"What if the Jan. 6 insurrection had been successful?": The key to making the Trump threat real

Voters must ask: What would have happened if Trump’s coup attempt on Jan. 6 had succeeded?

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 24, 2024 5:45AM (EST)

Flanked by his sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during his caucus night event at the Iowa Events Center on January 15, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Flanked by his sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during his caucus night event at the Iowa Events Center on January 15, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Three years ago on Jan. 6, Donald Trump and his cabal attempted a coup to end America’s multiracial pluralistic democracy and install himself as dictator. Central to that coup attempt was a lethal attack on the Capitol by thousands of Trump’s political cultists. This attack, and the larger coup plot, came perilously close to succeeding. America remained a democracy (albeit a much weakened and more flawed one) on Jan. 6 because of luck, the determination of the Capitol police and other law enforcement to risk their lives (and lose them) to stop Trump’s attack force. The quick thinking of the Democrats and those few Republicans in Congress to follow through on their constitutionally mandated responsibilities by counting the Electoral College votes saved American democracy that day. 

But Trump and his Republican supporters were not deterred by their failed coup on Jan. 6. It was a trial run for another coup. Three years later and after numerous investigations, many questions remain about the events of that horrible day:

  • Where did all the money come from that financed the Jan. 6 conspiracy?
  • Why are these donors and other financiers not being investigated and prosecuted?
  • "Ginni" Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was an active participant in the coup plot. Why has she not been investigated properly and charged with crimes? What role would Justice Thomas play if the “disputed” election had come before the Supreme Court?
  • How close was the United States to martial law?
  • And most importantly, what would have happened if Trump’s coup attempt on Jan. 6 had succeeded?

Alan Jenkins takes on these frightening and difficult questions in his new graphic novel series “1/6: The Graphic Novel." (Issue number 2 is available now.) Jenkins is a Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School where he teaches courses on Race and the Law, Communication, Law, and Social Justice, and Supreme Court Jurisprudence. Before joining the Harvard faculty, he co-founded and led The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab that harnesses the power of media and popular culture to move hearts, minds, and policy.

In this conversation, Jenkins reflects on the events of Jan. 6, the role of racism and white supremacy in the coup attempt and larger campaign to end the country’s multiracial pluralistic democracy, and the challenge of crafting a believable “what if?” narrative about an America in which Donald Trump succeeded in ending democracy and the rule of law on Jan. 6, 2021.

Jenkins also explains why Donald Trump should be removed from the presidential ballot per the Constitution because he engaged in an act of insurrection against the United States government on Jan. 6 and beyond.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

How are you feeling given all that is happening with the country’s democracy crisis and Trump’s enduring power and popularity?

This is a chilling moment for our democracy, but I am nonetheless hopeful that we can reclaim our democratic values and institutions. The forces that drove the 2021 insurrection — disinformation, white nationalism, antisemitism, the resort to political violence — have only grown stronger in the years since January 6, 2021. But I’ve been heartened by the activism and courage of everyday people around the country. People who believe in democracy and equal justice have been organizing, educating, and demanding accountability.

How close are we to escaping the Trumpocene? All these discussions about “the walls closing in” and how “justice is blind in America” and “no one is above the law” are not ringing very true given Trump’s ability to evade justice.

Our system of justice has flaws and biases, to be sure. The rich and powerful have always been more likely to escape accountability, and that’s especially likely with the current Supreme Court. But one of the important things about our legal system is that facts and the truth still matter. While Trump and his allies have been able to deceive their supporters through lies, smoke, and mirrors, the courts overwhelmingly rejected his claims of election fraud as unsupported and, in many cases, rank hucksterism. That included many judges and justices who were appointed by former President Trump himself. I don’t know how Trump’s many indictments and other legal challenges will turn out.  But I do believe that our courts can be an important forum for separating truth from fiction and seeking accountability.

As a legal scholar and expert on the Constitution, what are your thoughts on the 14th Amendment and removing Trump from the presidential ballot?

Donald Trump is constitutionally disqualified from holding future office. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment makes clear that Trump and others who took an oath to support the Constitution then engaged in insurrection or gave “aid or comfort” to those who did cannot again hold such a position in our government. I think it’s entirely legitimate to debate what constitutes an insurrection and which officeholders are covered by the provision. But at the end of the day, we should be focused on the purpose of that provision: to prevent demonstrated traitors from regaining official power, no matter how politically popular they might be. In my view, there’s no question that Donald Trump is disqualified by that provision.

What does “justice” mean for Trump and his obvious crimes? 

For me, our justice system should promote safety, prevent harm, and uphold the values of equal justice and accountability. In this instance, that means that Trump should be tried based on the facts and the law, treated no better nor worse than anyone else in his position would be treated, and held accountable for any proven misconduct. Amazingly, we heard Trump’s attorneys argue in court this week that a president could not be criminally prosecuted for assassinating his political rivals, unless he was first impeached and convicted by Congress. That’s chilling and wrong in every sense. Beyond the obvious reality that any president who could engage in assassination with impunity could also prevent his own impeachment by violence, it’s absurd to think that the framers of our Constitution—who feared unrestrained monarchy more than almost anything else—would allow that kind of unchecked presidential power. 

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It’s also important to note that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment provides another check and another form of accountability for any politician or former politician who engages in insurrection. It provides that such people are barred from future office. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether that provision applies to Donald Trump. In my view, it clearly does.

How are Trump’s trials and charges another test for the Constitution and the rule of law and democracy? What is your assessment of our institutions?

As I mentioned, I think the courts have performed reasonably well so far in the era of Trump. I’ve agreed with some rulings and disagreed strongly with others, but our system of justice has largely maintained its integrity under tremendous pressure to do otherwise. I would say the same of the vast majority of state and local election officials—Republican, Democrat, and independent—who Trump and his allies pressured, threatened and intimidated to void a valid election. (Many of those public servants have since been driven from office, however, and some have been replaced by Trump acolytes).

Congress, by contrast, has failed miserably, in my view, with most Republicans becoming Trump apologists or facilitators and most Democrats lacking the strategic or oratorical skill to overcome that recalcitrance.

Looking back on Jan. 6 and what we saw: the MAGA violence, White “Christian” crosses that signaled to the terror of the Ku Klux Klan and the lynching tree, Nazis and other white supremacists, white right-wing paramilitaries and other street thugs, the Confederate flag, the racial slurs and threats being lobbed at the black and brown police officers, etc. Jan. 6 was a literal attack on the very idea that black and brown people should have an equal voice with white people in American democracy and society. Three years later, what do you see now in the events of Jan. 6 that you didn’t see then?

I have a much better understanding now of how the different elements of the insurrection — the intimidation of election officials and vice president Mike Pence, the fake elector scheme, and the violent attack on the Capitol — fit together as a larger conspiracy to topple our democracy. Many of the journalists and experts who we interviewed in writing our graphic novel noted that the Jan. 6 attack was, in many ways, a last-ditch effort when the other elements failed.

I also have a much better, much more chilling, sense of how close we came to disaster and authoritarian rule that day. The guns being held in waiting by extremist militias just across the DC/Virginia border, the calls from within Trump’s inner circle for him to declare martial law and deputize the militias, the idea under consideration to have the military seize voting machines, all came very close to happening and would have changed everything in an instant.

Finally, I see more clearly now that Donald Trump’s call to action was the match that lit the Jan. 6 insurrection, but it was fueled by longstanding vectors of white supremacy, Christian nationalism, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry and authoritarianism. In order to understand the insurrection, and prevent another one from happening, we need to understand and reckon with that reality. 

Jan. 6 was practice and a trial run. Trump and the larger white right are not stopping or deterred in their plot to end American democracy.

There’s no question in my mind that the same types of groups are preparing to take similar, but more effective, action in the event of a close 2024 election. Many of the militia leaders like Proud Boy Enrique Tarrio and Oath Keeper Stewart Rhodes are serving long prison sentences, but their organizations and movements persist. Even more ominously, over 150 election deniers were elected or reelected to Congress in 2022, and many honorable state and local election officials — people of both parties who helped save our democracy in 2020 — have been hounded from office by Trump loyalists. Dozens of laws have been changed around the country, moreover, to make it more difficult to vote and easier to subvert accurate voting. This is a time to strengthen our voting systems and democratic institutions, not to neglect or weaken them.

What are some questions that still need to be answered about Jan. 6?

Plenty of unanswered questions still remain about the election and insurrection. Near the top of the list for me are details of the roles that key members of Congress played in facilitating the deception and subversion of democracy leading up to Jan. 6 and the role that social media companies played — through both action and inaction — in enabling the misinformation, hatemongering, and incitement leading up to that violent day.

Your new graphic novel is a type of what if? and counterfactual about Jan. 6 and what would have happened if Trump and his forces had succeeded. As a lifelong comic book and graphic novel reader, I love the what if? narrative device.

There’s a long, proud history of comic books and graphic novels standing up for democracy and challenging bigotry. The first issue of Captain America featured Cap socking Adolf Hitler in the jaw, some nine months before the U.S. entered WWII. The star-spangled hero’s creators were young Jewish Americans who understood Hitler’s villainy well, at a time when Der Fuehrer was being defended by American Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh. Superman fought the KKK in the 1950s and again in the 2010s, as did the Black Panther in the 1970s. So, it seemed natural for my co-author Gan Golan and I to choose that medium to tell a cautionary tale about fascism, bigotry, and real threats to democracy.

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1/6 dramatically asks and answers the question: What if the Jan. 6 insurrection had been successful? Issue #1 introduces readers to an America nine months after a successful insurrection. It’s dystopic, to be sure, but also not far from reality; a country in which a re-installed Trump has declared martial law and deputized right-wing militias who roam the streets of major cities. There are humorous elements, like the golden statue of Trump or the renamed Clarence and Ginni Thomas federal office building, as well as darkly familiar elements like organized attacks on news operations. And, importantly, the story is driven by compelling characters, including a congressional staffer, a news reporter, a first responder, and a MAGA voter. We’ve worked hard to treat each character with empathy and to understand those different perspectives.

In Issue #2, we go back in time to travel the road that led to the successful coup. Rooted in real events, it’s a road that goes from the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville to backroom meetings with fake electors to the White House and through the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot. Throughout, we’re clear with readers about the scenes that are based on documented facts, those that are speculative, and those that are purely fictional.

Issues #3 and #4 will return to the dystopian “present” and follow our characters as they work to restore democracy — even as they argue amongst themselves about what that renewed democracy should look like. There won’t be easy answers, but ultimately our story is a hopeful one: Defending and renewing democracy is in our hands and it’s going to take hard work and commitment.

What were the rules, “the story bible” as it is often called, for the project?

The great thing about comic books as a medium is that there is room for the accurate, the barely believable, and the fantastical. We’ve included all three but worked to make the fantastical elements just an extension of the absurdity that marks our current reality.  We were definitely not afraid to be ridiculous, and readers will also find that here. After all, what’s more ridiculous than Rudy Giuliani, dripping hair dye and defending a defeated president at an impromptu press conference in a landscaping company parking lot?

I am very excited about A24 Film's new "Civil War" movie, which is being written and directed by Alex Garland and features one of my favorite actors, Stephen Henderson. Art is reflecting life in this time of democracy crisis and great anxiety.

A24’s upcoming "Civil War" movie looks provocative, and I know they will do something really interesting with the idea — "Everything Everywhere All at Once" is one of my favorite movies of the decade. I hope that, as we are trying to do, they include an element of hope and a way forward. That, to me, is what makes these stories worth telling.

Do the Trumpists and larger neofascist movement and white right even need another Jan. 6 to complete their plan to end democracy in America?

I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of those of us committed to an equitable, multicultural democracy. In just the last decade, we’ve seen massive, impactful movements for racial justice, women’s rights, economic equality, LGBTQ+ liberation, gun safety, climate justice, and beyond. There has been backlash to each, but it’s time for a backlash to that backlash. The wave of electoral victories for abortion rights around the country (including in some very red places) is one indication that forward progress is within reach.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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