Muted optimism for 2022 lasted only days last week when the first anniversary of the 1/6/21 U.S. Capitol coup attempt shattered the calm. The phrase ‘coup attempt’ is used advisedly, according to NYU history professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat: “It is interesting to me that so many news outlets and commentators still only call it an ‘insurrection,’ which does not express the political design to take control of the government and stay there, in the authoritarian fashion.”
The former president and de facto leader of today’s Republican party openly admires autocracies around the world and their authoritarian leaders.
Aspects of last year’s attack remain deeply disturbing: 1) Americans carried out a sustained, violent assault on the citadel of the U.S. government, 2) the apparent connection between those who planned and promoted it and the inner circle of the former president, 3) subsequent, ongoing efforts to whitewash, minimize, and/or justify what happened, and 4) persistent, continuing efforts to undermine American democracy by those who supported – and still fail to condemn – the 1/6/21 uprising.
As described in a 1/1/22 New York Times editorial, “In short, the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends.”
It was the worst attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812. Appallingly, the certification of a presidential election and peaceful transfer of power was disrupted, delayed, and nearly upended with malicious, nefarious intent. In a word, it was a dangerous, unprecedented assault on American democracy.
There is ample evidence of prior communication between those at the White House at the time and those at a ‘war room’ at Washington’s Willard Hotel. If only a fraction of this evidence betrays a coordinated effort to mastermind the attack, the future of American democracy was indeed at stake.
In the year since, an assault on democratic norms continues. In 19 Republican-dominated states there are new laws to restrict ballot access and suppress voting among targeted, traditionally Democratic constituencies. Nonpartisan election officials were replaced with partisans and some Republicans who defied strongarm tactics to overturn 2020 results were replaced as well. In at least 15 states Republicans who still baselessly deny President Biden’s legitimate victory are candidates this year to be the top elections official.
This sustained attack on democracy, in the shadow of last year’s effort to secure autocratic rule, remains undeniable. It is not a coincidence that rioters carried the Confederate flag into the Capitol last year. It suggests a war against democratic ideals had been declared – and persists.
UC San Diego professor Barbara Walter studies civil war in other countries extensively, and serves on a CIA panel of experts on the topic. “There are certain indicators that measure when these shifts happen. One is a loss in elections, or a series of losses, where it becomes clear that in a democracy, this group no longer has the numbers to win elections,” Walter writes in her new book, How Civil Wars Start.
Others who study these matters say the litany of increasingly desperate Republican measures – among them last year’s attack on the Capitol, ongoing efforts to discredit elections, stacking federal courts with partisan judges, questioning and condemning the press, denying ballot access, and manipulating voting district boundaries – provide additional evidence that erosion of American democracy is already well underway.
President Biden succinctly described the risk last week in his anniversary remarks, “Those who stormed this Capitol, and those who instigated and incited, and those who called on them to do so, held a dagger at the throat of American democracy.”