The Onset of Normalization

January 6 was and is a political problem. Without political solutions, there will be more January 6ths.

The Onset of Normalization
Trump supporters rally outside the Capitol before attempting to storm the building and prevent the certification of the 2020 election. Brent Stirton, via Getty

Edited by Sam Thielman


A year on, the Pentagon pledges to clarify what constitutes “extremist behavior” so as to train its personnel against engaging in it and keep shareable digital files on those who do. The intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracies, true to form, want fewer restrictions on  information-sharing, just as they did after 9/11. The Justice Department estimates that it will end up charging as many as 2,500 people with offenses related to the insurrection, including what the New York Times describes as "more than 1,000 incidents that prosecutors believe could be assaults."

Maybe some of these efforts could prove beneficial on the margins. But they can't address the central issue. January 6 was fundamentally a political problem.

Donald Trump and his coterie refused to accept an election defeat and sought to retain power illegally. Eighteen state attorneys general and, crucially, 147 members of Congress, all Republicans, backed that effort, using the blatantly fraudulent pretext that Joe Biden had already stolen the election. They spread that deceit to their supporters, several of whom spoke openly about using violence to retain Trump's presidency ("this is war, and we're clearly in a post-legal phase of our society"), and Trump incited them to violence ("you'll never take back your country with weakness, you have to show strength") against the legislators who weren't willing to halt ratification of the electoral college.

What followed was an American version of the Catiline Conspiracy that exposed the rotted foundations of late-republican Rome—or, if that analogy risks suggesting January 6 was the first time Americans sought to violently nullify an election, a recapitulation of the Battle of Liberty Place—an explosion of futile violence that contained a promise of worse to come.

There isn't a bureaucratic answer for any of this, only political answers. The bureaucratic answers are piling up because the political answers are not. And while Attorney General Merrick Garland promised in a Wednesday speech that more indictments are sure to come, and the congressional investigation of the insurrection is supposedly on the threshold of a more public phase, the window for an actual political reckoning appears closed. Remember that the spectacle of violence in Congress, a genuine shock in the moment despite how thoroughly foreshadowed it was, prompted denunciation from the toady Bill Barr and a contortion from Mitch McConnell as he tried to spare the party, portraying Trump as "practically and morally responsible" for the insurrection.

But the Republican attorneys general who launched a fraudulent lawsuit to overturn the election and the Republican members of Congress who refused certification of the electoral college are also practically and morally responsible for it. They needed to be removed from office for aiding an effort to violently nullify an election. Or, at the very least, they needed—and need presently—to be constantly hounded by questions about the legitimacy of their continuing to hold office.

Instead, they faced no consequences, as neither the Biden administration nor the Democratic Congress wanted the potential repercussions of unseating officeholders and informing their constituents that they can elect whomever they like except people with track records of contributing to election nullification. By the early spring, people like Ted Cruz, who objected to certification, and Josh Hawley, who hailed the oncoming insurrectionists, were questioning witnesses in congressional hearings about 1/6. It was like watching the Pentagon investigate its own errant drone strikes. Expelling lawmakers for complicity in the insurrection now seems inflammatory and frivolous rather than proportionate and necessary.

I can tell you from my experience covering the War on Terror that this is how normalization occurs. Once the relevant window for real political consequence closes, it does not reopen. The liberal discomfort felt by the Biden administration about how searing that consequence might become slams the window shut. It's a discomfort familiar from the Obama era. It was why and how Guantanamo Bay remained open, placing a Chekhov's gun in the hands of Trumpists who fantasize about locking their political enemies inside. Once the window for punishing CIA torturers closed, the CIA was free to turn on Senate investigators who sought, as a fallback reckoning, to expose the torture. Anti-democratic forces everywhere understand a lack of punishment as an opportunity for acceleration. In this case, they are hard at work recreating Jim Crow so the next attacks on democracy can come from men in suits and not Camp Auschwitz hoodies. On Wednesday, McConnell said on the Senate floor that it was "distasteful" to invoke 1/6 in order to protect voting rights. That rendered the difference between him and the insurrectionists one of respectability as much as it underscored how the post-1/6 unease is gone from McConnell's voice.

On January 6, while we watched Trump incite the Capitol breach, one of my bizarre side assignments was a piece about Biden announcing that Merrick Garland would be his attorney general. I tried to convey in my write-up how the choice signaled that Biden would miss the moment. In his Wednesday speech, Garland, a yesterday's-man if there ever was one, called January 6 an "unprecedented attack on our democracy," which is either historical ignorance or mythology. He spoke of building an investigation that scaled up to reveal "less overt" members of a criminal conspiracy. But the most important acts of incitement, the ones without which January 6 would not have happened, were committed in broad daylight. They were tweeted widely, spoken into banks of cameras in weird places and shouted over the strains of Laura Branigan's "Gloria."

Garland suggested cryptically that “all January 6th perpetrators at any level [will be] held accountable under law, whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible. So much hangs on what Garland means by "all" and "perpetrators." When Garland headed the Oklahoma City bombing prosecution in 1995, he drove a narrow focus on Timothy McVeigh rather than not the broader infrastructure of white political violence that produced him. And now, after a year of what he described as strenuous investigation, he's charged only people who answered the call to insurrection, not those who sounded it. Meanwhile, those who amplified it are not paying any sort of political price—instead, they sit in Congress, where they preside over such things as the Justice Department's budget. The security bureaucracy's renewed attention to training and interoperability will have to compensate for the erosion of even the meager bourgeois democracy that America possesses.

IF YOU'D LIKE TO READ more of what I've previously covered about January 6, I wrote this essay for the Times last year about the War on Terror's heritage. For the Daily Beast, I did the Catiline Conspiracy piece above—I still like that one—as well as this reported piece that gestured at several of the themes in this edition of the newsletter. When I see reports about how the Biden administration is gonna intelligence-share its way out of assaults on democracy, I think back to covering this FBI hearing, to say nothing of what the last generation of crucial-intelligence-sharing-efforts produced.

As well, I appreciated this thread from Brendan O'Connor about why a real left, a left mobilized against capitalism, ought not to dismiss January 6 as a frivolous liberal preoccupation.

WHEN I READ a recent Times piece about the congressional investigations' subpoenas of blackshirt gangs like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and First Amendment Praetorian—several of whose members have police and military experience; 1AP claims to have an Army Special Forces heritage and concocted an imaginary "Antifa Tet Offensive" that was supposed to have happened last autumn—I heard some echoes of W.E.B. Du Bois describing Louisiana in Black Reconstruction.

As it turns out, Du Bois was quoting some other sources I'm not familiar with, but this is the relevant bit, which I'm taking from page 819 in the brand-new Library of America edition of a book that continues to strike fear into the hearts of reactionaries. He's talking about white gangs in Louisiana between the 1868 presidential election and the Battle of Liberty Place six years later. This is Du Bois citing either a historian named Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer or a congressional study—professional historians can provide clarity on this that I can't, unfortunately. Anyway:

"A band of 'Sicilian cutthroats' called the 'Innocents' made up largely of fruit dealers, fishermen, oystermen and some other elements drawn from the markets, roamed the city, hunting Negroes. Soon no one could be found in the streets…"

"This bloody club had 2,000 members. There were more than 70 other clubs in New Orleans bearing such names as the 'Seymour Southrons,' the 'Seymour Infantas,' the 'Seymour Tigers,' the 'Blair Knights,' the 'Swamp Fox Rangers,' the 'Hancock Club,' and the 'Rousseau Guards.' Their appearance in parades led to riots in which many were killed and injured."

"Disorder extended to other parts of Louisiana. In one month, said General Hatch, of the Freedman's Bureau, 297 persons were slain in the parishes adjacent to New Orleans."

During election time, the gun stores of New Orleans were thronged with buyers, and the price of Colt's revolvers doubled. …

The coup d'etat failed, and the Reconstruction government was established. But although conditions during the next two years showed improvement, General Mower, in command in New Orleans, said in 1869 that the country around Winnsboro in Franklin Parish was "infested by a gang of desperadoes and thieves" who totally defied the civil authorities.

All this was a challenge to the North and to democratic government. The response was only half-hearted. The North recoiled from force, and force alone could dislodge the planters and allied capitalists and firmly fasten labor government on the South. The North hesitated. Did it want labor government in the South? Should black rule white, even if it could?

FINALLY, ONE OF MY FAVORITE current comics writers, Tini Howard, was extremely generous to me in a recent edition of her newsletter, so I have to pay that back. I was a little kid in the 1980s who liked the Chris Claremont/Alan Davis Excalibur even though it was a deconstructed X-Men book on the periphery of the franchise and its metaphor. But now we know the best Excalibur wasn't authored by Claremont and Davis. The best Excalibur was authored by Tini and Marcus To. Tini is also about to take over Catwoman with Nico Leon as well as launching her next Krakoa-era X-Men book, Knights of X. I'll be buying each in floppies each month, just like I subscribe to her newsletter, The Scorpio Room, and I recommend you do all that too.