The one-year anniversary of the January 6 Capitol Insurrection understandably has inspired numerous reflections on the meaning and consequences of that fateful day. But neither can be fully known yet. Everything depends on what comes next. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center (WTC) killed six people and injured over a thousand, but on its one-year anniversary the event was mostly regarded as a one-off. Only after the attacks of September 11, 2001, did the 1993 explosion come to be understood as a deadly and unheeded warning.
Will history likewise repeat and intensify with respect to the assault on American democracy? The WTC attacks are instructive. Even knowing that jihadists were targeting the WTC, U.S. counter-terrorism officials missed the signs that the next attack would use hijacked airplanes rather than a truck bomb. So too, the next assault on American democracy could use a different weapon and come from a different direction. The next time the attack could come from within the Capitol building and the other institutions of American democracy.
The Politics in Political Violence
During the Senate trial for former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment, his defense team argued that he had not incited the Capitol Insurrection because the language he used urging his supporters to “fight” their perceived enemies was simply rhetoric, no different from similar terms used by Democratic politicians in support of protesters against racial injustice and police misconduct at rallies throughout 2020.
The claim is wholly unpersuasive. As longstanding case law makes clear, whether an actor commits the crime of incitement depends not only on the particular words used but also on context. In none of the examples Trump’s lawyers identified could one plausibly construe the speaker’s words as promoting actual violence. By contrast, Trump urged his supporters at the January 6 rally to “fight like hell” and “walk down to the Capitol,” where he knew there was an ongoing “wild protest” that he himself had encouraged.
Moreover, even if Trump’s speech on January 6, 2021, did not satisfy the Supreme Court’s Brandenburg test for criminal charges, the article of impeachment’s accusation of “incitement of insurrection” referenced Trump’s broader course of conduct to undermine the result of a free and fair election. Because commission of a crime is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for an impeachment conviction, it is entirely possible that Trump could have a good defense to a narrow charge of criminal incitement, even though his actions provided grounds for the Senate to convict him based on the article of impeachment passed by the House.
In the end, of course, more than enough Republican senators feared backlash from Trump and his supporters for him to escape conviction. Invoking the historically dubious claim that a former official is not subject to conviction by impeachment, even senators like Mitch McConnell, who condemned Trump’s behavior, voted to acquit him.
Where does that leave matters? Visible weirdos like the “QAnon Shaman” will do prison time. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has accepted guilty pleas from over 150 of the more than 700 other rioters it has charged, including a Proud Boys member whose cooperation may assist in obtaining convictions against some of the other, most violent participants in the Insurrection. It is even possible that criminal charges could be brought against former government officials and/or current members of Congress who organized or facilitated the Insurrection. And, of course, the House Select Committee, undaunted by stonewalling from Steve Bannon, Mark Meadows, and other Trump loyalists, could uncover further evidence of complicity at the highest levels.
Yet while DOJ and the House Select Committee rightly pursue these various forms of accountability, we must not lose sight of the highest stakes. The Capitol Insurrection was a tragedy for the police officers and others who were injured and killed, their families, and the many people—including members of Congress—who suffered intense psychological trauma. But in that respect, it was not much different from other horrific acts of violence in a country in which roughly 20,000 people are murdered each year.
To the direct victims, deadly violence is deadly violence. From a societal perspective, however, political violence is different. Organized Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in 2020 were overwhelmingly peaceful. What lawbreaking we saw was typically the work of opportunistic looters. I do not wish to downplay the harmful effect of such conduct, but the Trump apologists’ comparison of lawbreaking at BLM protests and the Capitol Insurrection misses the fact that the former included virtually no political violence, except by a few freelancing fringe anarchists.
Despite a common mistranslation of Prussian General and strategist Carl von Clausewitz, war is not politics by other means. The violence of war and violence more broadly may aim at the acquisition of political power, but in a democracy, political violence is an oxymoron. To practice democratic politics is to accept a common set of ground rules for resolving policy disputes peacefully. When the loser of an election uses violence to try to change the result, democratic politics ceases functioning.
The Fire Next Time
Preventing an exact repetition of January 6, 2021, should be relatively simple. Investigating leads, crowd control, physical barriers, and a massive security presence can ensure that a mob does not once again storm the Capitol. But just as counter-terrorism officials who had experience with a bomb placed inside the WTC failed to prevent hijacked planes from attacking from outside the buildings, so in 2025, a too-narrow focus on preventing rioters from breaching the Capitol’s exterior defenses risks overlooking the threat from within our ostensibly democratic institutions.
We have learned in the last year that some of the most extreme Trump loyalists in Congress—such as Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Jim Jordan—may have actively participated in the Insurrection. But we already knew that Republican members of Congress were eager to subvert American democracy even before the physical attack.
Two days before the Insurrection last year, Verdict published a column I wrote titled The Stakes on January 6. In it, I mostly focused on peaceful means by which many Republicans sought to overthrow American democracy. I also worried that “Trump’s brownshirts [might] heed his call and light the capital ablaze” if his authoritarian allies in Congress failed to block the certification of Electoral College votes from states that Trump falsely claimed had been stolen from him. I anticipated that the ensuing years would see a battle for the soul of the GOP, pitting social and economic conservatives against outright authoritarians.
That battle is increasingly one-sided, with the authoritarians winning. Indeed, even on January 6 itself, 139 Republican House members and eight Republican senators—people whose lives were in danger just hours earlier from a mob inspired by Trump’s Big Lie—voted to overturn the election result based on that very lie. As never-Trump or even sometimes-Trump-but-not-when-he’s-attacking-democracy Republicans retire or face primary challenges by Trump-backed firebreathers, the ranks of the authoritarians swell. Should the GOP take control of one or both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections later this year, they will likely use their power to shut down investigations and, assuming they hold onto power in 2024, could give effect to a second edition of the Big Lie on January 6, 2025.
Indeed, even without control over Congress, there is a growing existential threat to American democracy, as the number of Trumparatchiks in gerrymandered state legislatures and positions responsible for administering elections increases. Consider an aphorism worthy of three Dons. In the original 1971 Godfather film, Don Corleone says “a lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” In his 1989 song Gimme What You Got, former Eagle Don Henley changed “lawyer” to “man.” The third Don, former President Trump, seems to have adapted the lesson as follows: A state legislature with no commitment to democracy can steal an election more effectively than a mob armed with flagpoles, fire extinguishers, and stolen police shields.
The DOJ and House Select Committee efforts to hold the planners and perpetrators of the Capitol Insurrection accountable are essential to the preservation of American democracy, but they are not sufficient to the task. The willingness to resort to political violence is a dreadful symptom. Trumpist authoritarianism is the underlying disease.