“Please grab a mask!” a Capitol Police officer shouted from the House floor on Jan. 6, 2021. Rioters had broken into the building, and the police were unable to expel them. The police told us to put on gas masks and to get down to the ground.
In the months after the 2020 election, I had suggested to Speaker Nancy Pelosi that we form a small group of members charged with anticipating anything that might go wrong during the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress when the electoral votes would be counted. Although we considered dozens of options, none of them led to this — never an attack on the transfer power, which was the first in our nation’s history.
Shouting matches broke out all around me. As we waited for the doors to open, recriminations erupted as one of my Democratic colleagues shouted at Republicans: “This is because you!”
“You cannot let them see me,” one Republican told me, apparently concerned about my vulnerability to violence from the insurrectionists. I was initially touched but I became angry. GOP lies about the election had lead to violence all around me. They couldn’t see that.
In the days and hours following the insurrection it looked like the GOP leadership would finally grasp what Donald Trump had done with his big lie regarding massive election fraud.
“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy acknowledged. Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Senate , that the president is morally and practically responsible for the attacks on Congress by mob rioters. We had the opportunity to discredit the immoral grifter, who manipulated people’s worst fears and anxieties until the point of violence against the capitol. We were able to reverse the party’s dark flirtation with authoritarianism. We had the chance to move forward. Although we were still divided, we could work together as a nation and democracy.
And then, it was gone. McCarthy, McConnell, and other state and local GOP leaders decided Donald Trump could incite violence against our democracy, and still retain his support. The GOP leadership gave up on their convictions and was influenced only by their desire to regain power.
While Trump’s big lie was being repeated, GOP officials used it as a platform to introduce new Jim Crow laws across the country that would disenfranchise people of color. They have also used false claims about voter fraud to remove independent election officials and handed those duties over to partisan legislatures. They’ve even run technocratic local elections officials out of towns with death threats.
The lesson Trump and his enablers seemed to have learned from their failure to overturn President Biden’s election appears to be this: If they couldn’t get the Georgia secretary of state to “find” 11,780 votes that didn’t exist in 2020, they will make sure to have someone in that position and others in 2024 who will. They will stop people voting if possible. They will set the stage for the next election if that fails. Our democracy has never been in such danger. We believed democracy was inexorable. We were wrong.
Democracies do not always die by violent overthrow. They die more often through atrophy or the gradual degradation of institutions and the use of democratic methods to achieve authoritarian ends. This is the model Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister and wannabe dictator, used to lead his country towards autocracy. It is also the model that Republican thought leaders like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson admire and promote ..
It is possible to save the cherished legacy of our founders — a government by, for and by the people. Our current predicament is not simple. The filibuster, an archaic Senate practice, is sabotaging our best statutory protections. The last four years have taught us that even the Constitution cannot protect our democracy if its men and women who swear to uphold it don’t live up to the oaths.
To save democracy, we need a national awakening and a national movement on the 6th of January. Our local officials, both Republicans and Democrats, must be supported. They must protect the integrity of our elections. Any new obstacles to voting must be overcome and we must fight them. We must behave as though democracy were on the ballot in every election that comes.
Democrat Adam B. Schiff is a member of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. He represents California’s 28th Congressional District.