The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jan. 6 was worse than you remember. It must define our politics.

Members of the Oath Keepers in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

A third member of the extremist Oath Keepers group pleaded guilty Wednesday to seditious conspiracy, admitting his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. The pleas provide more proof that the right-wing campaign to whitewash Jan. 6, playing down the extent to which the participants sought to stage an insurrection, is not just craven but also dangerous. The attackers did not behave like “tourists”; they were not unarmed; Jan. 6 was not a normal protest that got out of hand; the attack was not staged by far-left agitators posing as Trump supporters. Instead, it was a coordinated and concerted effort on the part of pro-Trump zealots, riled up by then-President Donald Trump himself, to reverse a presidential election by intimidation and force.

William Todd Wilson led a North Carolina cell of the Oath Keepers, a heavily-armed far-right radical group. According to the Justice Department, Mr. Wilson admitted that “he agreed with others to take part in a plan to use force to prevent, hinder, and delay the execution of the laws of the United States governing the transfer of presidential power. He and others used encrypted and private communications, equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear, and were prepared to answer a call to take up arms.” The goal was “to stop the transfer of power by disrupting a joint session of the U.S. Congress convened to ascertain and count the electoral votes related to the presidential election.”

Mr. Wilson stashed an AR-15-style rifle, a pistol and ammunition in a Virginia hotel, the Justice Department stated. Teams of “quick reaction forces” were stationed in area hotels, waiting to join the attack, according to court records. Mr. Wilson also brought “a large walking stick intended for use as a weapon, and a pocketknife.” On Jan. 6, he was the first of the Oath Keepers co-conspirators to force his way into the Capitol, the Justice Department noted.

Mr. Wilson also admitted that, after law enforcement resecured the Capitol, he was present during a phone call between Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and someone apparently close to Mr. Trump and heard “Rhodes repeatedly implore the individual to tell President Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose the transfer of power,” according to court records. It is bad enough that a dangerous fanatic such as Mr. Rhodes apparently had access to someone in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. It is chilling to imagine what would have happened if his message had been relayed — or if the Oath Keepers had been able to speak directly with Mr. Trump.

Jan. 6 should have been a turning point in our politics. Voters must recognize that where politicians stand on democracy is more important than tax rates, inflation, gas prices or any other policy issue. Lawmakers who see the threat that growing illiberal forces pose to the nation must secure its democratic institutions. A bipartisan group of senators has been working on updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, misinterpretations of which served as the predicate for the events of Jan. 6. Their window to fix the act, clarifying that neither the vice president nor Congress can overturn a presidential election in the manner that Mr. Trump and his supporters desired, is closing. They must move faster. They should have no higher priority.

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