'A Clear and Present Danger': What Jan. 6 Means For the Future of U.S. Democracy
The new details revealed by the committee augur ominously for 2024.
The political theorist Hannah Arendt understood how the destruction of democracy depended on alliances between elites and people who had fallen in social status, whom she called the mob. "The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability," she wrote in the 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Arendt's observation came to mind during the second week of the Jan. 6 hearings. The Committee revealed an unrelenting campaign by President Trump to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to reject the legitimate results of the 2020 election and declare Trump the victor. Pence rebuffed the pressure, infuriating Trump, who called him a "wimp" and a "pussy" on the morning of Jan. 6. At 2:24 p.m. on Jan. 6, Trump sent out a tweet that said, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”
Trump's supporters picked up the call. They had started to flood into the Capitol minutes before, chanting "hang Mike Pence." The Committee revealed that the mob was just 40 feet from Pence at one point. The Vice President spent nearly five hours inside the Capitol hiding from the rioters. A Proud Boys informant told the committee that they would have killed Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had they gotten the chance.
Trump rode to the presidency in 2016 by railing against "elites." But he was one too -- he had wealth, and subsequently, gained political power as president of the United States. In early 2021, he lost the election to Joe Biden; he had hundreds of millions of debt coming due, and his wealth largely depended on maintaining political power. (The $250 million he raised after the election illustrates the financial power of his presidency.) So, he clung to the lie of the stolen election. The committee revealed that he had been told on Jan. 4 that the plan to try to disrupt the counting of electoral votes was illegal -- but he tried to go ahead with it anyway. When Pence wouldn't do his bidding to try to stay in power, he turned to the mob to do it.
The details that the committee has revealed are extraordinary, adding to the knowledge of what happened on Jan. 6. But they are also not only important for the historical record. They are important for the future. At the hearing, conservative judge J. Michael Luttig warned that Trump and his supporters are "a clear and present danger to American democracy.” He added, "the former president and his allies and supporters pledge that in the presidential election of 2024, if the former president or his anointed successor as the Republican party presidential candidate were to lose that election, they would attempt to overturn that 2024 election in the same way that they attempted to overturn the 2020 election, but succeed in 2024 where they failed in 2020."
The lie of the stolen 2020 election has animated the campaigns of Republican candidates. According to the Washington Post, Republican primary voters have chosen at least 108 candidates who have repeated Trump's lies about widespread voter fraud. The number increases to 149 -- out of over 170 races -- when including those who have campaigned on tightening voting rules or more strictly enforcing existing laws. Republican voters have nominated election-denying candidates in swing states such as Nevada, Michigan, and Pennsylvania for "offices that will hold significant sway over the administration of the 2024 presidential election," the New York Times reported.
That Republican voters have nominated these people, of course, does not mean that they will win in the November general election. However, the slowing economy has given them a more favorable chance of doing so, as voters tend to punish the party in power in economic downturns. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 34 percent of Americans believed that inflation was the most urgent issue facing the nation. (The only other issue to reach double digits was gun violence at 17 percent.) 64 percent of respondents disapproved of President Joe Biden's handling of the economy. While Biden has said that a recession is "not inevitable," most economists think that the United States is headed for one.
Arendt wrote in Origins that totalitarianism thrives with loneliness, which "has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century." Nothing causes loneliness like a recession, with job losses and people's loss of social status. She was writing about the 1930s, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, aided by mass unemployment in the Great Depression. Trump is not Hitler and this economic downturn is unlikely to be as bad as the 1930s. But the United States is about to find out what happens when people who don't believe in elections vie for political power in an economic downturn. History suggests the future will be unstable.
Public Sphere is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.