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. 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 good 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.

This article is for members only

Join to read on and have access to The Signal‘s full library.

Join now Already have an account? Sign in