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Rioters & Politicians

The Signal
One Year later
What really happened on January 6? Seth Masket on how Donald Trump’s claims about the 2020 election continue to endanger U.S. democracy.
Americans believe vastly different versions of what happened in Washington a year ago, when a group of Trump supporters breached the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and disrupted the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory by Congress. At a “March to Save America” that day, Trump called on Vice President Mike Pence, who oversaw the certification, to overturn the election results, and the former president told attendees to walk to the Capitol. Some 1,200 people broke into the Capitol building early that afternoon, preventing Congress from voting until after midnight; a majority of Republican members of the House of Representatives voted against certifying Biden’s win. Despite frequent media coverage during the past year, almost 40 percent of American voters surveyed in mid-December do not know which candidate the rioters supported. About 14 percent identified them as being Trump opponents, and 24 percent admitted they didn’t know whose side the mob was on at all. Even within the Republican Party, there’s no consensus about what took place. About 45 percent of Republicans said that the rioters were a threat to democracy, while 52 percent said those involved were protecting democracy, according to a poll taken at the end of December. What was the attack on the U.S. Capitol actually about?
Seth Masket is a professor of political science and the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, and the author of three books on U.S. political parties. In Masket’s view, the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats—from party leaders to voters—initially condemned the violence of January 6, but the Republican Party has increasingly moved since then to excuse or even condone the rioters. Republicans’ interpretation of the attack on the Capitol reveals the enduring threat from that day, Masket says: If the party refuses to accept an election when they lose, then American democracy is in danger. As Masket sees it, the root cause of the attack and the party’s focus on elections is Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 presidential election. Acceptance of this lie is now the litmus test for all prospective Republican candidates, and it explains the moves in Republican-controlled states to impose new voting restrictions and enable state officials to challenge or even reject election results. The failure among political elites to agree on whether elections are legitimate has often preceded the breakdown of democracy in other countries.
Michael Bluhm: How should we understand what happened on January 6?
Seth Masket: It’s a great question. There is a lot of disagreement over what January 6 was and how we should be thinking about it.
It’s important to think about it as an unsuccessful coup attempt. This was a coup attempt in which a sitting leader attempts to subvert democracy to remain in power indefinitely. That has happened in other countries—in Latin America and some Eastern European countries—and it happened here.
It wasn’t just the president saying, I don’t want to leave. He organized a violent mob to disrupt the processes within the Congress that were going to lead to his removal from office. Several members of Congress were going along with this. It was all part of an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election in various states and Congress.
It’s a terrifying thing. It is somewhat reassuring that it failed. When it came down to it, a number of members of Congress—even those who were fairly close to the president—were horrified by it. They felt threatened physically and called on the president to end it as quickly as possible.
It was a moment of legitimate peril, and we should be perceiving it that way. It wasn’t simply a protest. It was violent, and it had a very specific intent to disrupt American political processes.
If you listen to speeches from members of Congress that night, as they reconvened to ratify the election results, a number of those who had been fairly supportive of the president—including Senator Lindsey Graham—essentially said, We had our fun; it’s over. This election is over. This experiment with Trump is over. We got some good things out of it, but this did not end well. We need to turn the page.
That moment didn’t last very long. It was a few days or weeks until a number of these folks ended up embracing Trump again and saying, He will not pay a serious price for this. He’s still the front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination. That’s a striking legacy of January 6. There are still significant dangers to American democracy.
More from Seth Masket at The Signal:
If enough members of Congress had gone along with the president’s attempts to throw out the electoral votes from the states they didn’t want to count—which was what Trump was asking them to do, and what at least some senators seemed to be comfortable with—that’s the end of the experiment with democracy. That’s one political party saying, We will only accept elections that we win. From that point on, you no longer have a democracy.”
It’s stunning to see the extent to which, over the past year, the belief that the 2020 election was fraudulent has become the central rallying point within the Republican Party. That’s become the main issue in Republican primaries for the 2022 midterms. There are often divisions in a party—usually over policy issues or ideological issues—leading into congressional elections. This isn’t an ideological issue. This is simply, Do you follow Donald Trump’s claim that he was unjustly deprived of reelection and that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president? That is the main thing Republican candidates and primary voters appear to care about.”
People rely on pundits and reporters to help draw a narrative that explains a complex set of events. As far as I’m concerned, this was clearly an attempt to overthrow American democracy. Fox and other media sources on the right have tried to offer different narratives—to suggest that the rioters were just people blowing off steam or that they were patriotic heroes. Republican members of Congress, including Senator Ted Cruz, and Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, have been portraying them as the moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers, leading a 1776-style revolution against tyrants. If a sizable population in the party or the country is going to accept this—if it can’t see a coup attempt as a threat to the United States—then that’s tremendously dangerous. It can unravel American democracy. And it’s the same rhetoric that will be employed every time Republicans lose an election.”
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