Even before the crowd turned violent, it had been assembled by Trump to intimidate Congress into nullifying an election based on provably false propaganda. And both before and after the mob turned from intimidation to violent insurrection, the plan to erase the results of the November election had majority support among Republican lawmakers—147 of them voted to erase the electoral votes of Biden-won states using the same false claims.
It was, then, an attempted coup. A democratic election came close to being nullified after a nation’s self-obsessed strongman claimed that there was no possible way he could have lost other than traitorous acts by his enemies; marshaling his party’s allies, he presented a series of plain fictions charging that the election was illegitimate because opposition-friendly cities, or the companies that constructed the voting machines, or a dead Venezuelan leader conspired to produce fake votes. Allied press outlets pushed the new propaganda into omnipresence; the leader and his allies organized a mass rally outside the legislature in which supporters armed with baseball bats, metal poles, tasers, pepper spray, and other weapons demanded lawmakers reinstall their belligerent head or face consequences. And the government security forces that normally would have intercepted such a mob were suddenly absent, after the leader’s allies instituted new rules that prevented their dispatch.
That the plan did not work did not mean it was not attempted. It was a copy-and-paste of other coup attempts in other nations. Most did not work. Some did.
The New York Times notes some of the world reactions to the Republican Party’s acquittal of Trump for even this, and they are clear-eyed. A German correspondent is quoted as calling it an “unprecedented failure of American democracy” and “a triumph of madness.” An Australian editorial blasts the acquittal as a blow to democracy that “will stand for generations as an appalling instance of Republican Party cowardice.”
A former Le Monde editor told journalist David Andelman he does not think “that this has changed our vision of the US as an unpredictable and violent country.” He also noted the most dire consequence of Republican acquiescence: “Good luck [now] muzzling Trump and his Trumpets.”
The world has no illusions that the Jan. 6 attack was anything less than an attack on democracy itself, or whether the relentless hoax-peddling of Trump and his allies were to blame for it. It is not that Senate Republicans do not know the same. They immunized Trump as political exercise, not fact-finding exercise. His actions and his derelictions were irrelevant compared to the power of his supporters—their own base.
Which means we now face two “unprecedented failures” of democracy. First, that one of the nation’s two dominant political parties could willingly undertake on a campaign of fraud and propaganda intended to erase a U.S. election by fiat or force, a willing embrace of well-worn authoritarian tactics used to delegitimize democracy when would-be autocrats grow impatient with its bounds. And second, that the the party now considers those tactics so central to its identity that it is unwilling to part with them—even after violence.