January 6th was a complete disregard for democratic institutions and processes, but how did we reach that point? How did so many United States citizens get to the point where they believed that they were living under a fraudulent government that had falsified election results and that they needed to use force to take it back? Much of these problematic notions that became popular came from Trump’s rise to power.
During Trump’s 2016 campaign, he was quick to differentiate himself from other politicians. Utilizing the fact that he had never worked in politics he framed himself as an outsider with good intentions to “drain the swamp”. He also paid little attention to norms on political correctness and did not stray away from violent rhetoric. At rallies he stated that he would like to punch a protester in the face, and that his supporters should “knock the crap out of” protesters as well. This has extended to Trump feeling untouchable. No matter how shocking or off putting something he said was, his supporters stuck by him, making him feel emboldened enough to state he could stand in the middle of Times Square, shoot someone, and still not lose any supporters.
Once in office, Trump displayed multiple characteristics often seen in leaders of other countries that experienced back sliding into an authoritarian regime including presence of nepotism and loyalists. He demonstrated nepotism through his appointments of his daughter and son in law to senior advisors. His prevalence of loyalists is seen through his many “yes men” that defended him throughout each scandal only to be thrown under the bus shortly after. We also saw a form of control over the media. This was not in the traditionally thought of state sponsored media, instead it was through the concept of fake news. Trump used fake news as the scapegoat for any news that he disliked. Additionally, after his favorite conservative news outlet, Fox, started to say things he did not like, he began to try and delegitmize them as well.
Finally during the 2020 election Trump decided to spread misinformation prior to and after losing the election. He and the conservative party began creating distrust in the voting process, by spreading lies about widespread voter fraud. This ranged from stories of identity theft, dead people voting, and people voting multiple times, all in an attempt to delegitimize mail in ballots. After these tactics did not work Trump attempted to outright change voting results, asking the Georgia Secretary of State to “find 11,780 votes”. It was after both of these tactics failed that he decided to incite an insurrection.
Traditional coups have faded away and a new wave of gradual transitions from democracy to authoritarianism have taken their place. This new route of creating an authoritarian government is called democratic erosion or democratic backsliding. Democratic backsliding is in contrast to an abrupt militarized coup, and is instead the degradation of democratic institutions and safeguards, leading to the formation of an authoritarian regime. Even more concerning is that democratic erosion could easily happen anywhere, meaning that countries like the United States who think they are safe are far from it. In fact, in wake of the Trump era, democracy in the United States is in far greater danger than the public may know, and the January 6th insurrection is proof that democratic backsliding can happen in the United States.
January 6th was a clear example of an attempted coup. A mob of over 2,000 Trump supporters were able to enter the capital building with thousands more rioters outside. As instructed by Trump, all of these individuals came with the goal of preventing congress from counting the electoral college votes and formalizing Biden’s victory. Despite this being a form of a coup, it was still a form of democratic backsliding instead of traditional authoritarian power grab. It was not led by a dictator with the military but instead it was entirely carried out by citizens. Citizens who had been fed lies by a leader who sat back and watched it all happen from a far. This coup was a product of erosion that had been going on for years through populist and violent rhetoric as well as widespread misinformation. It was a clear example of a promissory coup in which power is seized with the promise of restoring democracy. In this case, Trump created the narrative that the election was stolen and in order to preserve democracy, he must remain in office since he was the rightfully elected leader.
The rise of Trump leading up to the January 6th insurrection occurred in only a few years. While this took much longer than a traditional coup that causes an abrupt change to authoritarianism, it is quite startling. The United States is still far from an authoritarian regime, but it is not immune to aspects of democratic erosion. This poses the question of what other aspects of our democracy could be attacked by a new demagogue and how lasting the effects of the Trump era will be?