On January 6, 2021, Mike Pence presided over a constitutionally mandated joint session of Congress to count the electoral votes. The Trump-Pence campaign disputed the 2020 results in election contests and in court, but by January 6, the legal options were exhausted. Each state government sent only a single slate of electors to be counted.
Under our Constitution and laws, nothing remained but to count the votes. Instead, an angry mob descended upon the Capitol to prevent that from happening. This will, and should, be remembered as a stain on the nation’s history.
There is no defense for what the mob did that day. None. The people have a right to form loud, angry crowds to petition and protest their government. They need not do so in ways that are pleasant or polite. The “Stop the Steal” protesters who listened to the speeches and went home were exercising their rights as citizens.
But ours is a government of laws, not of men. A rule-of-law system has no place for physical intimidation or mobs obstructing the peaceful, constitutional transfer of power. The Founding Fathers feared few things more than mob rule. They created a federal district to avoid a repeat of a 1783 riot around the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
There is also no defense of what Donald Trump did to summon the crowd, tell it that there remained any option but counting Biden’s electoral victory, and urge the assemblage to march on the Capitol because “if we allow this group of people to illegally take over our country . . . you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump’s recklessness disgraced the office of the presidency.
Additionally, there is no defense of Trump’s pressuring Pence to take unilateral, unlawful action against the counting of electoral votes, then telling the crowd that Pence might do so, knowing full well that they would discover when they reached the Capitol that Pence would not. Some of them, entering the Capitol, chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.” It was Trump who led them to believe that his own vice president was allowing their country to be stolen.
For that matter, there is no defense of Trump’s prolonging the election contest far beyond the point of plausibility, spreading blatant lies about the election, and pressuring state legislators and governors to usurp their states’ popular votes and certify electors not chosen by the people.
What happened at the Capitol that day is best understood as a riot that was particularly dangerous because of its setting and context. It was not a purely peaceful protest, or a cartoonish costume party with a little bit of trespassing. The Secret Service had to rush Pence to safety. Members of Congress emptied the chamber and fled for cover. The vote-counting process was interrupted for five and a half hours. The Capitol itself was wreathed in smoke. This is the stuff of a banana republic.
January 6 was a day shrouded in tragedy. Four of the protesters died, including one woman who was shot by Capitol Police while she was breaking through a door at the head of a screaming mob, and a 42-year-old Capitol Police officer who was pepper-sprayed had a pair of fatal strokes just eight hours later. Even if not all these deaths are directly attributable to the riot, the mayhem that day has been documented on video — people being stomped on, one officer being beaten with an American flagpole, rioters crushing one police officer in a door. The violence is why, of the more than 700 people who have been arrested, over 200 have been charged with assault or resisting arrest, including scores charged with assaulting police with dangerous weapons (mainly toxic sprays). Police officials report that 140 officers suffered injuries including bad cuts and bruises, burns, and broken bones. There was also damage to the Capitol that was estimated to exceed $1 million.
Defenders of Trump and apologists for the riot argue that the events of January 6 did not emerge out of nowhere. It is true that past Democratic misconduct helped to set the stage for the riot, but that does not exonerate Trump or the rioters.
For two decades, prominent Democrats have attacked the legitimacy of American elections. They claimed that the 2000 election was stolen from Al Gore. They indulged ridiculous fantasies about Ohio being stolen in 2004, resulting in dozens of Democratic members of Congress objecting to counting its electoral votes. Many of those Democrats are now powerful committee chairs, including the chair of the committee investigating January 6. Violent protests marred Trump’s inauguration, and leading Democrats denounced him as illegitimate. Polls showed that supermajorities of Democratic voters believed that Russian hackers stole the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton, and she has given every indication that she shares that view. In 2018, Stacey Abrams was anointed a hero by her party for refusing to accept the legitimacy of her loss of a governor’s race. It would have been wrong for Trump to emulate this behavior; but he went well beyond what even the most reckless Democrat has done in contesting an election.
Left-wing mobs have targeted the workings of government, for example overwhelming the Wisconsin state capitol in 2011 to protest Scott Walker’s union-dues bill. Republican legislators had to be evacuated by police, as Democratic legislators egged on the mob. In 2018, protesters repeatedly disrupted the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, chased Republican senators down hallways and into elevators, accosted them in restaurants, and broke through Capitol barricades, resulting in hundreds of arrests. Law enforcement was unduly lax in punishing these offenses against democratic self-government.
In the summer of 2020, riots convulsed many American cities with courthouses and businesses burned and police assaulted. Democratic politicians pandered shamefully to the rioters and in many cases went easy on prosecuting them. Media outlets expressed horror at deploying police and the National Guard to restore order. The conflict between the Trump administration and D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser over the summer of 2020 seems to have contributed particularly to the sluggish response to the Capitol riot. There is significant force to the claim that Democrats have forged a two-tiered justice system in which the radical Left gets a comparative pass for politically motivated violence. But then, two wrongs do not make a right.
The January 6 anniversary calls for serious reflection on how it happened and why it failed. Unfortunately, Democratic politicians and their media allies prefer hysteria, hyperbole, and crass opportunism.
Democrats intend to use the January 6 anniversary to pressure two of their own senators (Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) to join them in abolishing the filibuster for the purpose of enabling a federal takeover of voting and elections, the suppression of political speech, and radical reform of everything from congressional districts to judicial ethics. This is cynical politics. If they were serious, they would instead focus on reforming the Electoral Count Act.
The New York Times editorializes that “Every Day Is Jan. 6 Now,” and one of its columnists argues that Democrats should “Wave the ‘Bloody Shirt’ of Jan. 6” as Republicans did against Democrats after the Civil War — as if this compares to a four-year war in which 3 million Americans served and 750,000 died. Other opportunists (including Joe Biden) call the riot the “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War” or say it is comparable to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. CNN and other cable news obsessives plan wall-to-wall coverage of the anniversary in order to inflate its importance and help Democrats wave that bloody shirt.
This is a loss of perspective. In 1915, a former Harvard professor set off a bomb at the Capitol and shot J. P. Morgan, Jr. In 1954, five congressmen were shot by Puerto Rican nationalists in the House chamber. In the early 1970s, the left-wing Weather Underground set off bombs at the Capitol, the Pentagon, and the State Department. In 1983–84, the Communist group M19 bombed the Capitol, an FBI office, and Fort McNair and the Navy Yard in D.C. In 2001, 3,000 people died on 9/11, air travel was grounded across the country, the president was shuttled to a secure location, and a wing of the Pentagon was destroyed. In 2017, a gun-toting Bernie Sanders supporter attempted to massacre Republican congressmen at a baseball practice, gravely wounding Steve Scalise, the Republican House whip.
America has the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. Our system has outlasted many others because we distribute power that is centralized in other nations and bounded by rule-of-law norms. Though the riot was heinous, it was not an existential threat — the electoral votes were going to be counted and Biden acknowledged as the winner, an eventuality that was delayed by a few hours but never in doubt.
Power to overturn the vote counts did not lie in one man or one city; it was spread out among state legislatures, governor’s mansions, state and local elections officers, the vice presidency, Congress, and the courts, beyond the reach of a single Parisian-style mob. Over and over again, Republicans in those positions turned away Trump’s pressure — but the burden never lay on a single pair of shoulders. By contrast, the Republicans in Congress who shamefully supported the objections to Biden’s election mostly did so in the same fashion as the Democrats who objected to prior presidential elections — secure in the knowledge that they were participating in a cynical stunt and would be saved from the consequences of their actions by others.
Many of the January 6 opportunists on the left want to respond by enacting centralizing changes to the American system. But in January 2022, as in January 2021, we should mistrust anyone who says we won’t have a country if we let the system work as it always has. America works, and its system should not be burned down in the name of saving it.