Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of one of the low points of American history. A lot of people who supported Donald Trump might not want to think so; they may wish people would stop talking about it. They may change the channel, especially when news programs show the actual (and shocking) footage of that day. They may say everyone is exaggerating the violence of that event - or that it should not count as an insurrection, because only a handful of people died.
But guess what? History teachers are still talking about Shays’ Rebellion (1786) and the Whiskey Rebellion (1791). Only nine people died in the former and only four or five in the latter. We do not talk about them because of the magnitude of death and destruction that occurred but because of the magnitude of their historical significance. Shays’ Rebellion led indirectly to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The Whiskey Rebellion demonstrated (to the country and to the world) that the government created by that Constitution had the authority, will, and power to suppress violent actions against the Constitution, the government, and the law - all three of which, by the way, perfectly describe the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.
Except, in the case of the January rebellion, it was the president himself who instigated, encouraged, and allowed the violence directed against both his own executive branch (in the person of his vice-president, who came within a hair’s breadth of assassination) and the whole legislative branch. The House Select Committee investigating the attack, who have recently released their interview transcripts, uncovered a breathtaking array of evidence that our authoritarian ex-president intentionally stirred up his fervent followers to stop the Constitutionally mandated certification of the election - or at least delay it long enough for some of his other schemes with the same purpose to come to fruition. One of the most frightening disclosures of the transcripts is that the Pentagon refused to send troops in to quell the riot out of fear that, if they were that close to the action, the president would illegally order them to help the rioters overthrow the government chosen by a majority of the American people. Fittingly enough, Trump started his presidency with a warning of “American carnage” and ended it by delivering it.
On the day itself, my pro-Trump friends were uncharacteristically quiet. It was virtually impossible to defend the carnage while it was unspooling live on television. I believed at the time they were overcome by shame, and maybe (hopefully) they were. Within a few days, though - following the Trump doctrine of denying that the past happened - they were minimizing or excusing the whole thing.
But the truth is - and this is why Jan. 6 will be talked about by historians for centuries to come - that day (like the Whiskey Rebellion) was a major testing of constitutional democracy. It could have gone very differently - and if Trump had installed the type of hyper-loyal-constitutionally-averse-authoritarian staff he no doubt would install in a second administration, it would have.
For those of us paying attention, the months leading up to the 2022 midterms were almost as frightening. A whole slew of Trump-backed candidates were on the slate who, had they won, would have been situated to change the results of the next election in Trump’s favor. Thankfully, almost all those candidates in swing states lost, demonstrating that Trump was losing some of his influence. This, in turn, led to the Republican establishment finally feeling emboldened to buck The Orange One, and the conventional wisdom now is that Trump will not be favored to win the nomination this time.
But he wasn’t favored to win the nomination in 2016, either. Many thought it was impossible for him to do so or to win the general election. He has enough devoted followers to get the Republican spot. It’s still an urgent necessity that we remember Jan. 6.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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