The Question of January 6
What Really Happened?
What really happened on January 6 2021? In a sense, this newsletter started to answer that question. Not to answer it in terms of investigating facts, but in terms of its significance, what it really meant. My thesis was that it constituted a turning in American history and the future of American politics would hinge on the struggle over its legacy.
To try to understand it better, I turned to history. Unpopular Front began a couple weeks after January 6 and my first project was looking at the crises of the French Third Republic, which, in its fairly brief history, fended off several assaults from an anti-democratic, nationalist, and reactionary right, which undertook some farcical and failed coups and perhaps mortally wounded the republic in the process. I believed—and still believe, although it is considered unfashionable, overly earnest, and risibly alarmist—that the fascist or, at least, quasi-fascist character of Trumpism was clearly revealed on that day.
In the days directly after January 6th, I corresponded with Robert Paxton, one of the foremost scholars of fascism. Here’s what I wrote.—
Hope this finds you well in wild times. I was wondering if you thought after yesterday's events, the storming of the capitol, it makes more sense to apply the frame of fascism to the Trump phenomenon. While I don't think Trump personally is a fascist exactly, I think the presence of street fighting and paramilitaries as well as the bizarre, reality-denying propaganda he indulges in definitely makes fascism a relevant touchstone for understanding what's going on. I think another relevant context is the "proto-fascism" of the Third Republic—Boulanger and the anti-Dreyfusards etc. What do you think?
Here’s his reply.—
Thanks for your message. As you know I have been reluctant to use the F word for Trumpism, but yesterday's use of violence against democratic institutions crosses the red line.
There is a spookily close parallel with an event that occurred in the late French Third Republic - the attempt by right-wing militants to march on the Chambre des députés in the night of February 6, 1934. In the street fighting between police and marchers on the bridge that links the Place de la Concorde to the Chambre sixteen people were killed. That demonstration and the polarization that it reflected and deepened are often considered to mark the beginning of the process that led to the fall of the Republic and arrival of the Vichy regime. I couldn't help but think of that last evening as we watched the unbelievable images on TV.
I hope Trump can be removed from office either by impeachment or by application of the 25th amendment before he can do more harm, but I'm not very optimistic about that. So he has two more weeks to do terrible things. He is like a cornered animal, for he knows that all sorts of financial, fiscal, and legal troubles await him the moment he becomes a private citizen.
In the intervening years, January 6 faded a little into the background. There seem to be more pressing crises. It was an event that, in some sense, didn’t happen: whatever else it was, it clearly was a failure, a debacle, even a farce. And what can be really said of a nothing? But the unclearness of the event, our attempts to forget it or minimize it, followed by the fierce contestation of its meaning, suggest to me that it was, to employ a regrettably overused term these days, a national trauma. And as with any traumatic event, there is a struggle to reintegrate into its proper place in our symbolic order: Should we laugh at it? Should we mourn? Should we spring into furious action? Should we speak of it with exaggerated reverence? Should we pay it no mind? And what do we even call it? What general category of thing was it? We can only agree on the date: January 6th. Everything else about it is up for debate: was it an insurrection? A coup attempt? A riot? Just a demonstration that got out of hand? Or, was it really nothing much at all, blown out of proportion by liberal hysterics? It is still difficult to take its proper measure.
The question of January 6th has reentered public debate with considerable urgency with the exclusion of Trump from the ballot in two states. This is based on a definition of that day as an “insurrection” according to the text of the 14th Amendment. Now the Supreme Court will soon weigh on the nature of January 6th. This has also lead to a meta debate over whether to procedurally restrict Trump’s participation in the election is substantively democratic or undemocratic. Should we not just decide this all at the polls? I’ve long believed we should just throw the book at Trump and let the chips fall where they may. I believed only cowardice or prevarication or overthinking prevent us from treating Trump as the criminal he is. But I can hear and appreciate the counter-arguments now: won’t this just further tarnish the legitimacy of our institutions in the eyes of an already distrustful public? Perhaps. The question of January 6 is the question of democracy itself: Were we ever really one? How much longer will we remain one? And in our attempts to remain one, will we, with tragic irony, cease to be one?
Those questions are hard ones and concern an unknowable future, but here is what I think is indisputable and simple: On January 6 Trump fully revealed himself to be as someone who had the will to destroy the democratic republic even if he didn’t have the means. He attempted to subvert the republic’s constitution and laws and he defied the democracy’s will as expressed in the vote. He lost, both constitutionally and popularly. In terms of the American form of government, he had no leg to stand on: neither legality nor legitimacy. But he attempted to remain in office with the use of violence. That he failed is immaterial. The simple fact is that he wanted to put an end to this country as we know it.
The people who celebrate it admit as much: they openly talk about “Caesarism.” So, they want a Caesar not a President. That is just not the American form of government. Also un-American is the notion that Trump, as he himself declared on January 6th, represents some force of history that must be obeyed, or some deeper essence of the American volk that must be expressed, that he is the avatar of the “Real People” no matter what the laws and votes might say, and that frustrating him is in effect frustrating “the greatest movement in history,” to use Trump’s words. That is not a democratic or a republican idea: it is quite simply fascist. Mussolini said and thought the same sorts of things, as did Hitler. And it does not matter if you clamor for it or ruefully reflect that is may just be our fate in this benighted era, it comes down to the the acceptance of a fascist mentality, even if adopted in a tragic or nihilistic key.
From a certain perspective, the critics who say that talking about fascism takes Trump too seriously are correct: it involves too much hocus-pocus, it cloaks him in a certain dark grandeur, and gives everything a Spenglerian gloom that makes him seem bigger than he is. After all, he’s just a crook and a conman, an idiot. But the phoniness, the bombast, and the ridiculousness was a part of the original thing, too. There has always been a deeply moronic side to fascism: Fascism is perhaps most fundamentally a moron putting on world-historical airs. “Morons trying to make history” — what better way to describe January 6? The second biggest mistake is to take it too seriously. But the first biggest mistake is to not take it seriously enough.