It will look different. It’ll almost certainly be quieter, maybe even under the radar. But it’s coming.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayana famously mused in his 1905 collection, The Life of Reason. It’s an aphorism that’s been widely applied to justify — or at least demystify — the seemingly cyclical nature of history and human nature. But it elides a more fundamental, if uncomfortable truth: that remembering the past (or, as a later iteration of Santayana’s refrain put it, “learning from history”) is no guarantee it won’t happen again. Indeed, in certain cases, remembrance is the first step to ensure repetition.
For the approximately 60% of Republicans who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, and the 30% of Republicans who believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” the immediate past is now defined by what they deem a gross injustice against their political hero — and, perhaps more acutely, against their personal sense of agency and freedom. And what matters more than anything else to this core of Trumpist die-hards (and, to no small extent, the Republican Party as a whole) is leveraging this sense of personal injury to lash out at anything and everything that could be to blame.
It’s this sentiment that was weaponized by Trump to foment the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. And it’s this same sentiment — fed and encouraged over the last year — that will likely result in that past serving as prologue for a similar effort to subvert future elections.
With nearly two-thirds of all Americans predicting some sort of insurrection-style repeat in the coming years, it behooves us then not simply to ask what can be done to head off such a fate, but to explore what the next Jan. 6 would even look like to begin with. Because while history may be doomed to repeat itself — or perhaps encouraged, in this case — that doesn’t mean those doing the repeating haven’t learned a thing or two in the meantime. And that means the next Jan. 6 is looking a lot scarier.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “state legislators brazenly introduced at least 10 bills in seven states during the 2021 legislative session that would have directly empowered partisan officials to change or overturn election results.”
To begin with, it’s important to note that the groundwork for a second insurrection is already well underway. In Republican-controlled statehouses around the country, the very structure of the electoral system is being gamed to ensure conservative control through tried and true methods like gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement.
That’s nothing new, of course. What’s changed is that after the 2020 election, the GOP adopted a new strategy to more literally subvert the will of the voters by pushing laws that would essentially give state lawmakers the ability to reject election results they don’t like. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “state legislators brazenly introduced at least 10 bills in seven states during the 2021 legislative session that would have directly empowered partisan officials to change or overturn election results.” While none of those bills have been passed to date, they are the direct result of the push by Trump and his allies to overturn specific state election tallies, which would have, if successful, flipped the 2020 results in his favor. The Brennan Center notes elsewhere in its study that “at least three states have passed, and at least 10 more have considered, bills that would sabotage the democratic process in more indirect ways, by allowing political partisans to seize control of certain aspects of election administration typically handled by professional election personnel.”
There is, in other words, a widespread push within the GOP to do via legislation at the state level what the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 was trying to do federally — and through violence.
This raises an almost certain second feature of any subsequent insurrection attempt: It might not be as immediately physical or dramatic as Jan. 6 was. It may not be as focused. Instead of massing at the Capitol in D.C. as a capstone last stand, aspiring insurrectionists now have both the implied threat of violence, as established on Jan. 6, as well as the burgeoning state-level infrastructure to no longer need an all-or-nothing riot at all.
Rather, consider the following potential election night scenario: In multiple states around the country, the Democratic candidate for president is determined to be the electoral winner by the vote count shortly after polls close. In the days and weeks that follow, Republican officials in one of those states, who have spent the preceding few years snapping up electoral roles, begin casting doubt on those results with allegations of voter fraud, or faulty machinery, or any of the other widely disproven claims they made in 2020.
This time, however, their allegations open the door for GOP-held state legislatures to justify swapping out the federal electors, who are bound by the popular vote, with their own partisan picks. These new electors will then submit the electoral winner they wanted, not the one the voters chose.
It’s not hard to imagine a state enacting such a rule, leaving their local electoral process easily exploitable while challenges to the law work their way to the (conservative-heavy) Supreme Court.
To date, no state has actually passed a law to give partisan legislatures this level of electoral oversight. But proposals exist in Missouri, Arizona, and Nevada so far. And while most legal commentators agree that such rules would be unconstitutional, it’s not hard to imagine a state enacting such a rule, leaving their local electoral process easily exploitable while challenges to the law work their way to the (conservative-heavy) Supreme Court.
This sort of transparent legislative manipulation at the expense of the popular vote would, of course, guarantee mass protests at the corresponding statehouses. And those demonstrations would, in turn, very likely be met with counter-protests from the same coalition of conservative shock troops who enacted the initial Jan. 6 insurrection. Already, we’ve seen state Capitol buildings besieged by local militias and right-wing groups — at times even aided by Republican lawmakers working therein. In Oregon, for example, state Rep. Mike Nearman was charged for opening the door (literally) for a melange of violent right-wing protesters angry over the state’s COVID policies. In Michigan, armed militia members massed outside the Capitol building in spring 2020 to protest Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID response in what U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin characterized as a “dress rehearsal” for the Jan. 6 insurrection.
But those instances were ones in which an assortment of Proud Boys, Oath Keeper militia men, and other far-right figures were acting in response to the normal governmental process. The election had already happened; the votes had been counted and declared for two months. The next time around, these vigilantes will be working in the moment to defend Republican-led efforts to subvert electoral results. They would, in essence, be acting with the explicit blessings of state Republicans as working to “protect” the electoral process.
All the while, as mainstream platforms like Twitter are clogged with a mixture of reporting, debating, and prognosticating about what’s happening, conservative users will likely retreat to their right-wing-only networks. There would be an entire ecosystem of hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of insurrectionists and sympathizers whose views on this type of semi-legal coup would be reinforced by the likes of Rep. Madison Cawthorn; Sen. Ted Cruz; Dan Bongino, a Fox Nation radio host who bought a stake in right-wing Twitter clone Parler; and yes, even Donald Trump, whose own “Truth Social” project will almost certainly become a bullhorn for the former president to rile up his most diehard followers directly.
Scary? Yes. Plausible? You bet.
The shock and awe of Jan. 6, 2021, will give way to a gnawing sense of horror at the clinically procedural nature of how a democracy can be disassembled.
The next Jan. 6 will likely be an insidiously gentler affair than its predecessor. Rather than the overt violence and spectacle of a massive rally at the seat of federal power, it will likely focus more on the legal manipulations of the electoral system. While the threat (and potential outbreak) of violence will play a role, the fact that it will rely first and foremost on lawmakers simply passing laws makes it a more subtle prospect — and therefore a most dangerous one. No broken glass and gallows and harrowing video of Capitol Police officers with their guns drawn. Just crass manipulation of a centuries-old system that one of the two major political parties in this country has decided it doesn’t respect.
With years of planning to go, the slapdash burlesque of Trump’s 2020 attempt to overturn the election will be replaced with slick, coordinated messaging and a populace primed for desperate upheaval. The shock and awe of Jan. 6, 2021, will give way to a gnawing sense of horror at the clinically procedural nature of how a democracy can be disassembled.
The aftermath — the “Jan. 7,” if you will — will be equally subtle. It will lack the focal point of an overwhelming instance of over-the-top violence. And without that single instance around which the public can rally, the likelihood that it will succeed unchallenged increases exponentially.