Who will write the history of Jan. 6?
Jan. 6 has come and gone. What was once an ordinary day has become a sad occasion of sacrifice and remembrance. That fateful date stands alongside Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001, as inflection points in U.S. history.
President Biden eloquently summarized what we saw: “Rioters rampaging, waving for the first time inside this Capitol a Confederate flag that symbolized the cause to destroy America. . .a mob breaking windows, kicking in doors, breaching the Capitol. American flags on poles being used as weapons, as spears. Fire extinguishers being thrown at the heads of police officers. . . .Rioters. . .threatening the life of the Speaker of the House, literally erecting gallows to hang the Vice President of the United States of America.”
The histories of Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001, have been written. The surrender of Adolf Hitler’s Germany and the Japanese empire marked the end of fascism. As for Sept. 11, while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were messy, the perpetrator of that attack, Osama bin Laden, was killed by U.S. special forces.
But the history of Jan. 6 has yet to be written. Ever since the emergence of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, a battle has been underway for what President Biden likes to refer to as the “soul of America.”
On Jan. 6, the struggle entered a new, more dangerous phase. On that day, a sitting U.S. president did nothing for 187 minutes as the Capitol was attacked. The peaceful transfer of power, an extraconstitutional right once taken for granted, did not occur. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) set forth the choice Republicans face: “We can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can be loyal to the Constitution, but we cannot be both.”
In his famous inaugural address, John F. Kennedy said that when it came to the Cold War, the country was engaged in “a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation.” Such is the case today when it comes to preserving our democracy. Yet many Americans seem either blissfully ignorant or accept Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. One may yell fire in a crowded theater, but if the fire alarm goes off repeatedly, patrons are likely to ignore it.
Democracy’s fire alarms have been ringing for years, becoming ever louder on Jan. 6. Yet many Americans go about their business thinking no danger lies ahead. That could not be further from the truth. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove, as stolid a partisan as they come, advised his fellow Republicans: “There can be no soft-pedaling what happened and no absolution for those who planned, encouraged and aided the attempt to overthrow our democracy. Love of country demands nothing less.” Unless the Big Lie is renounced once and for all, and those who perpetrated it are prosecuted, peril remains.
In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt described Hitler’s propaganda technique: “You should never use a small falsehood. Always a big one. For its very fantastic nature would make it more credible if only you keep repeating it over and over and over again.”
For months, Trump’s spread his Big Lie about the 2020 election being stolen — a lie not accepted by his attorney general (who called Trump’s charges “bullshit”); not accepted by federal courts, including the Supreme Court after Trump filed more than 50 lawsuits challenging the election results; and on Jan. 6, not accepted by his own vice president. But Trump’s Big Lie has won favor from an overwhelming majority of Republicans: According to one poll, 71 percent believe Biden is an illegitimate president; an equal percentage say Donald Trump is the rightful winner of the 2020 election.
Presidents come into office sometimes facing crises they expect, but more often facing the unexpected. Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that combatting the Great Depression was his immediate test. But in 1941, neither he nor the intelligence community foresaw the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Assuming the presidency in 2001, George W. Bush did not foresee terrorists attacking the homeland. In Joe Biden’s, case, he (and we) knew that meeting the challenge of a pandemic was an immediate crisis. But the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was unanticipated, and, as Biden so eloquently stated, those who were responsible “held a dagger at the throat of American democracy.” We are, the president added, “at an inflection point in history.”
And like those presidents before him who met the unanticipated with determination and resolve, Biden promised to do the same: “I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. And I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy.”
Clio, the muse of history, stands above the entrance to Statuary Hall where the Jan. 6 rioters carried a Confederate flag — something that never happened even during the Civil War. What Clio will write about that day and those that follow is unclear. Will we turn away from authoritarianism and, once more, affirm our faith in the Constitution and the values it sought to advance? Or will the dagger poised at democracy’s throat inflict a fatal wound? Who will write the next chapter in our history books is up to us to decide.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”
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