This week marks the anniversary of an unprecedented attack on democracy in the United States. Jan. 6 of last year is the day a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to stop certification of the people’s vote for the highest office in the land.
Images from that day are burned into our nation’s history. A Trump loyalist beating a uniformed Capitol police officer with a U.S. flag on a pole, as if it were some perverted act of patriotism. A makeshift gallows constructed outside, to hang Vice President Pence for the sin of performing his constitutional duty, and a crowd that would have gleefully put his neck through the noose if given the chance.
We forget these events, or downplay their urgency, at great peril to the country. In the year since, we have also learned a good deal more about what happened that day in Washington.
We have learned more about President Donald Trump’s actions that day. First he summoned the crowd to Washington, then he fed them more lies about election fraud and then he dispatched them to march on Congress to stop the certification (adding on another lie that he would march with them).
As the violence unfolded, he sat comfortably in the White House and watched it on television. His friends at Fox News madly texted his chief of staff to urge Trump to end it. He ignored them. His own daughter went to him twice, asking him to call off the violence. He ignored her, too, for hours, as his mob roamed the halls, ransacking Congress, looking for members to kidnap or worse.
We have learned about congressional courage and the lack of it in the immediate aftermath of that day. Kevin McCarthy, House Republican leader, called it for what it was: “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
Then the backlash from Trump supporters set in, McCarthy flew to Florida to ask the ex-president for forgiveness. The few brave Republicans, who put truth and country above Trump loyalty, people like Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, have been punished with primary challenges from their party and death threats from Trump supporters.
We have also learned hard things about the American people. While a wide majority of Americans recognize the legitimacy of President Biden’s 2020 election victory, a majority of Republicans still insist the election was stolen from Trump — despite no serious evidence to support the claim.
We have seen directly that when a lie is repeated often enough, for some, it becomes truth. A new national poll last month reported that a third of Americans believes that “it is justified for citizens to take violent action against the government.”
The people of the United States are more divided than at any time since the Civil War. It is not only that we have wide disagreements on issues and leaders, there is nothing new in that. The worry lies in our dividing into two warring tribes that see the world in radically different ways.
One tribe gets its news from Fox, believes Donald Trump is a patriot, rejects gun laws, and sees government as a threat to personal liberty.The other watches CNN, thinks Donald Trump is a threat to the nation, supports gun laws, and believes government can be a tool to advance the common good.
There is little room left between the two and if they do engage one another directly, its most likely just people ranting at strangers on Facebook and Twitter.
How do we move beyond this? Somehow, even in the midst of discord, we have to put three principles above party and above partisanship.
First, facts matter. No person or party has a monopoly on truth, but whether it is about invented tales of election fraud or scientific data in a pandemic, our debates as a nation must be rooted in fact not fantasy.
Second, the rules of democracy matter. On an NFL football field, no matter how heated the competition might get, both sides agree that the end zone is where touchdowns are scored. Our elections must also be guarded by constitutional rules that everyone respects, not pressure from the powerful to break those rules.
Third, we need to agree that democracy has no place for using violence to seize power. The events of Jan. 6 a year ago will either be a violent anomaly in U.S. politics, or a dry run for far worse to come
When the next presidential vote goes to Congress for certification, three years from now, if the result is once again not to the liking of Trump and his most violent supporters, they may try stopping the official count again. Only this time they might not leave their guns at home.
I have seen close up, in other places, what a country looks like when democracy dies. It is not a pretty sight. Here in the U.S. we have seen what an attack on our democracy looks like, and we are fools if we do not take it seriously.
By Jim Shultz, the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, and an occasional CNHI columnist. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.