To be a political columnist and not note the one-year anniversary of Jan. 6 is akin to visiting the Sistine Chapel and failing to look up.
Few will forget where they were and how they took in the news on that horrible day. For those of my generation, it was a signal moment on par with the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion and, of course, 9/11.
In the case of my wife and myself, we were in an RV, traversing the eastern parts of North Carolina. As my phone blew up with news alerts, we quickly tuned the satellite radio to the audio feeds of the cable channels, but processed it all without visuals.
Just three days earlier, we had been in D.C. on a dreary, drizzly Sunday afternoon, bundled up and walking around many of the venues soon to be at the center of the action. We witnessed police officers taping notices to lampposts advising that no weapons were allowed in this zone. I recall thinking at the time that something a bit stronger than signage might be needed.
The honest assessment, and also the fear, is that Jan. 6 will go down as the day American exceptionalism died. No longer can any of us harbor the notion or conceit that it can’t happen here.
No longer can we look askance at other countries with less stable institutions and hit-or-miss acceptance of election results. The idea of America as that unshakeable pillar of democracy expired that fateful afternoon.
For those who have not already seen it, you should take a deep breath and spend an evening watching HBO’s definitive documentary, “Four Hours at the Capitol.” It is 90 minutes of powerful and raw footage, largely letting those on the front lines – both police and attackers – tell the story.
If you can come away from that viewing and still contend that it was a “mostly peaceful protest” or anything less than an armed attempt to overturn the election, then your capacity for self-delusion is powerful indeed.
And what has happened in the intervening 12 months? Lacking any credible much less conclusive evidence, former President Donald Trump almost daily amplifies the fiction that the election was somehow stolen. In his warped psyche, the November 3rd election has become “the insurrection” and the January 6th assault “the protest”, innocently enough.
Though the real revelation is not in Trump’s psychological inability to acknowledge defeat but in the grip he continues to exert on his followers and in their logic-defying, proof-defying willingness to believe his fabrication.
Nearly one-third of Americans and just shy of two-thirds of still-registered Republicans buy into Trump’s calculated lie. Mere hours after the Capitol assault, two out of every three Republican members of Congress in addition to eight Republican Senators voted against the formal certification of the election winner. For the most part, these are people who know better (and just lived through the worst), but still ceded all discernment to the strongman atop their party.
How does a country function and a democracy sustain itself when the political divide is of such magnitude and that prideful tradition of the peaceful transfer of power is itself up for grabs?
To be clear, those on the left exhibit plenty of their own intolerance and illiberalism. That is to be condemned as well. But only one party bears the particular shame of having endorsed the underlying rationale of an assault on our Capitol and then underplayed what transpired and its meaning.
Now, as if to remove all doubt as to who is running the show even from political exile, huge swaths of the GOP have embarked on the Trump-led mission to excommunicate those too few party leaders who exhibited independence of mind and integrity of conviction by rejecting the falsehood that spurred the insurrection and voting to hold the former president to account or just saying, "Whoa."
In publications of both the left and right, headlines raise the specter of a new civil war. Until this past year, I most often found such articles to be overblown. These days, I am not so sure.
Instead of serving as the nation-shaking, course-correcting warning shot, there is indication aplenty that the events of last January may have been but a warm-up act. The routine acceptance of the voters’ will can no longer be taken for granted.
With daily incitement from Mar-a-Lago, Republicans seem determined to put in place election officials and mechanisms to make such a post-election challenge in 2024 far more viable and sophisticated than the Rudy Giuliani, Mike Lindell, QAnon Shaman clown show.
A 2021 Zogby poll found just under half of Americans thinking another civil war was likely. While 18% of American citizens, including a stunning 30% of Republicans, believe that “patriots” may have to resort to violence.
The tinder that could produce a massive fire is strewn about. The ideological divide between left and right is immense. Across society, anger and aggression are up; grace and goodwill are in decline.
Given Trump’s own authoritarian impulses, it was no surprise to see him give his precious endorsement this past week to Hungarian ruler Viktor Orban, who has become the newfound darling of Tucker Carlson and too many others on the commentariat right.
Authoritarians are ascendant in many parts of the world. At home, one political party remains in thrall to just such a person whose autocratic instincts have been evident since day one.
Democracy is a fragile flower that far too many are treating with callous disregard. All around us, the lights are flashing and the alarms are screeching. Last Jan. 6 disproved any American immunity to such upheavals. The question is, where to now to prevent such a breach of no return?
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for ColoradoPolitics and the Gazette newspapers. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann