My Report for the Jan. 6 Committee
Contributing to the Jan. 6 Committee's work was an honor and the highlight of my career
Welcome back to Lucid. It is the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. It will be a difficult day for many. Here is my essay on the traumatic legacy of that event.
Collaborating with the Jan. 6 Committee was an honor and the highlight of my career. I was interviewed twice and wrote a report on how Trump’s authoritarian-style presidency created a climate among the GOP and his grassroots followers that resulted in them assisting his attempt to overturn the election and participating in the violent insurrection he instigated.
Now that the Committee’s work has concluded and the documents relating to its investigation have been released, I can publish my report as well. I have reduced its length but have not changed anything else.
To the Members of the Committee, I am honored to present this analysis of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol through the lens of authoritarian dynamics. I am professor of history at New York University and an expert on fascism, propaganda, authoritarianism, and democracy protection.
I am the author, most recently, of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020, paperback with epilogue on Jan. 6., 2021), which is the first book to place Trump in the perspective of authoritarian history. I am also an MSNBC columnist, frequent television commentator, and an Advisor to Protect Democracy.
Trump's Strongman Presidency
Trump was able to radicalize the GOP, create an army of loyal grass-roots insurgents, and incite a violent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 because he was an autocratic, not democratic president. He differed from past heads of state of either party in having zero interest in public welfare or consensus politics. His goals were autocratic ones: amassing power, domesticating the GOP, and having his financial, legal, and other personal interests prevail over national ones in shaping domestic and foreign policy.
Trump's campaign and advisory circles included numerous individuals, like Steven Bannon, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, who had advised or worked for strongmen. "If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time," Trump told governors about responding to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, summing up his approach to governance.
While Trump's personality cult depicted him as infallible and omnipotent ("I alone can fix it") like all autocrats, he also played the victim of "witch hunts" by an ever-expanding roster of enemies. This victimhood ideology set the stage for his claims after Nov. 2020 that he was being cheated out of the presidency.
Trump repeatedly signaled from fall 2015 onward that he approved of physical violence as a method of dealing with protesters, including offering to pay their legal fees in case they were sued for violent acts. This intensive emotional retraining he gave his followers, emphasizing cruelty and physical conflict, helped prepare them to break taboos, such as when Republicans smashed the heads of members of law enforcement on Jan. 6.
The GOP, which has been Trump's partner and accomplice in the diffusion of an authoritarian political culture in America, was ready for a strongman leader. By the time Trump took office in 2017 the GOP was on the way to abandoning the values and practices of democracy, such as mutual tolerance (respect for the political opposition) and trust in government.
This is why Trump was able to quickly domesticate the GOP, controlling it completely by the time he lost the 2020 election. This entailed erasing any independent spark in party luminaries such as Kevin McCarthy (then House Majority Leader). McCarthy had worried in a June 2016 conversation with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan that Trump was on Putin's payroll, only to turn into a party apparatchik (as House Minority Leader) and keeper of the personality cult flame who voted in Congress 97.3% of the time in accordance with Trump’s wishes. In the leadup to Jan. 6, McCarthy expressed concerns privately about Trump's extremism while outwardly complying.
Authoritarian dynamics also help us make sense of Jan. 6 as a leader cult rescue operation carried out by the party faithful. Between Nov. 2020 and Jan. 6, doing Trump’s bidding to help him stay in office became the GOP's most important job --one that had lawmakers like Senator Mike Lee busy 14 hours a day.
Strongmen Don't Accept Defeat: Mobilizing the Faithful, Nov. 2020-Jan. 2021
Democratic heads of state often see their departures from office as an opportunity to build on their leadership legacy. The authoritarian regards the end of being adulated by followers and controlling state resources as an existential threat. It’s not surprising that most authoritarians leave office involuntarily.
Trump's attempts to stay in office are in this tradition. When major press outlets, Fox News included, called the election for Biden on November 7 and Trump refused to accept the results, a state of exception was created that lasted until Biden's January 20, 2021 inauguration.
Seeing this period through the lens of authoritarian history gives clarity and context to what, for America, was uncharted territory. The pardons of unscrupulous individuals like Michael Flynn set the stage for dangerous developments by creating a circle of hard-core loyalists willing to do anything to keep their leader in the White House.
Trump took from the menu of authoritarian actions in trying to stay in office illegally. Flynn was in charge of trying to get support for a military intervention to facilitate a re-run of the election. Trump also attempted the favorite 21st century despot trick of electoral manipulation, alleging extensive voter fraud and pressuring state officials, such as Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, to "find votes" sufficient to overturn the results.
By the end of 2020, with the armed forces and electoral options looking less viable, Trump's inner circle focused on the Electoral College certification of Biden's victory on January 6, and a "Stop the Steal" rally to be held near the Capitol that day. "Big protest in D.C. on January 6," Trump tweeted on December 19. "Be there, will be wild!"
Seen from the perspective of strongman history, Jan. 6 was a coup attempt (technically, a self-coup) by a sitting president who sought to interrupt the democratic process to remain in power illegally. Trump was not merely the instigator of the assault, but also its main intended beneficiary. The film shown at the rally paid homage to Trump's personality cult, and a close-up of his face lingered on screen as his supporters streamed to the Capitol.
It may be tempting to think of those who stormed the Capitol as outliers: scruffy anti-government militia types, fascist-worshipping Proud Boys, and others who fit the "extremist" stereotype. But over fifty retired and active-duty law enforcement, military, and government personnel, and 57 local and state GOP officials also attended the rally-- another testament to the party's complicity. The coup designation matters because January 6 was, in part, an inside job.
Legacies of Jan. 6 as a Radicalizing Event
Whether or not Trump runs for office in 2024, the time-tested methods of autocracy - electoral manipulation, voter suppression, the criminalization of protest, political violence, and disinformation designed to increase polarization - are now part of the way the GOP conducts its business as a far-right party.
Jan. 6 has now become a foundational event of a new GOP that defines itself around violence and lawlessness, both framed as the patriotic protection of American freedom. So, it's logical that the party would actively court individuals who participated in the Capitol assault to populate its leadership ranks. Dozens of Republicans who were either at the Capitol that day or breached it are now running for office, and at least 11 of them enjoy Trump's endorsement.
"Getting away with it" has been the essence of Trump's business and life philosophy, which he imported into politics. It is also the essence of authoritarianism and now a core value of the GOP. The work of the House Select Committee to bring the light of truth onto Jan. 6 is essential, and I am honored to contribute to its work.