What History Teaches Us About January 6th
It is not too late for conservatives to live up to their best traditions—and turn on Trump.
One of the most striking moments in the first public hearing of the House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol attack came when Representative Bennie Thompson, the committee’s chairman, evoked the presidential election of 1864. In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln believed he would lose the election to General George McClellan and that the future of the Union was in jeopardy. But as Thompson reminded the millions watching, “even with that grim fate hanging in the balance, President Lincoln was ready to accept the will of the voters, come what may. He made a quiet pledge. He wrote down the words, ‘This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the president-elect.’”
“It will be my duty to cooperate.” Lincoln truly believed that if he lost, his nation would cease to exist. Despite it all, he vowed to transfer power peacefully.
Surely it would have been permissible for Lincoln to cling to power in order to save America? By raising this example in the hearing, Thompson implied a firm answer to this question: No. And it’s easy to see why. Seizing office, even for noble ends, rarely works. A population that is already tearing itself apart will not overlook something as monumental as an illegitimate transfer of power. The act would violate what the American system of government stood for, and Lincoln must have known that refusing to yield gracefully would hasten the demise of the nation quicker than the Civil War alone could.
By pointing to 1864 the committee raised an important question: might the GOP be convinced to follow Lincoln’s example and stand up for America’s democratic tradition, come what may? On the face of it the signs are unhopeful. Politicians who initially condemned Trump after the Capitol insurrection quickly reverted to partisan sniping. The GOP’s social media feeds are saturated with attacks on the committee and relentless talking points about inflation. Just this week, Representative Tom Rice, a staunch Trump critic, was demolished in the Republican primary for his South Carolina seat by a pro-Trump zealot.
But the worst thing to do is to despair. There are steps concerned onlookers can take to build on the momentum of the January 6 committee, and to strengthen the anti-insurrection forces. The party of Lincoln is not irretrievably the party of Trump.
First, we must accept that those at the heart of the MAGA movement are unlikely to abandon their views. Like Lincoln, Trump believes America faces an existential threat. The difference is that while Lincoln believed in America itself—its institutions and its democratic promise—Trumpists peddle a vast conspiracy theory about the “deep state,” undergirded by Christian nationalism and paranoia about white decline. “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump told the crowds that went on to storm the Capitol. Far from being an isolated outburst, this taps into a deep fear embodied in a breathless new millenarian movement that has emerged within the far right. Fearful that the end-time under the auspices of “woke anarchism” is nigh, influential voices advocate the suspension of democracy or violent revolutionary upheaval.
Recognizing that one corner of the right is too far down the rabbit hole of identitarian fury and conspiracy theorizing does not mean that we should act like they have seceded from the nation, or that they are not entitled to their full rights as citizens. Representative Liz Cheney, vice chair of the committee, made this point when she stressed that Team Trump had the right to seek adjudication in the courts after 2020 just like everyone else (even if they blatantly abused this right). It does mean, however, that convincing the diehards that they pose the real threat to America is an unrealistic benchmark for the committee’s success.
Second, we need to elevate those fighting the good fight on the anti-Trump right. These are the exceptions who follow Lincoln’s example: politicians like Cheney, Senator Mitt Romney, and Representative Adam Kinzinger who resist Trump in Congress; individual state officials like Arizona county recorder Stephen Richer, who refused to bow to pressure to subvert the certification of the 2020 results; TV anchors like Fox’s Chris Stirewalt, who came out against his network’s complicity in pedaling the Big Lie; “Never Trump” journalists like David French, David Frum, Sarah Longwell, and others who relentlessly hammer home the dangers and pathologies of the MAGA movement.
It’s too easy to dismiss conservative critics of Trump as merely having lived up to the lowest possible standards. A year ago, when Cheney lost her leadership role among House Republicans for opposing Trump, many commentators decried her record, or even suggested that her ousting was an example of karma. But the reality is that calling out your own side—putting yourself and your family in the firing line of violent extremists—is the greatest act of courage. Those on the left need to embrace common cause with the “Never Trump” movement. They should ensure that their attacks do not weaken the anti-Trump forces in the heat of partisan acrimony during this year’s midterms.
Third, we need to convince others on the right—those who are currently prevaricating or maintaining an ambiguous silence—to turn on Trump. This can be done by hammering home the lesson that Lincoln taught in 1864: The rule of law is the precondition for America’s very existence; no matter how bad a state you think the country is in, the peaceful transfer of power must be protected at all costs. This lesson is faithful to the best traditions of conservatism, not just in the United States but around the world. Nothing is more conservative than preserving the foundations of American democracy, and nothing more radical and nihilistic than trying to burn them to the ground. If those on the right are given good reasons to oppose Trump, reasons that come from within their own ideological tradition, there is hope that they might listen.
Finally, all of us need to prepare for the time when the GOP moves beyond Trump. When this day comes, America will look back on his influence with shame and embarrassment. Predictably, there will be those who endorsed Trump at the time, or else stayed silent, who will try to rehabilitate themselves, and it will be tempting to go after them with the full force of our retribution.
But, frankly, unless they broke the law we should let the outer circle move on from the spectacle of MAGA in whatever sordid way they please. This is deeply counter-intuitive and runs against a natural sense of justice. Yet times of trauma call, not for moralism or for “clean hands,” but for renewal. This is not to say we shouldn’t hold people to account or that we should erase the history of Trumpism. It just means that when the time comes we cannot afford to engage in a frenzied bout of ideological cleansing. After all, Cheney herself was once one of Trump’s defenders.
The biggest upheaval may yet be round the corner. Red states across America are already preparing the ground for a constitutional crisis if the 2024 election is a close call. Legislatures are accelerating plans to seize control of election certification from local officials, or increase bureaucratic hurdles to create the impression of contested results. The militants that led the Capitol’s storming aren’t going anywhere—they’re waiting for their next cue to stage a violent insurrection attempt.
But against this grim future, there is a world in which the political right rediscovers its love of the rule of law. There is a world in which the GOP leadership turns against the Trumpists. We have to make it easy for them to do so. The January 6 committee was right to begin its hearings by pointing to the lessons from history. If Lincoln teaches us anything, it’s that defeating Trump is not a radical act for the right—it is a return home.
Luke Hallam is an associate editor at Persuasion.