I have always considered Jan. 6 to be a special day. It is, after all, my birthday, the Epiphany, and the 12th day of Christmas. And this year there was the added good fortune that Jan. 6 marked the official congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, a birthday bonus signifying the final chapter of the Trumpian nightmare. It promised to be the happiest birthday in recent memory, especially after the Democratic senatorial miracle in Georgia the previous day.
I knew, of course, that Trump’s maniacal determination to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat had led him to invite his most devoted followers to Washington for some sort of protest against the congressional proceedings in the Capitol. But, for all the authoritarian bluster and talk of potential violence, I felt confident that law and order would prevail, that the disruption would be limited to symbolic flag waving, an angry chorus of white nationalist bombast, and perhaps a few street fights between MAGA zealots and the Capitol Police.
As someone who has spent much of his academic career studying social movements and political conflict, including the massive resistance to the African American freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, I thought I understood the boundaries of anti-democratic behavior in the United States. An attempted coup d’etat in Washington? A full-blown riot and mob assault on a joint meeting of Congress? Domestic terrorism and insurgent fascism promoted by a sitting president and enabled by his congressional and executive branch minions? Surely none of this would come to pass in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The profound shock expressed by so many news commentators in the aftermath of the carnage tells me that I was not alone in my naïvete and unwarranted sense of security. Clearly, the internal threat to American democracy is graver than most of us realized.
But now that we know what we are up against, what do we do about it? Obviously, the perpetrators of the Capitol invasion should be arrested and prosecuted, and President Trump should face the severe sanction of removal from office via impeachment or the 25th Amendment. But I would argue that it is even more important for “We the People” to adopt a carefully balanced view of what just happened, one that avoids unproductive hand wringing and despair.
Perhaps the best way to do this is to recognize that history’s darkest moments often have a silver lining. Meaningful historical change frequently involves an unintended consequence of an action, event or decision. Consider the case of Birmingham, Alabama’s civil rights struggle in 1963. The local movement to bring desegregation and racial justice to a city bedeviled by Jim Crow discrimination was losing momentum and on the verge of collapse until the white supremacist commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, decided to use attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses to intimidate non-violent civil rights marchers, many of whom were young teenagers. The televised images of Connor’s savagery shocked the nation and the world, revealing just how far he and his allies were willing to go to protect the so-called “Southern way of life.”
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Once the brutal underside of Jim Crow was exposed in such spectacular fashion, the embarrassed Birmingham business establishment repudiated Connor’s extremism, turning to a moderate approach that sacrificed racial purity in the interest of economic progress and civic order. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later pointed out, Connor’s self-destructive zeal was a crucial element of the Birmingham movement’s success; without him as an almost perfect foil, the movement would not have had such a wide impact on national public opinion and public policy.
The unintended consequences of Trump’s decision to incite a riotous assault on the Capitol and the rule of law are already taking shape. Capitulating to his gathering rage at being cast as a “loser,” he lost all touch with reality and the basic rules of comity and self-protective restraint. But ironically, in trying to unleash the power of his populistic, white nationalist followers, he actually fastened his movement to an untenable and indefensible hitching post of political extremism and narcissistic indulgence.
The deluge of condemnations and resignations has begun, and in the weeks and months to follow, both before and after his inevitable retreat to Mar-a-Lago, Trump will, in all likelihood, face a rising tide of indignation and outrage that will lead to isolation and ultimately to political irrelevance.
A significant segment of his base — namely die-hard followers such as Rudy Giuliani and Louie Gohmert, the most extreme members of the NRA, some anti-abortion evangelicals, the QAnon folks, and the Proud Boys — will undoubtedly keep the faith and may actually worship him more than ever. But let us hope that most Americans will reach a different conclusion, seeing Trump for what he really is: the first American president to foment outright sedition and insurrection, and the first to violate his oath of office in the most egregious manner possible.
Like Bull Connor and so many other overbearing bullies of the past, Donald Trump is seemingly the architect of his own demise. For many of us, this irony is the shining beacon of light that promises to conquer the darkness of one of the most frightening and shameful episodes in American history. At this point, of course, no one can be certain about any of this. But if my predictions are wrong — if Trump somehow manages to emerge relatively unscathed following his frontal assault on constitutional democracy — heaven help us all.
Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History emeritus at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.