Just over a year ago, Donald Trump and his allies tried to stage a coup against American democracy. This was something new in American history, but in another sense it was typical: It was the next stage in the collapse of a failing democracy.
As I explained in an earlier essay for Salon, the Trump coup attempt was quite "unique" in that it was publicly announced years in advance and organized in plain sight, with more than enough warning that it could have easily been stopped from occurring. In practical terms, many members of America's political class, news media and other elites allowed the coup attempt to take place, either through negligence or tacit consent.
Trump's attempt to overthrow American democracy (which continues) is atypical in another important way: In the year since Jan. 6, 2021, the American people and the world have learned a great deal about almost every aspect of Trump's coup plot and the Capitol attack.
In her newsletter Lucid, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat recently explained many of the central or common factors involved in coup attempts, whether successful or otherwise. She begins with the observation that "controlling the flow of information" is crucial, especially when the coup fails and damage control is necessary:
Coups involve secrecy and speed. Their power lies in the element of surprise — the shock of the unthinkable happening, and happening fast. ... The conspiratorial element of coups means we are not often privy to the details of their planning. If the coup is successful, it may become part of the origin story of the new national collective. Then a leader may release details about it to enhance his reputation for daring and bravery. This was the case with Muammar Gaddafi, who planned his 1969 coup for years and was its undisputed author.
What if the leader who comes to power via coup was the last person to come on board, either because of his cautious nature (Francisco Franco) or because the coup's instigators did not fully trust him (Augusto Pinochet)? Then it can take a long time for the truth to come out….
When coups fail, the government that survived the coup attempt might release information in order to turn public opinion against the plotters and justify whatever punishments are meted out.
Many questions remain unanswered about the Trump regime's attempt to overthrow American democracy. If we hope to save American democracy and ensure some measure of justice is served, the truth will need to be revealed. At some point in the future, the House Jan. 6 special committee, various whistleblowers, Department of Justice investigations, journalists, documentarians, scholars and other researchers will have compiled something close to a full accounting of the Trump regime's coup attempt.
That's an entirely separate question from whether Donald Trump and the high-level planners and plotters of his coup will ever face proper accountability or punishment for their crimes against democracy. The answer to that question is probably not.
In all, a type of surreality and malignant normalcy took hold over America during the Age of Trump, and its hold has endured into Joe Biden's presidency. The events of Jan. 6 were the middle act in a much bigger story that now includes the Big Lie, a feeling of impending doom emanating from the Republican fascist movement, the growing threat of sustained right-wing violence or even low-level civil war, and our status as a society where reality, facts and truth are no longer agreed upon because the Republicans and their enablers have undermined any such consensus.
In so many ways, Jan. 6 and the Age of Trump have shattered the myths that many Americans have long entertained about themselves and their country.
Those myths and narratives come from many sources, but America is a society where the dream merchants and fantasy manufacturers of Hollywood (and the mass media more generally) exercise almost unlimited power to shape the collective imagination of the public. The result is that Americans, for decades, "have been amusing themselves to death". Too many of us have lost the capacity to distinguish mass media fantasies (including online and other digital spaces) from reality and its painful truths.
To wit. On Jan. 6 of last year, there were no Special Forces commandos, Secret Service assault teams or FBI hostage rescue units making a dramatic assault on the Capitol Building — as would have happened in a Hollywood movie — ready to fight off Trump's terrorist mob and keep the members of Congress and other innocent people safe from harm.
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Instead, it was rank-and-file Capitol police officers and other members of law enforcement who exemplified great courage in attempting to do that dangerous work. They were understaffed and unprepared, and ultimately could not keep Trump's rage-fueled attack force from breaching the building's defenses and running amok in an apparent hunt for Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other perceived enemies.
In the real world, there was no national leader who rose to the occasion, placing Trump and his cabal under arrest, delivering a rousing speech about the true values of American democracy and perhaps declaring the sixth of January as a new national holiday, a second Independence Day.
This was not "Seven Days in May" or some other Cold War-era thriller featuring a seemingly perfect plot to overthrow the government, only stopped by the actions of a few courageous souls. There was no moment on Jan. 6 or afterward when "principled" Republicans joined en masse with Democrats to save American democracy by denouncing Trump, his cabal and their movement, and unmasking the full scale of the coup plot.
In reality, Republicans in the House, only hours after the coup attempt, still voted to nullify the 2020 presidential election, standing with the coup leader and against legitimate democracy.
There have been no televised trials or hearings about the Trump regime's coup attempt, and no serious efforts to punish the wrongdoers to the maximum extent of the law. There has been no closure, no public exhalation of relief and no sense that the coup was conclusively defeated. The threat from Trump and his movement is escalating, and the coup has not been stopped: If anything, it is gaining momentum on the state and local level. Republicans will likely win control of the House this fall, and could well win the Senate as well. A return to the White House in 2024 is distinctly possible. If Republicans cannot use voter exclusion and other Jim Crow-style anti-democratic tactics to win that election, they may launch another coup — and that one will be far more likely to succeed.
Consider the fascinating and, at times, undeniably entertaining characters of TrumpWorld. Donald Trump himself is a reality TV star and pro wrestling "heel" who somehow became president. He has surrounded himself with other characters straight from central casting, including corrupt consigliere Roger Stone and "America's mayor" Rudy Giuliani, now a grossly incompetent go-between and a legal adviser of dubious skill and wisdom.
It's easy to laugh, but we cannot overlook those smart and very dangerous foes of democracy such as Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Stephen Miller, John Eastman, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and numerous others. There are also the lesser-known true believers and ideologues who lurk in the shadows of think tanks, interest groups, academia, business and finance, the news media, right-wing evangelical churches, paramilitaries and "tactical culture," military and veterans groups, and elsewhere in the private sector and the world of public policy and consulting.
In total, Jan. 6 and its anticlimactic outcome offer a portrait of American society seemingly filtered not through Hollywood blockbusters but through the artistic visions of Jim Jarmusch, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and John Schlesinger. But none of this is a movie the American people can switch off or walk away from. It is entirely too real. Denial, exhaustion, learned helplessness or just flat-out surrender can offer no salvation.
The ridiculous and surreal aspects of Jan. 6 and its aftermath do nothing to diminish the peril America now faces. Indeed, fascism and other forms of civic evil do their work by making the unthinkable, the ridiculous and the seemingly impossible appear both normal and acceptable. We are almost there now. Jan. 6 was just one important landmark on that journey.
More from the aftermath of Jan. 6 and the GOP's attack on democracy: