Americans believe vastly different versions of what happened in Washington a year ago, when a group of Trump supporters breached the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and disrupted the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory by Congress. At a “March to Save America” that day, Trump called on Vice President Mike Pence, who oversaw the certification, to overturn the election results, and the former president told attendees to walk to the Capitol. Some 1,200 people broke into the Capitol building early that afternoon, preventing Congress from voting until after midnight; a majority of Republican members of the House of Representatives voted against certifying Biden’s win. Despite frequent media coverage during the past year, almost 40 percent of American voters surveyed in mid-December do not know which candidate the rioters supported. About 14 percent identified them as being Trump opponents, and 24 percent admitted they didn’t know whose side the mob was on at all. Even within the Republican Party, there’s no consensus about what took place. About 45 percent of Republicans said that the rioters were a threat to democracy, while 52 percent said those involved were protecting democracy, according to a poll taken at the end of December. What was the attack on the U.S. Capitol actually about?

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, and the author of three books on U.S. political parties. In Masket’s view, the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats—from party leaders to voters—initially condemned the violence of January 6, but the Republican Party has increasingly moved since then to excuse or even condone the rioters. Republicans’ interpretation of the attack on the Capitol reveals the enduring threat from that day, Masket says: If the party refuses to accept an election when they lose, then American democracy is in danger. As Masket sees it, the root cause of the attack and the party’s focus on elections is Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 presidential election. Acceptance of this lie is now the litmus test for all prospective Republican candidates, and it explains the moves in Republican-controlled states to impose new voting restrictions and enable state officials to challenge or even reject election results. The failure among political elites to agree on whether elections are legitimate has often preceded the breakdown of democracy in other countries.

Michael Bluhm: How should we understand what happened on January 6?

Seth Masket: It’s a great question. There is a lot of disagreement over what January 6 was and how we should be thinking about it.

It’s important to think about it as an unsuccessful coup attempt. This was a coup attempt in which a sitting leader attempts to subvert democracy to remain in power indefinitely. That has happened in other countries—in Latin America and some Eastern European countries—and it happened here.

It wasn’t just the president saying, I don’t want to leave. He organized a violent mob to disrupt the processes within the Congress that were going to lead to his removal from office. Several members of Congress were going along with this. It was all part of an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election in various states and Congress.

It’s a terrifying thing. It is somewhat reassuring that it failed. When it came down to it, a number of members of Congress—even those who were fairly close to the president—were horrified by it. They felt threatened physically and called on the president to end it as quickly as possible.

It was a moment of legitimate peril, and we should be perceiving it that way. It wasn’t simply a protest. It was violent, and it had a very specific intent to disrupt American political processes.

Library of Congress

If you listen to speeches from members of Congress that night, as they reconvened to ratify the election results, a number of those who had been fairly supportive of the president—including Senator Lindsey Graham—essentially said, We had our fun; it’s over. This election is over. This experiment with Trump is over. We got some good things out of it, but this did not end well. We need to turn the page.

That moment didn’t last very long. It was a few days or weeks until a number of these folks ended up embracing Trump again and saying, He will not pay a serious price for this. He’s still the front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination. That’s a striking legacy of January 6. There are still significant dangers to American democracy.

Bluhm: What do you mean by “legitimate peril”?

Masket: When I use the term “legitimate,” I don’t mean that it’s appropriate or acceptable. I mean that it’s a very real peril. American democracy was at a very fragile place at that moment and could have, in some measure, simply ended.

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