric had created. But fortunately bloodshed was limited to only a few tragic deaths. Perhaps more important was the undeniable evidence that Trump betrayed his supporters and that the Q-Anon conspiracy was a farce. The upshot is that the attack alerted the broader public to the dangers of ignoring extremist conspiracy theorists, but it also alerted many (if not all) within the conspiratorial wing of Trump’s base to the fact that they were mere puppets.
By far the most important result of the attack was the attention it brought to Trump’s dangerous rhetoric. For months, certain people had been predicting violence around the election. I was skeptical, and many conservatives were even more complacent, writing off warnings as just Trump Derangement Syndrome. One conservative commentator even opined that in his view “the right wing, being a little more invested in the whole idea of America and her Constitution as a useful construct, is less likely to view the result as illegitimate and take to the streets in violent protest.” Needless to say, that prediction aged particularly poorly. The events of the 6th forced a lot of people, including myself, to update their beliefs on the actual risks posed by Trump’s most die hard supporters, a group that was not simply content to march in the streets or occupy state houses but was actually willing to storm the federal legislature and crush a cop’s skull with a fire extinguisher. The true threat posed by these individuals became undeniably clear that day, and I think it forced people from across the political spectrum to become far less complacent. This is partly captured by Trump’s net approval numbers, which fell around 10 percentage points between the attack and the end of his presidency. But the shift in attitudes has also manifested in the larger number of Republicans willing to support impeachment efforts against Donald Trump.
One particularly important aspect of the attack was the slow and subdued police response. This wasn’t like the summer, with National Guard helicopters flying overhead at low altitude and NYPD police cruisers driving over protesters. There was one clear group of aggressors on January 6th, and it wasn’t the police. This simplified the narrative, as it put all the blame solely on the Trump mob. Unlike with the BLM protests in 2020, in which people witnessed disturbing behavior from both police and rioters, there was no doubt about who the bad guys were on January 6th. Some have rightfully criticized the lack of preparation by the police, and I think there is a very good case to be made that a far greater show of force was necessary at the outset to dissuade the mob from storming the Capitol. But in some ways the lack of preparedness worked to the police’s advantage because, again, it clearly divided the good guys from the bad guys. If the police had gone in guns blazing, we likely would have witnessed far greater bloodshed. For comparison, a much more aggressive approach was adopted by police during the 1993 Waco siege, and the anger that that excessive use of force created among the far-right ultimately culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing. The decision of rioters to largely avoid wearing masks and to actively post videos of their crimes online means that the vast majority will face criminal prosecution. Importantly, though, they won’t be able to play the victim card because they were the victimizers, terrorizing lawmakers and Capitol Police alike.
Some commentators, such as Tanner Greer, have expressed concern that the events of January 6th are just the tip of the iceberg. As political norms fray and partisanship increases, the argument goes, so too will incidences of political violence grow. But I’m skeptical simply because I think that much of what we’ve witnessed recently is a form of roleplaying. People like to think they’re revolutionaries, taking on Wall Street or the Deep State, but most people are lazy and don’t actually want to risk very much. When their romanticized notions of revolutionary action meet the cold reality of street fights and jail time, they suddenly start to rethink the wisdom of cosplaying as Robespierre or V. Noah Smith put it well when he wrote that people might just get exhausted. As he notes, “Past waves of unrest in the 1920s and 1970s killed a lot of people and scared the heck out of many more, but ultimately never toppled the nation or caused civil wars. … Cold wars aren’t like hot wars — they don’t end with a bang. But if we hold firm, I think we can see a light at the end of the tunnel.” I agree. Constantly protesting and fighting is tiring work, and it will get much costlier as the pandemic finally ends. Who wants to waste their weekends preening with an AR-15 when we can finally travel the world again, eat out, attend college basketball games, etc.? So, I’m cautiously optimistic that the attack on the Capitol shocked American politicians and voters out of their complacency.
But I also think that a lot of those indoctrinated into Trump’s cult of personality are finally starting to realize they’ve been played. Some people supported Trump instrumentally – they saw him as a means with which to get tax cuts and conservative justices. But some people saw Trump as much more, and it was these kinds of people who were willing to attack the American Capitol. But instead of supporting his adoring fans, Trump left them out to dry. Despite announcing that he would march to the Capitol with them during his rally on the morning of the 6th, Trump had no intention of risking his own wellbeing and fled back to the safety of the White House just as his supporters were getting into it with police. And then, having convinced these marks to commit federal crimes, Trump chose not to pardon a single one. These people were played, and they’re going to have plenty of time in federal prison to reflect on the fact that it was Donald Trump, not the Democrats, who ultimately stabbed them in the back. The same is true for Q-Anon conspiracists who believed with certainty that there was some grand plan to keep Trump in power. But on January 20th, just as expected, Biden was duly sworn in and is now the American president. The entire narrative Trump and his enablers spun was a lie. The suits his goofy lawyers launched against manufacturers of voting machines have been dropped, and now Trump’s team is on the defensive, being sued themselves for defamation. But as with any con, the powerful have made out alright. Trump raised millions from loyal supporters contributing to his legal fund, but now many of those same supporters need legal help as they face federal prosecution. Some of the former president’s most loyal fans might still be on the “Trump train,” but I suspect that many are beginning to regret giving such undying loyalty to a man who seems unwilling to return it.
In short, I think there’s good reason to believe that January 6th forced everyone to wake up. There are still conspiracy theorists and bad actors in American politics, and we undoubtedly have a rocky road ahead. But at the same time I think the awful events that took place just over one month ago forced everyone to wake up. The debacle on January 6th compelled the general public to really start paying attention to these dangerous conspiracy theories floating around American discourse, and it also forced a lot of the Trump conspiracists to grapple with the hard truth that their messiah left them out in the cold. Hopefully everyone learns from this experience, allowing America to move forward in a positive and peaceful direction.