“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Donald Trump tweeted before Christmas. “Be there, will be wild!” On New Year’s Day, he tweeted again: “The BIG Protest Rally in Washington, D.C. will take place at 11:00 A.M. on January 6th.” On January 5th: “I will be speaking at the SAVE AMERICA RALLY tomorrow on the Ellipse at 11AM Eastern. Arrive early—doors open at 7AM Eastern. BIG CROWDS!” The posters called it the “Save America March.” What happened that day was big, and it was wild. If it began as a protest and a rally and a march, it ended as something altogether different. But what? Sedition, treason, a failed revolution, an attempted coup? And what will it be called, looking back? A day of anarchy? The end of America?
Trump called the people who violently attacked and briefly seized the U.S. Capitol building in order to overturn a Presidential election “patriots”; President-elect Joe Biden called them “terrorists.” In a section of “Leviathan” called “Inconstant Names,” Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, remarked that the names of things are variable, “For one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth Feare; and one Cruelty, what another Justice.” On the other hand, sometimes one man is right (those people were terrorists). And, sometimes, what to call a thing seems plain. “This is what the President has caused today, this insurrection,” Mitt Romney, fleeing the Senate chamber, told a Times reporter.
By any reasonable definition of the word (including the Oxford English Dictionary’s: “The action of rising in arms or open resistance against established authority”), what happened on January 6th was an insurrection. An insurrection is, generally, damnable: calling a political action an insurrection is a way of denouncing what its participants mean to be a revolution. “There hath been in Rome strange insurrections,” Shakespeare wrote, in “Coriolanus.” “The people against the senators, patricians, and nobles.” Insurrection, in Shakespeare, is “foul,” “base and bloody.” In the United States, the language of insurrection has a vexed racial history. “Insurrection” was the term favored by slaveowners for the political actions taken by people held in human bondage seeking their freedom. Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, charged the king with having “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” The English lexicographer Samuel Johnson, an opponent of slavery, once offered a toast “To the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.” And Benjamin Franklin, wryly objecting to Southern politicians’ conception of human beings as animals, offered this rule to tell the difference between them: “sheep will never make any insurrections.”
The term’s racial inflection lasted well beyond the end of slavery. In the nineteen-sixties, law-and-order Republicans used that language to demean civil-rights protests, to describe a political movement as rampant criminality. “We have seen the gathering hate, we have heard the threats to burn and bomb and destroy,” Richard Nixon said, in 1968. “In Watts and Harlem and Detroit and Newark, we have had a foretaste of what the organizations of insurrection are planning for the summer ahead.” In that era, though, “riot” replaced “insurrection” as the go-to racial codeword: “riots” were Black, “protests” were white, as Elizabeth Hinton argues in an essential, forthcoming book, “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.” “Yet historically,” Hinton observes, “most instances of mass criminality have been perpetrated by white vigilantes hostile to integration and who joined together into roving mobs that took ‘justice’ in their own hands.” This remains an apt description of what happened on January 6th.
One possibility, then, is to call the Sixth of January a “race riot.” Its participants were overwhelming white; many were avowedly white supremacists. A lot of journalists described the attack on the legislature as a “storming” of the Capitol, language that white-supremacist groups must have found thrilling. Hitler’s paramilitary called itself the Sturmabteilung, the Storm detachment; Nazis published a newspaper called Der Stürmer, the stormer. QAnon awaits a “Storm” in which the satanic cabal that controls the United States will be finally defeated. So one good idea would be never, ever to call the Sixth of January “the Storming of the Capitol.”
What words will historians use in textbooks? Any formulation is a non-starter if it diminishes the culpability of people in positions of power who perpetrated the lie that the election was stolen. It’s not a coup d’etat because it didn’t succeed. It’s not even a failed coup, because a coup involves the military. And, as Naunihal Singh, the author of “Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups,” told Foreign Policy, the word “coup” lets too many people off the hook. “The people who you want to point fingers at are the president, the party leaders, and the street thugs,” Singh said. “And we lose that if we start talking about a coup; it gives a pass to all of the Republican politicians who have been endorsing what Trump’s saying.”
In truth, the language of the coop seems more appropriate than the language of the coup. I mean chickens. “Coming home to roost” quite aptly describes the arrival of armed terrorists in the hall where, moments before, Senator Ted Cruz had summoned that very flock as he stood on the floor and urged the legislature to overturn the election. Derrick Evans, the West Virginia Republican lawmaker who joined the mob and, as he breached the doors of the Capitol, cried out, “We’re in! We’re in!” acted with more honesty and consistency than the hundred-and-forty-seven members of the House and Senate who, later that night, voted to overturn the results of the election after having hidden, for hours, from the very people they’d been inciting for months and even years.
“Sedition” is too weak. Noah Webster, in his American Dictionary of the English Language, from 1828, offered this handy way to distinguish “sedition” from “insurrection”: “sedition expresses a less extensive rising of citizens.” In any case, sedition in the sense of a political rebellion, is obsolete. “Treason,” an attempt to overthrow the government, seems fair, though it almost risks elevating what looked to be a shambles: a shabby, clownish, idiotic, and aimless act of mass vandalism. If I were picking the words, I’d want to steer very clear of ennobling it, so I’d be inclined to call it something blandly descriptive, like “The Attack on the U.S. Capitol,” or “The Sixth of January.”
“Remember this day forever!” Trump tweeted at one minute past six on Wednesday night. There’s no danger that anyone will forget it, by whatever name. The harder question is not what to call the events of that day but what to make of the maddening four years and more that led up to it: the long, slow rot of the Republican Party; the perfidy of Republicans in the House and Senate since January, 2017; the wantonness of a conservative media willing to incite violence; the fecklessness of Twitter and Facebook; and, not least, the venality, criminality, and derangement of the President. Whether that story belongs under a chapter titled “The Rise and Fall of Donald J. Trump” or “The End of America” awaits the outcome of events.
Read More About the Presidential Transition
- Donald Trump has survived impeachment, twenty-six sexual-misconduct accusations, and thousands of lawsuits. His luck may well end now that Joe Biden is the next President.
- With litigation unlikely to change the outcome of the election, Republicans are looking to strategies that might remain even after rebuffs both at the polls and in court.
- With the Trump Presidency ending, we need to talk about how to prevent the moral injuries of the past four years from happening again.
- If 2020 has demonstrated anything, it is the need to rebalance the economy to benefit the working class. There are many ways a Biden Administration can start.
- Trump is being forced to give up his attempt to overturn the election. But his efforts to build an alternative reality around himself will continue.
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