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WASHINGTON — What if you attempted a coup but people were unwilling to wrap their heads around what you had done?
A year after Jan. 6, 2021, that is the peculiar situation in which Donald Trump finds himself. Instead of being carted off in handcuffs for inciting an insurrection against the United States, or even just being banished from federal office for life by the Senate, the former president instead remains the leader of one of the two major political parties and is openly considering another run for the White House in 2024.
Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council analyst in the Trump White House, was among the first to call what Trump tried a “coup,” just five days afterward, writing in an essay: “I’ve been studying authoritarian regimes for three decades, and I know the signs of a coup when I see them.”
Eleven months later, she is appalled that most Americans still are unable to grasp how close they came to losing their democracy.
“A total failure of imagination. This was a coup. It still is. It’s ongoing,” she said of Trump’s continued attempts to delegitimize Democrat Joe Biden’s election win and return to power. “If we were looking at this overseas, we would say: Absolutely, that’s what it was.”
Jonathan Weiler, a University of North Carolina political scientist and co-author of “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics,” said he can appreciate the desire of many Americans to ignore politics for a while, after four years of Trump’s endless, self-created crises. “A natural and self-protective need we have to take our foot off the gas sometimes,” he said. “We can only be revved up for so long.”
For their part, Trump allies describe Jan. 6 as a protest that got out of hand, that never had a coherent plan to reverse the election results, and no coordination with Trump or his staff. They ridicule the use of the word “coup” to describe the horde of Trump’s followers who wandered the building taking selfies, arguing that such a group was not remotely capable of bringing down the government.
That characterization, though, ignores the larger context of the day and the weeks leading up to it. Trump had, in fact, explored hanging on to power by ordering the National Guard to seize voting equipment in states Biden had won and ordering new elections, but had opted against it when many of his top staff, including the White House counsel, threatened to resign en masse. Top military officials had months earlier made clear they would not participate in any of his election-related schemes.
Trump had only his ragtag group of rally goers at his disposal, interspersed with right-wing militia members, out of necessity, not choice. His last-ditch attempt to intimidate his own vice president and Congress into rejecting the election results and reinstalling him for a second term was his only option left after Mike Pence refused his entreaties to do so willingly.
Also unstated is what might have happened if Trump had had a vice president and military leaders more loyal to him personally — former chief of staff Mark Meadows, say, and retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn — than to the Constitution.
Rick Tyler, a GOP consultant who worked on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 bid for the Republican nomination, said the country was fortunate Trump was so inept in pulling it off.
“I now believe if someone clever enough and competent were to attempt autocratic rule, far too many would go along,” he said. “I don’t believe the left is immune to the same phenomenon of a seductive, charismatic leader. In fact, I have no doubt Trump could have won had he run as a Democrat.”
What Trump has been able to do with his coup attempt follows a pattern of formerly beyond-the-pale conduct that he, by doing it out in the open or even bragging about it, has been able to effectively “normalize.”
In 2016, Trump publicly called for Russia to help him obtain Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails — which Russian spy agencies quickly set about trying to obtain. Later in the campaign, Trump on a daily basis used information stolen for him by Russian spy agencies, even though he knew it had been stolen by Russian spy agencies.
Over the next two years, Trump openly obstructed the FBI investigation into that conduct — even admitting that he fired the FBI director to quash the probe. The 2019 report by special counsel Robert Mueller detailed this, but Trump suffered no consequences.
And even before Mueller had released that report, Trump was already working to extort the new president of Ukraine into publicly smearing the 2020 Democratic opponent he feared most, using $391 million in U.S. military aid as leverage.
When the scheme was exposed, Trump denied there was anything improper about it. He even claimed, repeatedly, that his phone call with the Ukrainian leader during which he made that request directly was nevertheless “perfect.”
“There was nothing perfect about it at all, was there?” said Hill, who testified about Trump’s actions during his first impeachment. “By putting it out in plain sight, he normalizes it ... His idea is that everybody else does it all the time.”
Trump, after initially claiming that any violence on Jan. 6 had been perpetrated by “antifa” or Black Lives Matter activists, soon came around to describing that day’s events as perfect, as well. He now asserts that the real “insurrection” occurred on election day, and Jan. 6 was merely the justifiable protest of “fraud,” and that his supporters are being unfairly “persecuted” for taking part in the assault.
And polling through much of 2021 showed that he has largely succeeded in delegitimizing Biden’s win, at least among Republicans, who by nearly two-to-one margins say that Trump had his reelection stolen from him.
“A lot of them truly believe that Jan. 6 wasn’t an attempt to overthrow the results of a free and fair and election and that Democrats are somehow the greater threat to democracy,” said Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Columbia University and author of “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe.”
As Trump and his allies worked to minimize Jan. 6, they largely have had the acquiescence of the national political media. Just one year after the attack, articles and broadcast pieces about Trump rarely mention his attempt to overthrow democracy in his effort to remain in power, and instead treat him as any other potential presidential candidate for 2024.
“There’s this normalization effect that we saw throughout the Trump candidacy and the Trump presidency,” said Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist at The Washington Post. She cited factors ranging from reporters’ fear of losing access to Republicans, including Trump himself, to a fear of being accused of bias. “I don’t know how you normalize an insurrection attempt, yet that’s what happening.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University, sees even the grudging use of the word “insurrection” as inadequate. “It is interesting to me that so many news outlets and commentators still only call it an ‘insurrection,’ which does not express the political design to take control of the government and stay there, in the authoritarian fashion,” she said.
Trump’s defenders typically also elide over Trump’s intentions for that day, focusing instead on the end result, which is that no coup occurred and election winner Biden was sworn into office as scheduled two weeks later.
Sullivan said her discussions with top news organizations found a similar rationale for avoiding more coverage of Trump’s unprecedented actions: that it did not succeed.
“I don’t think it’s a very good answer,” she said.
Downplaying Jan. 6, or even memory-holing it entirely, meanwhile, quickly became the consensus strategy for the Republican Party across the country. Elected GOP officials, with rare exceptions, have from the very start gone along with and defended Trump, despite his key role in drawing his followers to the city on that particular day and then urging them to march on the Capitol at the appointed hour.
Even with tear gas still in the air and blood stains on the marble the night of Jan. 6, 147 Republican members of Congress — including a full two-thirds of the House GOP caucus — voted to throw out election results from states Biden had won in an attempt to return Trump to office.
The following morning, when Trump called into a Republican National Committee meeting in Florida, he was rewarded with a long ovation from members. Neither the RNC nor its chair, Ronna McDaniel, has to this day criticized Trump for his actions leading into and on Jan. 6. And as Trump continues to lie about the election results, the RNC has encouraged him by calling “election integrity” a top issue for 2022.
And the two top Republican leaders in Congress, after initially criticizing Trump for causing the Capitol assault, have both dropped that message. Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, despite excoriating Trump on the floor of the chamber, nevertheless voted to acquit him on the impeachment charges that could have banned him from federal office for the rest of his life. And House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, has gone even further, fully embracing Trump with a pilgrimage to his Palm Beach, Florida, social club just 22 days after pleading with him on the phone to call off his mob.
Had those two, particularly, continued their criticism of Trump’s behavior, Sullivan said, it would have given both lower-ranking Republicans as well as journalists worried about losing access the space to accurately describe what happened on Jan. 6.
“Absolutely,” she said. “But it didn’t happen that way.”
An Autocracy-Curious Slice Of The Populace
The failure of political leaders and the news media to make Trump’s Jan. 6 actions a bigger deal, however, is intertwined with the lack of interest by the populace as a whole.
While most Americans saw the assault on the Capitol as a dangerous moment for the country in the days immediately following, those views have faded over time, to the point where safeguarding democracy and preventing another Jan. 6 barely registers as a top issue at all.
In a December Wall Street Journal poll, the top-ranking issue for respondents was immigration, with 13% saying nothing else was more important. The economy was second, at 11%. Trump’s actions of Jan. 6 — rolled into the broader category of “anti-right-wing ideology” — came in 17th place, with just 2% of Americans calling it the most important issue facing the country. “Race issues,” government spending and infrastructure all placed higher.
“For the most part, Americans have put Jan. 6 in their rearview mirrors,” said Neil Newhouse, a longtime GOP pollster. “There is probably little chance that ‘new’ news coming out of the investigation is going to change anyone’s mind.”
Norm Eisen, an Obama White House lawyer who worked on the House’s first impeachment of Trump, said other polling, though, suggests that democracy is on safer ground. He pointed to a November poll showing that just 18% of Americans believe that violence by “American patriots” is justified to “save our country,” and that even among Republicans, that figure is only 30%.
He said that Americans overall would likely start paying closer attention to Trump’s Jan. 6 role when the House committee and federal prosecutors investigating it as well as Georgia prosecutors looking at Trump’s attempt to overturn his loss there begin releasing more of their findings.
“We’re still in mid-stream in the multidimensional effort to achieve accountability for the attack on the election and the insurrection,” Eisen said. “We need to let those play out.”
Political scientists, particularly those who study authoritarianism, are far less sanguine. They point to research over the years showing that between a quarter and a third of Americans have long been prepared to give up democracy in return for a leader who “gets things done.” Trump was merely the first American president willing to make an overt attempt to take advantage of that predeliction to remain in office despite losing his election, they said.
“To many Americans the ‘legitimacy’ of an election is not a matter of whether it was conducted in a free and fair manner, but rather, whether it delivered the ‘correct’ outcome,” said Karen Stenner, author of “The Authoritarian Dynamic,” a 2005 work that warned that Western liberal democracies were at risk from would-be autocrats in an era of rapid demographic changes.
She said her research finds that a full 50% of the country’s right-of-center voters can be classified as open to authoritarianism. “To them this idea of the ‘stolen’ election is not a ‘Big Lie,’ but instead a kind of higher truth, about who America really belongs to.”
Hill, the former NSC analyst, said she saw the same phenomenon in her native England, particularly in economically depressed areas, where people were less interested in the ideals of self-government than the reality of their personal poverty and hopelessness. “People get frustrated that nothing gets done,” she said.
Americans in similar circumstances saw in Trump a potential savior. “They had a lot of hope that Trump was going to cut through the crap and get things done because he was a businessman,” she said. “They’re just seeing all the things that aren’t working.”
She said she worries that Trump, despite all that he did to overthrow the republic a year ago, could nevertheless use his hold over those same people ― whom he has successfully trained to repeat his lies about a “stolen” election ― to win the nomination and return to the White House in 2024.
Should that happen, she warned, that election could be America’s last: “It’s the end of representative democracy.”