Reckoning With A Coup
January 6th was a violent coup attempt that has left Americans in shock and denial while a new class of political grifters attempt to cash in on the attack
Tuesday morning’s gaveling in of the January 6th Commission was what many politicos would call an “event.” Live, dramatic, the focus of endless social media chatter, it was the type of pageantry that syncs with our system of political theater. The testimony was riveting and heartfelt. The officers who defended the United States Capitol against violent insurrectionists remembered their trauma with grace, humanity, and candor.
The officers represented a human face for the event. At this point we’ve all seen the videos. The phalanx of armored police being crushed and assaulted on all sides by an angry, violent crowd. But in these moments, particularly with mass spectacle, we sometimes forget that living, breathing people are at the heart of the matter and that their lives are on the line. To remember that is an opportunity to reset our feelings and really burrow down to the heart of the matter.
These events, especially ones like this commission, are opportunities. Rightfully they capture the attention of the political sphere and dictate, sometimes for days or weeks, the schedules of the weekly pundit shows and coverage in the newspapers and on the networks. It’s narrative making, or, rather, narrative re-making. In an accelerated culture such as ours, our memories are so short and allow so much room for re-visioning or laundering of horrors such as these. We have to remember if we’re going to be proactive. We have to remember if we’re going to avoid the next January 6th.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case. For years many of us have been screaming that such a thing would happen, that rising fascism would inevitably result in an all-out attack on democracy if not taken seriously. And then…it happened. And, to our disgust, almost immediately the same political class that dismissed our very real warnings, began to reform January 6th into something less sinister. An insurrection. A riot. A complicated matter that most likely could never happen again. Or, worse: proof that our systems are operating perfectly fine. A testimony to the political order that is rushing headlong off a cliff.
Operating behind the commission and the current reckoning is a partnership formed in hell. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz have linked themselves into a duo that is defined by their sycophantic support of Donald Trump, total denial of objective reality, and a seething, ceaseless instinct to continually attack anything that moves. To be clear, there is no political ideology here, at least nothing further than a total dedication to special interests which plot their positions and stances. This is a grifter barnstorming tour the likes of which we haven’t seen since the humbug days of P.T. Barnum.
I want to be clear about something: in a society that functioned, January 6th would have been a moment of reckoning. Certainly, a society that functioned would not have produced a January 6th, but the point remains. The Republican Party, long animated by an alliance with the wealthiest and most powerful and dependent on a base manipulated by thinly-veiled white supremacist paranoia, has been pushing extremism for decades now. This has followed the mindset and nature of conservatism, but even that mode has moments wherein the practitioner either doubles-down on the attempt or pauses, reflects, and dials it down.
The coup attempt might have been that moment. The shock of watching a political party descend into fascistic madness on live television very well could have been a rock-bottom from which some might have recoiled and repented, or at least retreated for a time. But the Republican Party is not a political party. Devoid of actual principles and obsessed with power and profit, it is a public relations front for the wealthiest individuals in the world and anything approaching actual politics is merely a smokescreen for the dismantling of government as a public good and democracy in totality.
Taylor Greene and Gaetz are a new breed cut from the same cloth as Donald Trump. They are walking, talking, reality-distortion fields who sell custom-made conspiracy theories to their voters, shifting and manipulating reality to the liking of people who support coups but are terrified to acknowledge their own anti-democratic tendencies. Taylor Greene does it simply as her own brand. Gaetz is sprinting like a madman from some of the most disturbing charges a sitting congressman has ever faced. Their shamelessness, and insistence on never stopping, never pausing, but always doubling-down, is the force and destruction that this commission and every other political project for the foreseeable future must counteract.
And what is at stake?
Already, Trump has joined them in doubling-down. Depending on the day, his comments on January 6th are either confusingly marked by contradictory ideas of righteousness and conspiracy. Either the attackers were vindicated in their attack - trying to defend against a “stolen election” - or set up by forces beyond their control. The most disturbing element, however, has been Trump’s pushing of the newly-minted martyrdom of 35 year old Ashli Babbitt, a veteran who was shot as she broke into the Capitol.
Watching Babbitt be transformed into a fascistic martyr is among the most troubling things I’ve seen in my work. This momentum began with Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17 year old Illinois resident, who killed two in Kenosha, Wisconsin during the Black Lives Matter protest movement, and the gathering support among the Right following those tragedies. The appeals made by the GOP and the constellation of Right Wing media ventures had effectively radicalized their base, telling them a story in which preemptive violence wasn’t just an option but necessary lest they and their family members be replaced or murdered.
Narratives are unfathomably powerful and determine the course of history. Convince enough people of a story and, no matter how outlandish or strange it might be, it suddenly becomes reality. The battle of the moment is not just effectively prosecuting the people who attempted the coup of January 6th, but righting the record of what actually happened that day. Democrats and Republicans of conscience (what few remain) have a duty to provide a fuller narrative, a horrific narrative, a narrative that serves as an effective record of what this was and what it meant. Only by framing the events of January 6th as a murderous attempt to overthrow the government of the United States of America, possibly a precursor to some future success, can the narrative being spun by grifters like Taylor Greene, Gaetz, and Trump, a narrative that turns this coup attempt into a noble and necessary mission, can the damage be undone.
Already we are seeing the consequences of our inability to reckon with the horrors of January 6th. By turning away, by placing our attention elsewhere, by allowing those who worship the status quo or simply have financial and political incentive to look the other way, and by giving room to the dangerous Right which inspired the coup and will do it again, we are ensuring that it will happen again. That room, coupled with martyrdom, collective stories and narrative and purpose, will turn the chaotic moment of January 6th into a crusade the likes of which define fascist movements.
We’re already down the road a-ways. It’s past time to pause, take a breath, and take a long, hard look at where we’ve been and where we’re heading.