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January 6, 2021 and the Power of Belief
What were these people thinking when they stormed the Capitol Building?
Imagine you are at work and one of your neighbors phones to inform you that there is something suspicious going on at and around your home—possibly burglars casing the place and looking like they may want to break in. You call the police. They send a squad car over and report back that they didn’t see anything unusual. You phone your neighbor back and report what the police said and ask them to double check. Minutes later they call back to report that the police must have missed the big truck now backing into the rear of your house. Frantic, you call 911 and plead with the dispatcher to send the cops back to double check what is going on there. More desperate minutes go by and you finally get a return call that the police circled the neighborhood and the only truck they could see was a utility vehicle for the local electric company servicing their poles and wires near your backyard. You relax momentarily until your neighbor calls for a third time to report that now he can see people moving around inside your home, and it looks like they hauling away TVs, computers, and other big ticket items. What would you do? If you couldn’t count on the police to get to the truth about what is happening at your home, would you jump in your car and return home to get to the bottom of it? Sure you would. That would be a rational response to an apparently real threat to your home.
Now, put yourself into that mindset, only your home is the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. and your neighbor is the President of the United States, reporting that your country, your democracy, your election is being stolen before your very eyes. This is, in essence, what a great many people believed on January 6, 2021, when they stormed the United States Capitol building to disrupt the electoral college procedure of confirming Joe Biden as the 46th U.S. President. Guns were brandished, clubs were swung, flagpoles were thrust, doors and windows were shattered, and the result was five dead, many wounded, and considerable property damage. What drove the protesters to violence was the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump (and by proxy, themselves), who in a speech earlier that day had reinforced through powerful rhetoric for his supporters to “be strong”, “fight like hell” and go over there to “stop the steal” or else “our country will be destroyed, and we’re not going to stand for that.”
To what extent President Trump is responsible for the mob actions of his followers is debatable (and the Department of Justice and FBI are still investigating and prosecuting those deemed responsible for the violence that day). He didn’t tell the crowd to break into the Capitol, which is protected by police, nor did he direct them to be violent. In fact, at one point in his speech that morning near the Capitol dome, he said “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” But it was too little, too late, as he had just spent the previous hour working up the emotions of the crowd into a fever pitch through his claim that forces inside that building were stealing the election and destroying America, and a great many of his followers believed him…and still do.
While we may deplore what happened that day—and there is little doubt that this was one of the most shocking direct assaults on our democracy in U.S. history—from the perspective of the rioters and insurrectionists there was a certain logic to their behavior. If you truly believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and that the officials in charge weren’t doing anything about it, then it is understandable why people would protest, and unfortunately peaceful protests can easily morph into violent rioting when emotions wrest control from reason.
What were these people thinking?
People act on their beliefs. Thus, the truth or falsity of such beliefs matter. As witness to this generalization, here are some quotes from insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol Building one year ago today, compiled by the Associated Press:
“Why did I enter the Capitol building? I don’t have a good answer. I’ve gone over it a thousand times and I’m still not sure why I didn’t recognize what was happening and take alternative action. There were some factors influencing me that day which cannot be discounted. We were told, ‘everyone is going to the Capitol’ and ‘be peaceful.’ The entire experience was surreal. I trusted the President and that was a big mistake.” —Leonard Gruppo, a retired Special Forces soldier, sentenced to three months’ house arrest.
If you believe the lie, it is a type of truth in your mind:
“I have realized that we, meaning Trump supporters, were lied to by those that at the time had great power, meaning the then sitting President, as well as those acting on his behalf. They kept spitting out the false narrative about a stolen election and how it was ‘our duty’ to stand up to tyranny. Little did I realize that they were the tyrannical ones desperate to hold on to power at any cost, even by creating the chaos they knew would happen with such rhetoric.” —Robert Palmer, of Largo, Florida, sentenced to more than five years in prison for throwing a fire extinguisher and attacking police officers.
Not everyone was so contrite:
“While I feel badly about unlawfully entering into the Capitol on January 6th, not everything I did that day was bad. Some actions I took that day were good. I came to DC to protest the election results. I wanted my voice to be heard. My only weapon was my voice and my cell phone. It is my belief that America is presently in an ‘Information War.’ This so-called ‘war’ that I spoke of, using my first amendment rights, is a war that is not fought with weapons, but with words, ideas, constructs and opinions.” —Jenna Ryan, of Frisco, Texas, who received 60 days in jail after posting online that “I have blonde hair white skin a great job a great future and I’m not going to jail.” She told NBC News in an interview published this week that she was being scapegoated “like the Jews in Germany.”
But in the end most of the insurrections have come to realize that their beliefs about the stolen election were wrong, even while remaining committed to their political beliefs:
“My conservative creed still remains the same. However, the system of governance, a constitutional republic, and the processes in place for deciding who sits in the Oval Office behind the Resolute Desk transcends any one candidate or party. That peaceful transfer of power and the method set out for achieving it are worthy of protection. My message to fellow conservatives, or any American dissenting with the current administration, is that we must continue our work within the confines of the system and condemn the actions on January 6th as atrocious.” —Devlyn Thompson, of Seattle, who pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer with a baton, received nearly four years in prison.
Finally, to the tens of millions of Republicans who were not at the Capitol Building on January 6 but who nevertheless tell pollsters that they still believe that the 2020 election was stolen, Carl Rove presents the following counterfactual thought experiment:
If Democrats had done what some Trump supporters did on that violent Jan. 6, Republicans would have criticized them mercilessly and been right to do so. Republicans would have torched any high official who encouraged violence or stood mute while it was waged and been right to do so. Republicans would have demanded an investigation to find who was responsible for the violence and been right to do so.
When you’ve lost the support of Mr. Republican himself you know you’ve gone off the rails:
We Republicans have a heavier burden. I’ve been a Republican my entire life, and believe in what the Republican Party, at its best, has represented for decades. There can be no soft-pedaling what happened and no absolution for those who planned, encouraged and aided the attempt to overthrow our democracy. Love of country demands nothing less. That’s true patriotism.
It’s time for conservatives in general and Republicans in particular to reject Trump and Trumpism, along with the Rigged Election Big Lie. In the words of the great champion of liberty John Stuart Mill:
A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.
We need Republicans to be the party or order and stability, both of which collapsed on January 6, 2021.