The Jan. 6 insurrection never stopped
Why the Republican assault on democracy has only accelerated
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." — W. B. Yeats
The Capitol putsch on Jan. 6 was the most serious attack on American democracy since 1861. An armed mob stormed the seat of the national legislature, with the backing of sitting President Donald Trump, and attempted to disrupt the certification of President-elect Joe Biden — the dictionary definition of an autogolpe. Members of Congress and Vice President Pence narrowly escaped with their lives.
Since that time the memory of what happened has faded somewhat, perhaps because the implications are so alarming. The U.S. media as a rule is chauvinistic about America's so-called exceptionalism, and would plainly prefer to look past the prospect of the country falling into authoritarianism.
But the truth is that the insurrection never actually stopped. What happened on Jan. 6 was just one part of a huge effort to overturn the 2020 election — through the courts, bullying local officials, and finally an outright putsch — that is ongoing to this day. In Arizona a collection of right-wing conspiracy theorists are conducting a fraudulent "audit" of the 2020 ballots. Key figures in the attempted election theft are now running for election oversight offices in Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan. The national-level Republican Party has swung hard against the proposed congressional investigation to investigate the putsch, and Senate Republicans are likely to filibuster it.
Despite a few holdouts who are being rapidly driven out of the party, the GOP is now openly against democracy. It is plotting in plain sight to overturn any future election that doesn't go its way. Yet Democrats have so far done nothing serious to counteract this threat, and show little urgency about doing so.
It's important to remember how violent the Capitol putsch was. Despite the fact that the Capitol Police brass refused to listen to warnings about what was coming, and some officers fraternized with the mob (plainly because they didn't see right-wing terrorists as a real threat), others tried to do their jobs and protect Congress. They were savagely attacked for hours — one suffered two broken ribs and two shattered spinal disks, one had a heart attack after being repeatedly tased, one had his eye gouged in, one was stabbed with a metal fence stake, and several got concussions from being bludgeoned in the head. Overall, about 140 officers were injured in the assault (including dozens of D.C. police) and two later committed suicide. (Officer Brian Sicknick was originally thought to have died from injuries sustained in the riot, but the D.C. medical examiner could not find any evidence for that.)
Despite the monumental failure of the Capitol Police leadership, these officers did delay the mob long enough for members of Congress and Pence to escape unscathed. Without that, the violence undoubtedly would have been much worse — the putschists constructed a gallows on the Capitol steps, screamed "hang Mike Pence!" and were searching for Nancy Pelosi. "We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin' brain," said one in a video. Pence was just steps from the rioters at one moment, and Sen. Mitt Romney was saved from running into the mob by luckily encountering an officer who sent him in the opposite direction. At time of writing some 494 people have been arrested as part of the ongoing investigation.
It's also important to remember that the putsch was only the capstone of a months-long effort from Trump and his allies to overturn the election. Before the vote, his lackey Louis DeJoy screwed up the Post Office, and Republicans across the country sought to limit or confuse measures intended to make pandemic voting easier and safer. Trump loudly proclaimed that Democrats were plotting massive voter fraud, seeding the Big Lie that if Republicans don't win, there must have been cheating. After Biden won, Trump filed dozens of lawsuits challenging his victory. When that didn't work, he tried to bully Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into changing the Georgia results: "I just want to find 11,780 votes," Trump told him.
Threats of violence underpinned this effort at every turn. Republican members of Congress and election officials who wouldn't support Trump's schemes were besieged in public and received an avalanche of death threats.
That brings me to Arizona's "audit," which even by Trumpist standards is almost indescribably stupid. Despite the fact that the election has already been certified (including a statistically representative hand count) and therefore there is no legal mechanism to change the results, in April the heavily Trumpy Arizona state Senate took possession of the Maricopa County's 2020 ballots and voting machines, and hired a company called "Cyber Ninjas" (seriously) to audit the count.
The company has no experience in election audits or election security, and its CEO thinks the election was stolen from Trump. The ballot counters are ordinary volunteers with little training, and the counting process has been comically inept. For a while volunteers were looking for secret watermarks that didn't exist, then looking for bamboo splinters thanks to a conspiracy theory that 40,000 Biden ballots had somehow been flown in from Asia. Others were convinced that cheese dust was somehow evidence of a tainted ballot (someone committing voter fraud always carries Cheetos, apparently).
The obvious intent here is to create as many excuses as possible to discredit Biden votes, a process which is much facilitated by fever-brained conspiracies. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, of which four out of five members are Republicans, wrote a blistering letter to state Senate President Karen Fann denouncing the "audit" as a sham after Cyber Ninjas heatedly accused them of election fraud based on an elementary technical misunderstanding. "You have rented out the once good name of the Arizona State Senate to grifters and con-artists," they wrote.
Indeed, the process itself has been so clumsy and incompetent that the results are already likely tainted beyond salvation. The Arizona Republic reports that Cyber Ninjas has been so cavalier about access to the county's voting machines that they all may have to be replaced, and the Arizona secretary of state (a Democrat) agrees. This may in effect be the point — to create "proof" that Trump really won Arizona using methodology so corrupt, insane, and idiotic that it can't even be tested, thus giving conservatives the permission they want for further attacks on democracy.
And again, the "audit" is being backed by violent threats — leveraging the example of the putsch. Many Arizona Republicans reportedly fear being "Mike Pence'd" if they don't support Trump. Both the Maricopa supervisors and Arizona secretary of state have been issued security details after a slew of threats.
Meanwhile, Republicans in other states may have officially moved on from 2020, but they've wasted no time laying the groundwork for going further. Multiple conservative states have proposed or passed stringent vote suppression legislation, Trump critics are being purged from the GOP en masse, and as noted above, participants in the election theft effort are attempting to take control of election administration in key swing states.
A recent poll found that 53 percent of Republicans nationally believe that Trump is the true president, and 63 percent think that he should run for president again in 2024. If the conservative assault on democracy continues escalating on its trajectory without being countered, I expect he will be president again come 2025 no matter what the votes say.
Nobody can say Democrats weren't warned. They barely have control of the federal government, and could use that power to protect America's democratic institutions. The Constitution stipulates that state legislatures will set voting laws for federal elections, but "the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations[.]" Thus many Democrats are pushing HR1, the most sweeping protection of the franchise since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as statehood for Washington, D.C., which would provide congressional representation for about 700,000 American citizens (more than live in Vermont or Wyoming) who are currently subject to quasi-colonial domination, and partially redress the Senate's current massive Republican bias.
But doing either of those things would require reforming or deleting the Senate filibuster, and so far there has been no appetite from the deciding Democratic votes for doing so. Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) sent a letter to a constituent arguing that "Debate on bills should be a bipartisan process that takes into account the views of all Americans … respecting the opinions of senators from the minority party will result in better, commonsense legislation." Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) stated categorically that: "There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster." Apparently this is in part because of the Capitol putsch, which convinced him to seek bipartisan compromise even more. In a CNN interview, he said fleeing from a lynch mob convinced him that "Something's wrong. You can't have this many people split to where they want to go to war with each other." And yes, that's an unfortunate situation indeed. But as the saying goes, it only takes one to start a fight. Curling up into a ball on the ground will just get you kicked in the kidneys.
It's all the more maddening because as former Senate staffer Adam Jentleson writes in his book Kill Switch, not only did the filibuster not exist when the country was founded, its current form was also basically invented by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2007. The framers of the Constitution categorically did not intend for legislation to require a three-fifths majority to pass the Senate, much less for that hurdle to be able to be triggered by any single staffer (as is now the case). It's a classic invented tradition whose real historical legacy is primarily the protection of white supremacy.
There is similar neurotic fretting among Democrats over Biden's infrastructure and welfare plans, which are also critical for Democratic fortunes so that the party has a strong economy and some accomplishments to run on in 2022 and 2024. Biden wants to pay for the programs with tax hikes on the rich (allowing the party to sidestep the filibuster through budget reconciliation), but other Democrats are mobilizing to protect their rich paymasters' favorite loopholes. Several have said a 28 percent corporate tax rate is too high, and Rep. Richie Neal (D-Mass.) has mulled preserving some of the "stepped-up basis" tax giveaway to heirs, 80 percent of which is collected by the top 0.1 percent. Indeed, a big chunk of the party are demanding additional tax cuts for the rich in the form of repealing Trump's cap on the deduction for state and local taxes, over half of the benefits of which would flow to the top 1 percent.
This circle could be squared by just borrowing the money, but many Democrats (including Biden) don't want that, and in any case that would also require getting rid of the filibuster. In the meantime, Biden has eaten up a month in an absolutely guaranteed-to-fail negotiation with Senate Republicans over his infrastructure package. Now party moderates are starting to fret over the July deadline for raising the debt limit — yet another pointless, idiotic anachronism that could be erased at any time if Democrats weren't so scared of their own shadows.
Ironically, there is a small glimmer of hope at least in how Senate Republicans are planning to filibuster the creation of a congressional commission to investigate the Capitol putsch. The commission proposal was originally set up on a bipartisan basis, which required multiple concessions to House Republicans, only for almost all of the GOP members to abruptly turn and vote against it anyway. The party is a Trump cult and no opposition can be tolerated — indeed, suppressing the commission is vitally important for the careers of current GOP leadership, so as to distract from their momentary criticism of Trump right after they had just been almost killed by his slavering mob.
"So disheartening. It makes you really concerned about our country," Manchin told Politico. "I'm still praying we've still got 10 good solid patriots within that conference."
His prayers will not be answered. There are at best three Republican Senate votes for the commission, and probably not even that many. The only way there will be any congressional investigation of Jan. 6 is also the only way Democrats can protect democracy or boost the economy: on a party-line vote. Manchin and the other moderates can either take the obvious steps necessary to preserve democratic government in the United States, or they can lie down in front of the Republican steamroller, let themselves be crushed, and go down in history as among the most ignominious cowards in the history of Congress. It's up to them.