As we close in on the second anniversary of Jan. 6, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that it was all a historical event, blessedly behind us. It’s even tempting to celebrate the dozens of ways in which the “system held.” We can laud the heroics of the Capitol Police, the courage and steadiness of Nancy Pelosi, the actions of judges and state election officials who insured that specious claims of election fraud and “Stop the Steal” never garnered sufficient traction to become a legal movement with enough legitimacy to move anything more than a mob of violent racists and wackos and conspiracy theorists (and Ginni Thomas) to action.
Set against all that triumphalist mythmaking, it’s similarly easy to watch what’s unfolding in the Republican House leadership contest with glee. Watching Kevin McCarthy being ritually humiliated in round after round of voting—especially as payback for his refusal to take the events of two years ago this week as a sober warning—is schadenfreude on skates. It’s tempting to want to sit back and enjoy watching the chaos muppetry cave in on itself for the second straight day, as a political party that can no longer make claims to be serious, or to have serious leadership, is left flopping on the beaches for the delectation of us all.
Except, of course, the events of Jan. 6, 2021 and Jan. 3–? of 2023 are not at all unrelated. Nor are they sequential points along a continuum that is leading us to a better place. Instead, they represent the locomotive and the caboose of the same train: Each is a point along a terrifying line of governmental failure; each is a subversion of the principles of lawful transition of power. But certainly they are moving in the same direction, and there should be no joy found in watching the present and past pancaking back on itself. In many ways, the events of this week should be as frightening to us as the events of two years past, if not more so. This, too, is an insurrection. That it’s coming—quite literally—from inside the House in 2023 should no more be grounds for popcorn and selfies from Democrats than the Capitol insurrection was in 2021. This is a profoundly serious systems failure, Trumpism without the relative coherence of Trump, and a triumph of nihilist anti-government fan fiction. And this go-round, those forces have a vote that is big enough to gum up the entire operation.
Jan. 6, 2021, was scary but inherently cartoonish, with the face paint and the faux fur and the weapons and the body armor. January 2023 comes in shiny tasseled loafers and constituent messaging. Instead of leaking floor plans to insurrectionists in advance, members of the radical wing of the GOP are demanding committee chairs.
Perhaps one difference is that this time, the ask—what they are fighting for—is actually less clear. On Jan. 6, amid the chilling cries of “Hang Mike Pence” and “Stop the Steal,” the ask was at least coherent: reinstate Donald Trump as president. The foggy MAGA ask of 2023? I have no idea. Power, sure. Fame and celebrity, definitely. Mumble mumble debt ceiling. OK. As John Boehner wrote in his 2021 memoir, the endgame now is chaos itself:
What they’re really interested in is chaos … They want to throw sand in the gears of the hated federal government until it fails and they’ve finally proved that it is beyond saving. Every time they vote down a bill, they get another invitation to go on Fox News or talk radio. It’s a narcissistic – and dangerous – feedback loop.
Governance is not the point, it’s the enemy. Government is not the point, it’s the enemy. In 2021, that was on display in what we could all recognize as violence and threats of bodily harm. In 2023, it’s being done with speeches and backroom negotiations and the stand-up-sit-down whack-a-mole energy of a Monty Python sketch. Those chairs they are seeking? It’s not to do anything with them, beyond further themselves. None of it will lead to a better, healthier, more functional or stable government, even if the week doesn’t end with feces smeared on the walls.
For the Democrats who’ve succumbed to the popcorn and the gleeful selfies, one wonders why this is funnier than the events of two years ago this week. The government is not working. If a national emergency were to occur in the coming days or hours, those toddler tweets wouldn’t be a great look.
Maybe one reason why it feels funny-ish is because there is finally a great big Trump-shaped hole at the center of this week’s performances. In 2021, Donald Trump was demonstrably on the side of the insurrectionists. This week, Trump called for his followers to support Kevin McCarthy. This time, they ignored him. Because he’s irrelevant now, a vestige of the Crazypants era of lawlessness and nihilism. We’ve moved on to the next era, the post-Crazypants era, in which various unqualified gun nuts and racists vie for the empty throne, without either the purse or the limited vision of the reality-show star who came before them. None of the disruptors care about much of anything at this juncture. Whether the prospect of Trumpism without Trump chills you or relieves you, the fact is that the MAGA faction that has stymied the transition to a GOP-led House is essentially leaderless—but it is also powerful. That is not, at least to my eyes, a meaningful improvement on 2021.
If past is prologue, this week will prove to be yet another near miss in the annals of democratic decline. The hope right now is that January 2023 is the caboose on the Jan. 6 train, and not the café car, but if the thing these people trade on is attention, I don’t see any real reason for optimism.