On 2nd anniversary of Jan. 6, Trump’s disciples succeed in shutting down the Capitol
At least on Jan. 6, 2021, the insurrectionists on Capitol Hill had to push aside some flimsy metal barricades before they could carry out their assault on the seat of U.S. governance. Nearly two years later, the 20 or so GOP heirs to the toxic legacy of their patron saint, Donald Trump, didn’t even have to pass through metal detectors to bring the U.S. House of Representatives to a longer and probably more damaging shutdown than Trump’s failed coup.
It’s way too fitting that — in a moment of a historic leadership vacuum — no one even knows exactly who ordered this week’s removal of the magnetometers meant to provide an added layer of security in the days after 2021′s violent assault, which left scores of wounded cops and resulted in at least five deaths. For now, the only harm is symbolic. Metal detectors, after all, might catch the flagpoles or fire extinguishers that disorganized yahoos used to shut down Congress for 10 hours in that first uprising. But we don’t yet have the technology to detect what has now paralyzed Washington for three days and counting in 2023: toxic narcissism.
In an alternate timeline, the news in this foggy first week of the new year might be dominated by anniversary journalism, about what we’ve learned since the shock of Jan. 6, 2021, to prevent something like that from ever happening again. Instead, America is again transfixed by utter chaos echoing across those exact same marble corridors of the U.S. Capitol. The only difference is that in this new national horror show, the calls are coming from inside the House. We can’t move on, let alone learn, from 2021′s insurrection when that uprising — crippling our government in the name of celebrity fascism — never ended.
As I write this on Thursday morning, Rep. Kevin McCarthy — the leader of 90% of House Republicans, who hold a slim 222-212 vote majority after 2022′s midterms — has failed so far in six votes to become House speaker, and it’s not clear what will break the gridlock caused by GOP obstructionists. It’s been fun to mock the nakedly ambitious, 40-watt Californian losing again and again like the 1972-73 76ers, but the damage that this pointless exercise is causing to the American Experiment is no laughing matter. With each failed vote, it gets harder to imagine this gang that couldn’t shoot straight passing a budget, or raising the debt ceiling, or dealing with a Ukraine-level crisis.
How did we get here?: There’s no denying that the roots of this crisis go back decades, probably to the day in the late 1980s when a back-bench congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich realized that the C-SPAN camera lens was a quicker path to power than the drudgery of committee work and building seniority. But the Jan. 6 anniversary is the perfect moment to look at how Trump, and his desperate efforts to stay in the White House after losing the 2020 election to President Joe Biden, put America on the straight line that has led to today’s meltdown on Capitol Hill and the comatose state of U.S. governance.
It was Trump, after all, who took the modern-era of screen-driven, amusing-ourselves-to-death politics to its logical end point. To merge reality TV and grievance politics into a machine that ultimately fueled just one thing: his own ego. In TrumpWorld, views on moral issues such as abortion or even party ID were always fungible, but the pursuit of ratings, and a pathological fear of losing, remained constant.
When Trump ran for reelection in the summer of 2020, the Republican National Convention didn’t even bother to adopt a platform, because there was really no policy beyond the continuation of Trump. When Biden defeated him soundly in the Electoral College and by 7 million popular votes, Trump brought in lawyers and schemers and finally Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, not because of any important direction he wanted to lead America by 2025, but because his ego would not allow him to concede.
“I don’t want people to know we lost, Mark. This is embarrassing,” Trump told his top aide Mark Meadows, according to testimony by Meadows’ aide Cassidy Hutchinson. “Figure it out.” What they figured out involved a full-frontal assault on the American tradition of peacefully transferring power. People died from what they figured out.
As the American legal system slowly and methodically works through the foot soldiers of the Jan. 6 assault, Trump and his high-level co-conspirators still have yet to experience any meaningful consequences. Ditto the 139 House members and eight senators who voted without evidence to disqualify my 2020 vote cast in Pennsylvania, and the votes of millions of others, on Jan. 6, 2021 — even before the blood had been wiped off the Capitol marble.
It’s hardly a shock that among the 20 Republicans currently blocking McCarthy and the launch of the 118th Congress, 14 of the 15 who were in office in January 2021 voted against certifying Biden’s victory (as did every Republican who received votes for speaker this week, including McCarthy). The New York Times reports that 12 of the 20 are hard-core deniers of the 2020 result; some 17 of the 20 were endorsed by Trump in the midterms. Thus, it’s even less surprising that the values of the Jan. 6 coup — ego, nihilism, minority rule and contempt for the democratic ideals of governance — are identical to the themes of the anti-McCarthy insurrection.
Today’s insurrectionists are the spoiled children of Trumpism — stars of their own soiled reality shows, lacking in a single idea beyond “owning the libs” and booking their next cable TV hit. Their pre-Congress resumés are larded not with public service but, as noted by The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg, with highlights like "Shark Tank" contestant or swimsuit-model turned right-wing firebrand, “creating brands as much as political careers.” And like most ungrateful brats, now they’ve stopped listening to their befuddled old “dad.”
Enabler and victim: This ragged posse’s objections to McCarthy are not tied to any grand ambitions — not even today’s warped conservative priorities, such as stopping anti-racism education — beyond power and attention and a love of narcissism. The supposed concessions sought by the anti-McCarthy voters have little meaning beyond granting these insurrectionists the power to shut down Congress, Jan. 6-style, again and again and again. But why even accept concessions, when this nihilistic stalemate can get wackadoodles like Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert on TV every night?
One of the ironies in this remarkable week — and there have been so many — is that McCarthy has proved to be both an enabler of Jan. 6 and its ongoing zeitgeist, yet also its victim. If the spineless Californian had followed his basic instincts in the hours following the insurrection — when he blamed the violence on POTUS 45 and claimed to colleagues he would ask Trump to resign, stating “I’ve had it with this guy” — he might have become a leader. Instead, McCarthy flew to Mar-a-Lago just weeks later to lick the boots of the failed coup leader and then empowered the most extreme members of his caucus. Instead of cutting out the cancer that was revealed two years ago this week, he allowed it to metastasize and strangle the chamber he wished so pathetically to lead.
But McCarthy is also just the avatar of a much broader national failure to come to terms with what actually happened on Jan. 6, 2021. So far, dozens of the “little fish” of the Capitol Hill insurrection have been charged with obstructing an official proceeding of the U.S. government, but not Trump or his fellow plotters. No wonder the 20 worst members of Congress are obstructing the official proceedings of government today. Until the leaders of an honest-to-goodness coup — and a deadly one at that — against the American system are brought to justice, D.C. will be observing Groundhog’s Day on Jan. 6 instead of Feb. 2.
I’m getting too numb from the last eight years to remember if it was Groucho or Karl Marx who said that history begins as tragedy and repeats as farce. Over these two years, we’ve watched the violent tragedy of one January morph into this January’s farce, yet it’s the current farce that has brought the nation to a standstill and elevated the power of the extreme right. Until there is actual accountability for what really happened on Jan. 6, 2021, America’s calendar will remain stuck on that date, which will live in infamy.
— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.