What I Learned on Jan. 6
Trying to comfort my 84-year-old mother, I stumbled on a few truths that comforted me as well.
By Michael Judge
Anyone impartially weighing the facts presented this week by the House hearing on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol would be hard pressed not to arrive at the same conclusion as the House committee’s chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, that “Jan. 6 was the culmination of an attempted coup.”
One should remember that this is—and has been from the start—a bipartisan investigation. Many Republicans were and remain just as horrified as Democrats by the awful events of Jan. 6 and former President Donald Trump’s role in organizing, instigating and allowing them to unfold and escalate.
Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, couldn’t have been clearer Thursday evening when she told the nation that, as a “violent mob” attacked the Capitol, Donald Trump “did not condemn the attack, instead he justified it.” She continued by stating the obvious in a calm and steady voice: “Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible. There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
Harvard historian and best-selling author Tiya Miles recently wrote, in a moving TFP essay titled “Fulfilling the Promise of America,” of the 19th-century Southern abolitionist Angelina Grimké, and how she “sought to awaken in her readers a moral determination that honest consideration of the past can singularly ignite.” We, too, Miles continued, “are now called upon to arouse within ourselves that same moral determination to look at the face of the past, a most able teacher. Bearing up to our shared history—as burned and scarred as it may be—reminds us that this is holy ground, and we must never surrender it.”
Jan. 6 seems, in many ways, like long ago. But it was, in reality, just 17 months ago. To borrow Miles’s words, the events of that day are now “our shared history” and we must bear up to them and give them the honest consideration that all history requires of us, no matter how “burned and scarred” that history may be.
In that spirit of honest consideration, I’m sharing with TFP readers today a piece I wrote in the days following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol—a piece that, upon reflection, reveals how shaken millions in America were by the events of that day, and, in turn, why an honest consideration of them is necessary.
From the TFP Archives
Jan. 11, 2021
Eternal Vigilance Continues to Be the Price of Liberty
By Michael Judge
In the early evening of Jan. 6—a date, like Dec. 7, that will live in infamy—I received a phone call from my 84-year-old mother, her voice full of worry and uncertainty, not for her children, six grandchildren or five great grandchildren, but for the nation she loves. “I tried to stop watching the riot at the Capitol,” she said, and “take a nap. But I couldn’t get the images out of my mind.”
Those images, tragically, are emblazoned now in her memory as they are in the memory of millions around the globe, friend and foe alike. For six hours the U.S. Capitol was under siege by a mob of Donald Trump supporters, hopped up on the president’s lies of a “stolen” election, who overwhelmed Capitol Police, menaced lawmakers, and violently and shamelessly desecrated what President-elect Joseph R. Biden later called “the citadel of liberty.”
“In the evening of Jan. 6, after the attack on the Capitol, my mother asked sincerely, ‘Where does it end?’ I didn’t have a good answer. But in speaking with my mother, trying to comfort her, I stumbled on a few truths that comforted me as well.”
Many waving Trump flags, some waving Confederate flags, this was no peaceful protest but a planned assault designed to stop Congress from doing its constitutional duty and formally certifying Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College victory, making him, on Jan. 20, the 46th president of the United States.
Like so many Americans, my mother, the daughter of Republican farmers and educators devoted to the Party of Lincoln, has a hard time understanding what she witnessed on Jan. 6. Born in 1936, she’s lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the riots that followed, as well as 9/11, the wars that followed, and the injustices that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Her five children were born in five different states, as her husband, our father, was a corporate man with a glass company that kept him moving. My sister was born in 1964 in Bridgeton, N.J., where my mom, as a white woman, saw the evils of prejudice firsthand, not in the Deep South, but about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. In Bridgeton, she said, schools weren’t segregated but the education of African-American students wasn’t taken seriously because, she was told, “Black kids don’t go to college.”
Two years later, in 1966, I was born in Alton, Ill., a river town on the Mississippi where Lincoln told Douglas in their seventh debate that he did indeed believe that slavery had “an evil tendency, if not an evil design” and was intended to “dehumanize” the Black man in this country and “take away from him the right of ever striving to be a man.” Yet, 108 years after Lincoln spoke those words, Black men in Alton in the year of my birth were still called “boy” and Black families “knew better” than to walk certain streets after nightfall.
It was two years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, but that didn’t stop the white men who ran my dad’s office from bragging about their cruel and stupid racism. At cocktail parties they’d tell stories of Black men who answered ads saying the company was hiring only to be told, “Oh, sorry. That job was filled yesterday. If only you’d been here a day earlier!”
And the whole lot of them would laugh hysterically into their martinis.
So, why was my mother—who lived to see a Black man become president of the United States, but also lived to see a president say he “loves” the mob who carried nooses, guns and Confederate flags into the Capitol—so dismayed and sickened by what she saw on Jan. 6?
Because, in her twilight years she was witnessing something she had never seen before. An assault on our democracy and our most cherished democratic ideal—the sanctity of the vote—by the president of the United States and those who believe his shameless lies about a “rigged” and “fraudulent” election.
“Where does it end?” my mother asked, sincerely. I didn’t have a good answer. But in speaking with my mother, trying to comfort her, I stumbled on a few truths that comforted me as well.
First, all this is happening because the system worked. Despite the pandemic, our elections were safe and secure, and groundless accusations of widespread fraud and attempts to cherry pick the states’ Electoral College votes were thrown out by courts across the country, including the Supreme Court.
Moreover, the state certification process worked, assuring that an incumbent president and vice president couldn’t veto the results after the fact. The founders, once again, foresaw threats like this and, despite the machinations and deluded ambition of craven leaders like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, the system the founders created protected our democracy.
“This is why the rioters are rioting,” I told my mother. “The system worked and, tragically, only the most gullible have been radicalized and convinced by a demagogue that they were cheated.”
Indeed, resentment over “being cheated” has been central to Trump’s appeal from the start. Trump and his abettors have turned the idea of America as a meritocracy, where hard work pays off, on its head, stoking the flames of resentment with claims that “elites” and “foreigners” are cheating Americans out of what is rightfully theirs. Now, he says, they’ve even been cheated out of democracy.
But the truth is, as I told my mother on Jan. 6, the system, once again, worked. The House and Senate reconvened and fulfilled their constitutional duty by formally certifying the Electoral College vote. Even as he failed to concede, becoming the first U.S. president ever to do so, in the early hours of Jan. 7 Trump released a statement saying “there will be an orderly transition on January 20.”
But nothing Trump can do will ever bring back those five Americans who lost their lives in the mayhem unleashed by his shameless lies. One, U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick, an Iraq War veteran, was reportedly bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher during the siege, succumbing to his injuries 18 hours after Pastor Barry C. Black, the Senate chaplain for nearly two decades, brought the most tragic joint session in Congress history to a close just after 3:40 a.m:
“We deplore the desecration of the United States Capitol Building, the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life, and the quagmire of dysfunction that threaten our democracy. These tragedies have reminded us that words matter, and that the power of life and death is in the tongue. We have been warned that eternal vigilance continues to be freedom’s price.”
My mother was fast asleep by the time Black spoke those words. But I know what she’d say to them, and to him: