The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion On Jan. 6, the fight for democracy came home. There’s still so much we don’t know.

Trump supporters try to force their way through a police barrier at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
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One year ago, President Donald Trump incited a violent mob of his supporters to desecrate the U.S. Capitol. Their goal: to prevent Congress from counting electoral votes and declaring Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. It appeared possible that Mr. Trump’s campaign to advance his personal interests at the expense of the country’s had finally reached a turning point. So shocking was the disregard for the democratic process that even senior Republicans might understand the peril they had invited by bowing to Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Trump quickly regained hold of the Republican Party. Three weeks after Jan. 6, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made a penitential pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago. He and his fellow Republicans rejected efforts to create a bipartisan panel to investigate the insurrection; some even defended the rioters. They booted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) out of their leadership for refusing to go along with Mr. Trump’s lies. Republican state legislatures passed anti-voting measures and conducted bogus vote audits designed not to reconfirm the integrity of what experts declared to be a safe and secure election but to provide fodder for conspiracy theorists.

What Jan. 6 actually signaled was that the fight for democracy, so long a battle the United States waged on behalf of other people in other lands, had come home. Anyone watching Vladimir Putin’s Russia could recognize the authoritarian pattern. If not always openly authorized, thuggish, extralegal actions are welcome at the top — just as, reports suggest, the Jan. 6 violence was by Mr. Trump.

There is still much the public does not know about what Mr. Trump did that day, and about his aides’ and supporters’ actions leading up to Jan. 6, 2021. The investigative committee that Democrats authorized, with minimal GOP support, must provide an authoritative account, and courts must adjudicate quickly the cases against witnesses who defy the committee’s subpoenas.

Meanwhile, Congress should not wait to secure the nation’s democratic institutions. Democrats plan to respond this month to state-level Republicans’ attacks on voting access, pressing reforms such as minimum early-voting periods and automatic voter registration. These policies would not have prevented Jan. 6. As the Post Editorial Board has argued and continues to, lawmakers must also update the Electoral Count Act, a creaky, ambiguous, old law that Mr. Trump tried to exploit to subvert the 2020 election results. That effort was the predicate for the Jan. 6 riot.

Yet fixing the act would merely treat the symptoms of the underlying disease: the Trump Republican Party’s turn from truth and democracy. This is the challenge of our times. Mr. Trump and the Republican leaders who abet him have damaged U.S. democracy, making the electoral system more susceptible to subversion the next time. So responsibility also falls to the people. Those who are not registered to vote must do so, or they might have no say in the future. Those who already vote must think more carefully about what they are supporting. The defining question is no longer about left vs. right or liberal vs. conservative but about whether the country’s democratic experiment will succeed or fail.

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