A Premeditated Attack on the Republic
The Capitol siege was a terrible, shameful day for the Republic—truly yet another day of infamy. A month later, we are getting a clearer picture of just how bad it was, how much worse it could have been, and how much damage has been done to America’s institutions at home and image abroad.
As a right-wing mob rampaged through the Capitol, some tried to rationalize the enormity of what had happened by noting that left-wing mobs rampaged through our cities last summer. “Where was the shock and outrage then?” they asked, resorting to lazy whataboutism to somehow excuse what had happened.
The answer is that most Americans were indeed shocked and outraged then, just as they were on January 6. Lawlessness has that effect on the law-abiding. By definition, all rioters are lawless. All rioters should be prosecuted and punished. But all rioters are not the same. The rioters who rumble through a city after the NBA Finals or the Super Bowl are not as dangerous or threatening as the rioters who loot a shopping center. And those rioters are not as dangerous or threatening as the rioters who throw Molotov cocktails. And those rioters are not as dangerous or threatening as the rioters who breached the walls and security cordons of the Capitol building, prevented duly elected officials from confirming the results of a presidential election, endangered and targeted four people in the presidential line of succession, and thus attempted what amounts to a coup.
In short, the Capitol siege was fundamentally different and worse precisely because of the target and objective of the rioters. They didn’t just destroy property or tear down statues; they didn’t just engage in violence and mayhem. They assaulted a symbol of the Republic, representatives of the Republic and institutions of the Republic. As the Joint Chiefs noted in a message to the entire military: “The violent riot in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, was a direct assault on the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building and our constitutional process.” It’s a sad sign of the times that such a message had to be issued.
If there’s any doubt about the objectives of those who spearheaded the January 6 siege, consider what the insurrectionists—or if you prefer putschists—were wearing and wielding: helmets, body armor, flex cuffs, handguns, electrical-pulse tasers, bear spray, lead pipes, brass knuckles, knives, spears, baseball bats, wrenches, semiautomatic weapons and Molotov cocktails. Not far from the Capitol, pipe bombs were discovered outside the offices of the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee. A truck parked across the street from the RNC and DNC offices “contained rifles and shotguns and a mass of ammunition,” as the Washington Post reported. Also discovered near the Capitol were mason jars filled with homemade napalm.
Add it all up, and this was not a peaceful protest that got out of control. This was a premeditated attack on America’s seat of government and an attempt to prevent Congress from approving the electoral votes as presented and certified by the states. That’s why it was so important that Congress reconvene to fulfill its duty, as key lawmakers understood instinctively.
“As we reconvene in this chamber, the world will again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy, for even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism at this Capitol, the elected representatives of the people of the United States have assembled again on the very same day to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Vice President Mike Pence intoned. “Let’s get back to work.”
“Today, a shameful assault was made on our democracy. It cannot, however, deter us from our responsibility to validate the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “We must—and we will—show to the country, and indeed, to the world, that we will not be diverted from our duty.”
“The United States Senate will not be intimidated,” added then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We will not bow to lawlessness or intimidation. We are back at our posts. We will discharge our duty under the Constitution for our nation…The United States and the United States Congress have faced down much greater threats than the unhinged crowd we saw today. We have never been deterred before, and we will not be deterred today. They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed.”
We should be thankful for that. Even so, this day of infamy has scrambled how our children understand and view America, scarred our collective memory, created unbridgeable divides within Congress, and emboldened our enemies abroad.
“The world is watching,” as President Joe Biden said in his remarks on January 6. Indeed, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin—insidiously and skillfully spreading disinformation all across the West for almost a decade now—will replay the images of chaos in America’s seat of government to fuel their assault on liberal democracy and strengthen their case for business-suit autocracy.
Pointing to the “political coup…in the American continent,” one PRC state media outlet howls, “Bubbles of ‘democracy and freedom’ have burst.” China’s foreign ministry went so far as to mockingly suggest “the beacon has fallen,” a backhand at America’s self-styled title of “beacon of democracy.”
Reading from the same playbook, Leonid Slutsky, who chairs the Russian Duma’s international affairs committee, concluded, “The United States certainly cannot now impose electoral standards on other countries and claim to be the world’s ‘beacon of democracy.’”
Xi and Putin’s targets are not only their own publics, but also groups within liberal democracies that are disenchanted with this form of government and tired of the burdens of compromise; peoples in the developing world trying to plot a course away from authoritarianism; leaders torn between clinging to power and surrendering it peacefully; emerging democracies wanting to transition from simply holding free elections to building durable liberal institutions.
Consider the reaction of Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine’s nascent and beleaguered democracy. “I could not even imagine something like this was possible in the United States of America,” he said. “After something like this, I believe it would be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy in the world.”
In short, January 6 distorted our image and weakened our witness overseas. Biden said as much in his inaugural address, in which he vowed to work “to restore the soul and secure the future of America,” warned “those beyond our borders” that “America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it,” and vowed that America will “lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.’
Indeed, it pays to recall that just 14 days earlier, on the very spot where Biden said those words and took the oath of his office, a mob had launched a violent insurrection against the constitutional order. But the mob failed, reminding the American people that what was true in 1794 and 1861 and 2001, remains true today: America’s Republic is stronger than those who rebel against it or assault it.
Still, Zelensky’s observation that it will “be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy” suggests that we have much work to do overseas if we hope to repair the self-inflicted damage of January 6. “The power of our example” has been badly weakened.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.