1/06: The Trump Insurrection and The End of the Flight 93 Presidency
On September 11th 2001, Ziad Jarrah telephoned his fiancé Aysel Şengün in Germany from a public telephone in Newark International Airport, repeatedly telling her, “I love you”. It was a gesture that he would deny to the people that he and a group of men were about to sacrificially murder; the 40 passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93, hundreds of civilians, federal officers and elected legislators of the United States, most of whom were gathered inside the U.S. Capitol Building. Rather than attempting to strike a blow for the oppressed, landless poor and disenfranchised of the world, as many Western left-wing and progressive authors assumed at the time, the hijackers’ goals were considerably more retrograde. Their operational leader Mohamed Atta was animated by belief in the existence of “a global Jewish movement centered in New York City that… controlled the financial world and the media”. Jarrah’s involvement in the 9/11 plot, along with his fellow middle-class, university-educated pilot-hijackers, started with a conviction that one school of religious thought within Sunni Islam — an extreme variant of Salafism — held authority to determine human affairs through acts of violent jihadist struggle. Democracy, liberalism, and modernity itself were obstacles to the true purpose of life. Violent expression of Salafi-Jihadism was not only justified but divinely-warranted.
Invoking the imagery and emotional weight of 9/11 formed the language of Republican raison d’etre throughout the Bush Administration, the War in Iraq the Bush 2004 re-election campaign and beyond. But the efforts to exclusively appropriate the imagery and memory of 9/11, and Flight 93 in particular, reached a high-water mark in a September 2016 editorial by a conservative speechwriter, chef, men’s fashion writer and conspiracy theorist, Michael Anton. The essay provides an intellectual and emotional direct line from Donald Trump’s ascension to power through the beliefs which animated those storming into the Capitol on January 6th 2021 during the Joint Session of Congress, as well as those who incited them.
On what may come to be known as ‘1/06’, a brigade of plague-carrying, plague-denying American nationalist militants dressed in paramilitary regalia stormed the Capitol attempting to overturn the results of a democratic election by assaulting and terrorising an elected body of American lawmakers; some were photographed carrying zip-ties, as if ready to restrain hostages. The Trump Insurrection was the climax of two months of litigation, intimidation and backroom coercion by the Trump campaign and Trump himself to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In an unprecedented post-election wave of 62 failed lawsuits seeking to throw out, invalidate, nullify and render illegal the votes in states which voted for Biden, the objective was transparent. Trump was joined by 106 Republican members of Congress, and 18 state attorneys general in a lawsuit filed by disgraced (and grand-jury-indicted) Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking to nullify the elections of other states; conservative pretense for concern about states’ rights and federalism be damned. To defend ‘liberty’ as conceived and understood within Trumpism and American populist nationalism, the votes of the majority at state and federal levels must be not only ignored, but indeed criminalised.
Written under the portentous Latin pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, named for a Roman consul who sacrificed himself in battle, ‘The Flight 93 Election’ was one of the most prominent efforts to provide an intellectual justification of Trumpism. Anton would later serve as a national security advisor in the Trump administration, apparently in reward for this essay and other public apologetics for Trump. Attacking conservatives and ‘Never Trumpers’ who refused to endorse then-candidate Trump, the essay compared allowing Hillary Clinton (and, it left no doubt, any contemporary Democratic candidate) to win the Presidency, with allowing the 9/11 hijackers to crash into the Capitol: “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die… if you don’t try, death is certain.” For Anton, ‘death’ was to be brought:
“most important[ly], the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.”
Thus spoke an existential fear about demographic replacement; a polite euphemism for the French-originated Great Replacement conspiracy theory, and its more explicit companion, the White Genocide conspiracy theory, motivators of white nationalist terrorism and the designs of far-right movements worldwide. Being not the only mainstream conservative author to indulge in the fantasy, Anton’s assertions were not merely invocations of a European-born narrative; they had strong roots in American history. Foreigners without “experience in liberty” could aptly describe the overwhelming majority of immigrants who arrived on America’s shores before the 21st century. But the phraseology also parallels that espoused by Woodrow Wilson in 1901, describing formerly enslaved African-Americans in the South:
“unpracticed in liberty, unschooled in self-control… excited by a freedom they did not understand, exalted by false hopes… insolent and aggressive…”
Openly and avowedly ‘anti-American’ attacks which threaten the survival of the Republic are rarer than such threats by many self-avowed ‘patriots’ claiming to defend the Republic. Slavery and the separatist rebellion to preserve and expand it; Jim Crow and decades of mandatory and unofficial segregation; the killing and dispossession of Native Americans; the internment of Japanese-Americans in the Second World War; the arbitrary arrest, incarceration and psychiatric confinement of gay men; the killing, oppression and brutalisation of one group of Americans makes the rights of all others conditional and arbitrary. The terror which followed Reconstruction; mob attacks and insurrections which massacred citizens, intimidated and overthrew elected governments and stripped citizens of their rights, as in the Wilmington, North Carolina coup of 1898; caused greater injury to Americans’ constitutional rights than any foreign occupier before or since. The Republic and the Constitution were repeatedly, if not perennially endangered when they otherwise might not have been.
Adam Serwer has extensively chronicled the disparity between the varied experience of democratic disenfranchisement with those with both the greatest and the least cause for disillusion. Black Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans and LGBT Americans never lost or abandoned belief in democracy and liberalism; aside from marginal separatist, isolationist or emigrationist projects, the movements to win power for historically oppressed and under-represented groups were affirmations of the American democratic experiment. Those denied the vote campaigned for the right to vote; those denied legal process and fair trials battled through the courts. Trump supporters and those who stormed the U.S. Capitol had never faced these oppressions. The same can be said of those embracing ‘revolution’ and insurrection in response to the inconveniences of Covid-19 restrictions. Oppression had never defined, ruled or even touched their lives, but after a few election losses and several years of litigation defeats, American conservatives are increasingly embracing the ultimate veto; the gunbarrel, the forcible seizure of institutions and the unconstrained executive.
Conservative authority in the United States is accompanied by the ever-present auxiliary power of lethal force if conservatives feel decisively rejected or unable to regain democratic support. From the secession of the Confederate States at the election of a moderate anti-slavery candidate, throughout the post-Civil War and Reconstruction era, continuing to the Tea Party protests of the Obama years; the NRA chief executive’s declaration in 2009 that “the guys with the guns make the rules”. Though an undercurrent that remains beneath American political discourse, with a long history of resurfacing, the authority of insurrectionary violence was being invoked increasingly and more directly throughout Trump’s term in office. President Trump’s March 2019 invocation of the threat posed by his “tough” supporters:
“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump… I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they [the Democrats] go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
The spectre of armed, violent and unquenchably enraged mobs; not directly threatened by the speaker, but kept waiting on the sidelines as a deterrent and invocative warning; is the auxiliary power which conservative populism has possessed historically and which was deployed on 1/06. Political discussion and policy change can take place only within boundaries determined by an unquantifiable limit; the fear of ‘tyranny’ as subjectively defined by conservatives and particularly by firearms-owners. To be clear, American conservatism is far from unique in this. The major political factions in Northern Ireland during the Troubles (1969–1998) consisted of political parties that were inextricably enmeshed with armed paramilitaries which kept party politicians hostage to armed demands. Hezbollah is both a political movement and a militant group with enough power and infrastructure to control large parts of Lebanon as its own quasi-statelet. The ‘pink tide’ socialist authoritarians Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua used the continuous threat of ‘popular’ armed intimidation and insurrection to augment electoral politics. When the voters failed them, the leaders delivered on their threats, using armed insurrection by pro-government militias to overthrow the legislature in Venezuela in 2017 and to crush political opposition in Nicaragua in 2018.
The principle, however, is the same throughout. If electoral, legislative and legal authority delivers an intolerable set of results, an armed group can apply the threat of force to persuade a legislature or a court to reverse itself, or use violence to replace it altogether. The April 2020 invasion of the Michigan State Capitol by armed men and the purported militia plots to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and “try” her for “treason” in response to the state’s Covid-19 restrictions were an overture and a preliminary demonstration for the U.S. Capitol insurrection. Ultimately, the electorate itself can be disregarded and replaced, even when a decision has been decisively made. The latter expression of this idea lives within President Trump’s desperate fantasies — indulged by the conservative populist power base around him— of somehow doing a “re-run” of the 2020 presidential election in states he lost. The fact that unlike in the Westminster model of Britain and Canada, the constitutionally-defined U.S. electoral system does not permit incumbent parties to ‘call’ new elections, is as irrelevant for the constitutional conservatives upholding Trump as the absence of evidence supporting his delusions.
In 2018, arguing to a liberal audience for the necessity of a viable conservative movement apart from Trumpism, the Atlantic editor and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote:
“If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”
The cry of 2016 populism in Orbán, Duterte, Erdoğan, Brexit and Trump was “the will of the people”. In 2020, as “the people” began to shift against specific conservative populist parties and leaders in several nations (Trump lost decisively; Hungarian opposition parties united behind one banner now lead in the polls against Orban; Turkish opposition to Erdogan has achieved increasing successes on a similar path), conservatives rediscovered a learned and authoritative tradition, which revealed that the “will of the people”, and the rights of the people to reject embrace ideas of universal rights, was in fact intolerable and degenerate. Conservatives, populist or otherwise, can win democratically; but there is now widespread acceptance that if they don’t win democratically, even in a single election, that win can be overturned by litigation, legislation or by force. There is an undercurrent of oscillating willingness within American conservatism; from populist media demagogues and bestselling authors, to political candidates and elected officials, to intellectual authorities, and constitutional law professors; to pronounce that liberalism, democracy and majority rule is now unworthy of support and should be abandoned. In the buildup towards and more visibly in the wake of Trump’s election loss, this has been made manifest. American conservative populism’s anti-democratic turn is now transparent from the political office-holders and the highest intellectual ranks on downwards.
John Eastman, an endowed law professor at Chapman University and chair of the Federalist Society’s ‘Federalism and Separation of Powers’ practice group, spent the election promoting a racist conspiracy theory that Kamala Harris was ineligible to be president; post-election he promoted reams of conspiracy theories about voter-fraud and theories to justify overturning the election. This culminated in Eastman personally gifting Trump with the delusion that Vice President Mike Pence, as the presiding officer of the Senate on 1/06, could unilaterally reject the election results from states which Trump had lost. Eastman spoke at the ‘Stop The Steal’ rally which preceded the insurrection and name-checked Pence for having failed to deliver what was demanded. Adrian Vermeule, a conservative Harvard Law professor and leading scholar in administrative law, spent the post-election cycle retweeting and promoting fever-swamp conspiracy theories about voting machines and nonexistent fraud by election officials, underscoring his existing worldview that liberal democracy should be abandoned in favour of an ‘integralist’ state subordinate to organic religious authority. In Vermeule’s vision this would be the Catholic Church dominating the modern state, subordinating the judiciary to the executive and the administrative state, prioritising Catholic immigration to America and the prohibition of unbelievers from public office. In the white evangelical Protestant world of Trump’s support base, Trump’s right to rule indefinitely is divinely mandated from Scripture and charismatic experience. In the New Religious Movements of QAnon and Falun Gong (via the Epoch Times) which have coalesced around Trump; the latter being one of the largest sources of social-media influence in the United States; a conservative populist consensus that liberal democracy has outlived any usefulness will synthesise into more violent forms.
The belief that democracy has failed conservative beliefs and authority, and should therefore be rejected was apparent before the insurrection — not merely as an apathetic indulgence of conservative intellectuals but a widespread assumption in the Republican base. David A. Graham explained plainly in an article titled ‘The GOP Abandons Democracy’, published one month prior to the insurrection:
“Trump shapes but also reflects the views of Republican voters. A new Quinnipiac poll finds that 70 percent of Republican voters believe Biden’s win was illegitimate. Republican officials aren’t afraid of Trump so much as they are afraid of Republican voters. And Republican voters appear to be afraid of democracy.”
On 1/06, Michael Anton’s perverse metaphor of hijackers and heroic passengers coalesced with other delusions such as QAnon, and then collided with reality. The self-appointed saviours of the country came from the Dallas suburbs, the Chicago suburbs, Central Florida and the D.C. metropolitan area itself. They were a cross-section of the Trump base; whilst some did come from the trailer-parks and dirt roads of Appalachia and the Midwest, the prominence of upper-middle-class suburbanites, retired military officers, former and serving police officers, CEOs, lawyers and white-collar professionals was undeniable.
Some were bewildered by excitement and unexpected escalation; others, those armed with guns and zip-ties, had clearly planned and prepared for far worse in advance. One black Capitol Police officer said that the media’s focus on the most telegenic insurrectionists dressed in deliberately absurd costumes had the effect to divert attention from a heavily-armed and disciplined core of attackers with military training. The throngs of windbreaker-wearing men and women carrying Trump flags outside surrounded a “long, disciplined line of men in body armour” which marched through them towards the Capitol. As the gathered crowd sang the national anthem:
“… a line of men wearing olive-drab helmets and body armor trudged purposefully up the marble stairs in a single-file line, each man holding the jacket collar of the one ahead. The formation, known as “Ranger File,” is standard operating procedure for a combat team that is “stacking up” to breach a building.”
The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol looted government offices, assaulted police officers and federal agents, and cried for vengeance against elected legislators. The homicidal and theatrical chanting to “hang Mike Pence!” accompanied with the erection of a gallows displayed the insurrectionists’ sense of grandiosity; this was not merely a Wilkes-Booth or Oswald-esque assassination attempt, but a demand for ritual and public human sacrifice.
“This is our House!” cried multiple insurrectionists as they charged through the Capitol. Chants of “USA! USA! USA!” electrified them with each new stage of the assault. The insurrectionists believed that not only foreigners, but the majority of their fellow American citizens were dangerous outside intruders. To them, invading the Capitol was merely retaking the cockpit. In doing so, the Trump insurrectionists did what Ziad Jarrah and the Flight 93 hijackers were prevented from achieving; desecrating the Capitol, threatening the lives of the legislature and the line of succession. The real ‘passengers’ were those facing down the Trump Insurrection without support, many armed with only with the things they carried; the black Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman who stared down a white mob in defence of the Senate chamber without firing a shot; the Capitol staff who rushed to protect legislators and their aides; the legislators themselves who continued to certify the results of the election late into the night.
On 1/06, Trump and Trumpism embraced the hijackers’ goals of obliterating the democratic process, in symbol and reality. They and their intellectual defenders were at war not merely with democracy or liberalism but with modernity itself. As their secessionist and segregationist predecessors had done, they imperilled the survival of the Republic itself. Only by the intervention of others did they fail.