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Capitol riot anniversary a stark reminder of risks faced by American democracy

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Donald Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021./AFP
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Jan 06, 2022 - 11:50 AM

WASHINGTON (AA) – When then-President Donald Trump brought thousands of his supporters to the US capital on Jan. 6, 2021, he did not mince words.

He was explicit. Addressing the voluminous crowd he had called to the Ellipse on the National Mall, Trump fueled his supporters with false claims of election fraud, which a year later have yet to be substantiated after dozens of court defeats, and exhorted the riled-up crowd to march on the Capitol to “fight like hell.”

“We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen,” he said.

Simultaneously, lawmakers at the Capitol were gathering for a critical constitutionally mandated process ahead of President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

The pandemonium that unfurled next caught many by surprise, though perhaps it should not have.

Trump’s supporters, who had been told that the election had been stolen from them since his Nov. 3 defeat, stormed the Capitol, overran barriers, violently clashed with law enforcement, and rampaged through the federal legislature.

It was chaos.

Members of Congress and then-Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, were being evacuated by security officers, and hunkering down in safe rooms as rioters breached Congress, eventually making their way into the Senate chamber, with some demanding that Pence be executed by hanging.

It took hours for police to secure a perimeter and eventually restore a semblance of order to the Capitol, with the assistance of National Guard troops. Five people died in, or as a result of, the melee.

Lawmakers and Pence, who publicly rejected Trump’s demand that he cancel electoral votes, would work well into the following morning to carry out their constitutionally mandated duty of certifying the results of the Nov. 3 election.

The insurrection marked the first time the Capitol had been breached since the British torched it during the War of 1812.

It also marked a major inflection point for American society.

A recent poll from ABC/Ipsos found that while the overwhelming majority of Americans think the insurrectionists posed a threat to the nation’s democracy, a significant portion – 25% – thought the rioters were instead protecting it.

That means that one year after the riot, one in four Americans believe the people who stormed the Capitol were defending the country, opinions likely founded on Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud, which he and his allies have continued to disseminate.

The poll did not break down party affiliation for those opinions, but a separate Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey found that less than 40% of Republicans believe the Jan. 6 attack was extremely or very violent. Nearly 30% believe it was not violent at all.

Those opinions, which have been shared by prominent Trump loyalists, are at stark odds with horrifying video recordings from that day that continue to demonstrate the ferocity of the calamity.

‘Like I went to hell and back’

Rioters can be seen crushing an officer in a door frame as he screams desperately for help, throwing objects at police, including a wooden plank and a fire extinguisher, dragging at least one injured officer along the ground, beating others with flagpoles, and using bear spray and pepper spray against them.

Washington, DC police officer Michael Fanone said during congressional testimony in July that he feels “like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room,” expressing a sense of betrayal at those who now seek to minimize the carnage.

“Too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or that hell actually wasn’t that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful,” he said.

Barbara Kellerman, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the veil that has enveloped a wide swathe of the Republican Party can be largely attributed to a years-long campaign of deceit by the former president and his partisan enablers.

“The context that we’re now talking about is lying, not telling the truth. Trump, long before Jan. 6, was known for the astonishing frequency with which he lied,” she told Anadolu Agency during a telephone interview.

“We should be not surprised that he lied before, on and after Jan. 6 about Jan. 6. What happens if the lying is repeated over and over and over again is that people, a certain segment of the population, actually starts to believe it, and it becomes exceedingly difficult to wean them back to the truth,” she added.

A House select committee is slated to reveal the results of its sprawling investigation into the insurrection and its causes in the coming months, and is expected to do so through a combination of reports and televised hearings. The committee has interviewed over 300 people, combed through tens of thousands of records, and issued dozens of subpoenas over the last half-year.

Bennie Thompson, the committee chairman, told ABC News on Sunday that the information the panel has gathered to date appears to indicate the riot was not a spontaneous event, but the result of “a coordinated activity on the part of a lot of people.”

“It could be people in the executive branch. It could be people in the Department of Defense, some state characters, some nonprofits and some very wealthy individuals who wanted to try to finance this undermining of our democracy,” he said.

Hopes low new revelations will change Republican minds

It is unclear what impact the coming revelations might have on public opinion.

Kellerman, the political scientist who wrote a book examining Trump and his inner circle, said the panel’s pending hearings could “change a few minds,” but only if they are broadcast on television. Still, she hedged her prediction on how much impact they might have.

“Is it going to change a lot of minds? I kind of doubt it. I think for the moment we are stuck, America is stuck like a lot of places around the world where democracies are in trouble and autocracies are being strengthened,” she said.

“The United States is struggling, no question about it. It is very hard to govern wisely and well, in particular at the national level, at this moment in time.”

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