WASHINGTON—A year ago on Capitol Hill, it felt like the end of something. Or of some things.
The long, unbroken tradition of the peaceful transfer of power that George Washington invented and Ronald Reagan had memorably bragged was central to America’s greatness was an obvious casualty amid the violence and chaos and screaming lunatic weirdness of Jan. 6, 2021. And with it, maybe, the smug sense of exceptionalism that has long made Americans so certain that their democracy could never be seriously threatened by wannabe strongmen and the mobs they inspire.
But as the riot ended, it felt like the end of still more than that. As the tear gas and smoke bombs dissipated, the riot was put down, the insurrectionists dispersed and Congress resumed its historic business of certifying the election, a fever seemed to have broken. A kind of twisted, howling madness that had gripped American politics through the vector of Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party — a stew of white resentment, cartoonish conspiracy theories and thuggishly authoritarian impulses — had shown what it was capable of becoming: not just a personality-driven political phenomenon, but an actual threat to American democracy.
It was, essentially, what Trump and his supporters had been promising, fairly plainly and for a long time. Many observers — including me — had written commentaries that wondered if something like this was coming. Like so many unprecedented episodes of Trump’s presidency, you could say it was shocking without really being surprising to anyone who had been paying attention. But a lot of Americans — including those long rumoured to be ready to act as “guard rails,” the figures of the centrist and Republican establishment leadership — had steadfastly refused to pay attention, dismissing talk of a threat to democratic traditions as fantastical products of “Trump derangement syndrome.”
The deranged scene Trump brought to the Capitol on Jan. 6 seemed to dispel such casual dismissals. Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, made a show of carrying on the vote certification that very night. Longtime Trump sycophants like Sen. Lindsey Graham said they were through. Sen. Mitch McConnell publicly blamed the outgoing president.
Trump was kicked off Twitter as corporate donors abandoned Republicans. There was a wave of panicked or disgusted resignations from the White House. There was a second impeachment on the way, and the sense that McConnell and his caucus might actually vote to convict this time. A new president was on the way in, promising the nominally modest but still far-off goal of normalcy.
At the time, it felt like history’s page was turning, that a bizarre and scary chapter full of dangerous portents was ending.
With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, it’s fair to say that didn’t turn out to be the case.
The next pages may have begun a new chapter, but they largely continued the same plot lines on a similar trajectory, and the portents of danger seem more menacing than ever. I am currently reading two much-discussed books released this week — about which I’ll write more soon — with the words “civil war” in their titles, each weighing the likelihood of the U.S. descending into such a conflict. They capture the zeitgeist: in an Axios/Momentive poll released this week, a majority of Americans say the country is more divided than ever before — and 57 per cent think more events like the Capitol riot are likely to happen soon.
But here is one of the most telling results of that poll: one year after Jan. 6, 2021, only 55 per cent of Americans believe President Joe Biden legitimately won the election. That is depressingly close to the percentage of voters (51.3) who voted for Biden. Trump’s big lie, the one that inspired the insurrectionist assault on the Capitol a year ago, has prevailed against all evidence for a huge chunk of the public, including the roughly 75 per cent of Republicans who doubt the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency.
Trump himself has recast the Capitol riot as a glorious protest against the “real insurrection” that he says happened on election day, and has portrayed the rioters as martyrs and political prisoners. Most of the Republicans who seemed ready to abandon him in the aftermath of the Capitol storming have either come back to his side or fallen silent. Those like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who serve on the House of Representatives’ Jan. 6 commission and refuse to stop speaking about the danger of Trump’s culpability for that day, have been essentially exiled from the party.
As much as — or perhaps even more than — before, it is Trump’s party.
Moreover, Republican-led state governments have been rewriting rules to further ensure majorities for themselves, to restrict voting in ways that seem likely to suppress Democratic constituencies, and to give partisan political figures power over federal election results and the authority to overturn them. Election authorities who stood up to Trump’s attempts to fraudulently overturn his election loss are being hounded out of office and replaced by Trump loyalists.
A year ago, as I stood on the Capitol steps while the rioters rampaged, one of them said, “This could be the start of something.” Another replied, “Oh, it is. Today changes everything.” I wrote then that the change might be different than what they were expecting, that it might be the end of the indulgence of Trump.
One year later, it seems like the rioters were right. Their message has been embraced by many Americans, and their larger goals are now being pursued by other means. Their attack on the Capitol wasn’t the end of their attack on American democracy. And so the insurrection continues.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: email@example.com