Confronting the Big Lie that Fomented Insurrection

It’s been a few days since I last spent any significant amount of time trying to make sense of the events of the last week. I’m far from disengaged. I’m watching the news, reading folks whose wisdom I trust, and talking with friends on both sides of the political spectrum.

Four things have been abundantly clear to me over the last week:

  1. January 6 was a violent coup attempt against the United States government.
  2. President Trump and some in his administration encouraged and/or actively supported it.
  3. Americans of all political persuasions must disavow it unequivocally.
  4. There is no healing without accountability and there’s no accountability without healing.
  • The first conclusion is the same as last week. I won’t say much about that here that I didn’t say last week.
  • The second conclusion builds off the first and is new. I unpack that below.
  • The third is one of those SMDH moments when I watch people instinctively devolve into talking points. I address it toward the end.
  • The fourth is something that I’m still processing on and listening for. Stay tuned.

We Need More Good People Right Now

Before I start, I want to acknowledge the kind of heroism and courage that I find all too lacking in conservative thought right now.

This is Eugene Goodman of the Capitol Police Department checking to see the Senate chamber is safe before luring coup participants the other way.

Never forget that Goodman was alone in the face of an angry mob, while members of his own leadership downplayed the threat of Trump’s “Stop the Steal Rally” and Republican members of the U.S. Congress were actively inciting.

Look up “hero” in the dictionary, you’ll find this man’s photo.

Living in this Moment

One reason I am so engaged now, and I’d venture to say most historians are, is because we’re well-trained for a moment such as this. I do not have a great command of the rise of fascism in Germany, Spain, and Italy. I can’t conjure exactly what happened and why.

But I (and other historians) have a particular sense of looking at sources and making sense of them in a historical context. And that’s how I approach the news today.

I follow a lot of historians online. I don’t do this because I agree with them. I follow them because many are friends and all are professional peers. They are thoughtful in their communications and for the past 25 years they have challenged my thinking constantly, and always bring to bear more resources to consider.

I have never seen historians speak with as clear a voice about the insurrection on January 6.

You know why? Because we’ve seen this before. And many of us have been screaming (into the void it seems) for the last four+ years, “Listen y’all, we’ve seen this happen before…you’re playing with fire. This doesn’t look like it’s going to end well.”

It isn’t ending well, is it?

These aren’t liberal voices speaking. These are people highly skilled in looking at information and making meaning from it. Historians are showing you how we do this in real time.

Where I’m at Right Now

One frustration I’ve had in the marketplace of ideas is the rigid, almost monolithic responses conservatives have over the years. People are far too quick to respond by restating their beliefs rather than considering what it is we’re saying about this moment, the lessons we know from history about how to get out of this mess right now.

And honestly? I can tell what Fox and conservative media are saying by the reflexive responses of the conservatives in my life. Most people can.

So the reflexive response was “Yeah, January 6 was wrong, but what about BLM in summer 2020?”

Yes, both resulted in wanton destruction of property. But jeez, I wouldn’t in a million years think I’d have to explain the distinction is one of intent.

  • The the aim of the BLM protests was, simply, “Please stop killing black people indiscriminately.”
  • The stated aim of the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol was a violent overthrow the will of the United States people.

I’ve always said Trump was a unique danger for the very reasons you’re seeing now: 4,000 Americans dead every day because he ignored Covid19, and an honest-to-goodness violent coup attempt — one Trump has done next to nothing to quell. We have no leadership at the federal level beyond what the House of Representatives is trying to do. Trump is absent, Pence is absent. There have been no official briefings from the Department of Defense, the FBI, the CIA, no one.

The violent attack on the United States Capitol (please never forget this fact) was 100% an attempt by conservative fascists to overthrow a free and fair election.

This shit’s real folks.

I don’t care how ridiculous the coup cosplay looked, this was a violent, coordinated attack on our government that I fear came much more dangerously close to being successful than it looks now.

It’s important everyone publicly repudiate Trump/Trumpism now. But honestly, we must reject the fascist elements that have infiltrated mainstream conservative thought in this country.

And y’all, fascism isn’t a “both sides” problem. It is a conservative problem. (Yep, I said it.) Very few people need anyone to explain conservative viewpoints. You have made it very clear where you stand.

We’ve been paying close attention. We see conservative politicians, including Trump, the standard bearer of your party, spouting the same nonsense. Over & over & over again.

Here’s what I hear when I see someone explain this away, “I’m not like one of those people. This is just the political movement I aligned myself with and wow, those people are crazy.”

My answer is always the same, “If you voted for Trump in 2020, you knew exactly what you were voting for. Like me, you saw the armed militias forming around you over the past decades. You heard their rhetoric in your place of work, at the gym, on Fox, at the bar, from your neighbors. Every.single.one.of.them. aligns with Trump.”

To be succinct, “Until you can own Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric as the center of the conservative movement, I cannot engage in this discussion. You say you’re appalled by the traitors in our midst, please do something about it.”

I am a product of two of the more virulent strains of conservatism that converge under the Trump/fascist banner: the Lost Cause and white evangelicalism. I understand conservative thought from the inside and out. Really, really well. And I reject it.

And you know why I reject it? Because at some point (many some say Newt Gingrich in the 1990s), the conservative movement left me behind with its nihilistic rhetoric. January 6 was what I feared most. From Trump’s “rally” and speech, through the attack on the Capitol, to the ridiculous votes against the certification of the election after an armed mob disrupted it the first time, to the spin now about “unity” and healing — the conservative moment has lost the plot.

I’ve remained silent for a long time because I didn’t want to rock the boat. I found people intransigent in their thinking. These include folks I considered dear friends at one time and family members I love dearly to this day.

I let this happen rather than just confronting the lie in its tracks. And I venture to say that many more of us — conservative, liberal, and moderate — have fallen into the same trap.

What that silence wrought was an attack on the heart of the United States government. And it should not stand.

What I Am Doing About This

Last Friday I spent most of the day composing my thoughts about the January 6 coup attempt (here). I came to the conclusion very early that this wasn’t a crowd that lost control. It was a calculated attempt to overthrow our government.

My first goal in writing things down was to help me put my own thoughts together. I started with the first thing I thought of as the videos emerged: Tehran, Iran in 1979.

I’m a public historian (a minor distinction to most), which this means I’m trained to include the public in my work. One regular discussion from my 20+ years in the field is that we need to show our work. People find the historical process endlessly fascinating. It’s critical thinking in action. As I started writing, I realized that showing my work might help others make sense of this moment too. I’m going to continue that for the time being.

How I Approached this Past Week

I want to touch on the first of the four conclusions I came to this past week:

  1. January 6 was a violent coup attempt against the United States government.
  2. President Trump and some in his administration encouraged and/or actively supported it.

The first I came to on Thursday 1/7, when I finally sorted out in my head why Capitol Police were so incredibly unprepared for the moment: it was intentional. And that scared the shit out of me.

The second came as I processed the first. I do believe Trump knew about and supported the coup attempt, as did members of Congress, and members of his administration.

I’ll highlight just two of many sources (including my observations over the years) that helped me make this conclusion.

First is from Seth Abramson, who brilliantly unpacked Trump’s January 6 speech for us in a (no shit) 200 thread tweet. I believe we’d be better informed citizens if we looked at Trump’s speech a little more closely as he has here. (Seth’s follow-up was equally as concerning about Trump’s connections to those who planned the coup.)

Second is a podcast from Propaganda, a Christian thinker, hip-hop and spoken word artist, and community activist. In Hood Politics — tagline: “Politics is gangbanging in suits” — Prop recorded an episode in real time as he watched Trump’s speech on January 6 and the aftermath. Please give it a listen. Propaganda heard the same thing as Abramson: Trump gave the go-ahead to attack the U.S. Capitol.

And if these two people came to this conclusion, and I came to this conclusion, it’s not illogical to conclude that the people Trump was speaking to in the language he was speaking, heard it too.

Notice that both Abramson and Propaganda, two incredibly diverse observers from vastly disparate backgrounds, came to the exact same conclusion about Trump’s speech: he actively encouraged the coup attempt.

Abramson deconstructed and analyzed the entire thing, and shared his observations. Prop processed it through the lens of his lived experience, including, by the way, a keen understanding of how white people react to rhetoric like Trump’s.

Current events (my teacher) have just given me the following sources to analyze:

  • photos of the Trump rally on January 6
  • audio of Trump’s and Guiliani’s speeches (you could use any of them, but gotta include Trump’s)
  • video of the attack on the Capitol
  • social media feeds of those at the rally and who participated in the coup
  • Abramson’s point-by-point analysis of Trump’s speech
  • Propaganda’s Hood Politics “Green Light”

As I consider these elements, I consider my own experience with them. For example

  • What have other Trump rallies sounded like and looked like? Has the rhetoric been similar or was this a big change from the past? Sounded like the greatest hits played a little bit more fiercely to me.
  • What have I observed about the violent rhetoric of the heavily-armed white nationalist and militia groups over the years? They’ve been fantasizing and yelling about revolution for years.
  • What did the actual participants say about their participation? A lot of people seemed pretty ecstatic to be there.

Then I add to this a quick review of Chapter 1 of Timothy D. Snydedr’s On Tyranny “Do not obey in advance.” (If you read nothing else I recommend today, please read this.)

Anticipatory obedience means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation.

Checking multiple sources before coming to any conclusions is where I see things diverge and converge, how disparate voices come together. If I find something that sounds dubious, I look it up. If I disagree, I try and figure out why, rather than dismiss the source as incorrect.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this is where I start to better understand the world from a variety of perspectives, not just your my own.

I was sure enough on Friday to argue January 6 was a violent coup attempt against the United States government. Nothing I’ve seen since last week has moved me from that conclusion. It has strengthened it.

Now, after much thought over the weekend, there is no doubt in my mind that President Trump and some in his administration encouraged and/or actively supported that violent coup. I cannot stress how important it is to understand this point right now.

It is absolutely clear that January 6 was a coup and Trump was more than just a victim of hanging out with bad people.

What Can We Do Now?

I’m looking to history, frankly, to see how other human beings reacted in similar situations. History has lessons how to respond to fascism.

I’ve already quoted Timothy Snyder, historian of the 20th century who’s written extensively on authoritarianism, above. He’s a trustworthy voice of reason right now, I assure you.

Here’s what Snyder says about this moment and why we must not allow this thinking to fester.

1/10. The claim that Trump won the election is a Big Lie.

2/10. A Big Lie changes reality. To believe it, people must disbelieve their senses, distrust their fellow citizens, and live in a world of faith.

3/10. A Big Lie demands conspiracy thinking, since all who doubt it are seen as traitors.

4/10. A Big Lie undoes a society, since it divides citizens into believers and unbelievers.

5/10. A Big Lie destroys democracy, since people who are convinced that nothing is true but the utterances of their leader ignore voting and its results.

6/10. A Big Lie must bring violence, as it has.

7/10. A Big Lie can never be told just by one person. Trump is the originator of this Big Lie, but it could never have flourished without his allies on Capitol Hill.

8/10. Political futures now depend on this Big Lie. Senators Hawley and Cruz are running for president on the basis of this Big Lie.

9/10. There is a cure for the Big Lie. Our elected representatives should tell the truth, without dissimulation, about the results of the 2020 election.

10/10. Politicians who do not tell the simple truth perpetuate the Big Lie, further an alternative reality, support conspiracy theories, weaken democracy, and foment violence far worse than that of January 6, 2021. (Source: https://threader.app/thread/1349046338927919105)

I’m Bob Beatty, and I approve of this message.

ps: Not sure if I’ll keep doing this or if I’ll move to another format or what. But if you’re interested in staying in touch and would rather just keep track of stuff I’m doing in one place, shoot me your email. I promise I’ll ask before I put you on any list or anything :) https://bit.ly/ImADoctor

President of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit firm providing community-focused strategies for planning, assessment, and interpretation.