The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, it was an insurrection

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to directly answer whether the Jan. 6 Capitol attack was an insurrection when asked on June 8. (Video: The Washington Post)
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There are many ways in which former president Donald Trump and his allies have used the passage of time and fading memories to call into question the true narrative of Jan. 6. They have suggested it wasn’t really Trump supporters storming the Capitol. They’ve said it looked more or less like a “normal tourist visit.” They’ve surmised based upon faulty logic that maybe the FBI was actually responsible for it. And most recently, they’ve begun pitching Ashli Babbitt as a martyr (despite few saying that when the video of her being shot circulated almost instantly).

But perhaps the most persistent revisionism involves that word most often used to describe the events of that day: “insurrection.” The idea that this word doesn’t actually apply epitomizes and neatly sums up the argument that the media and Democrats have oversold this whole thing to make Trump look bad.

The problem with that argument, of course, is that the word most definitely does apply.

This blog recapped the building insurrection-doubter movement a month ago, and it has only picked up steam since then. Fox News host Tucker Carlson regularly uses the word in sarcastic scare quotes. A significant chunk of House Republicans continue to vote against legislation honoring the Capitol Police that uses the word. Trump family members and top allies frequently promote social media users casting doubt on the “insurrection.” Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani even said this week that Babbitt’s death has been used to “make it into an insurrection.”

As with Babbitt, it’s worth noting how little this resembles how Republicans initially talked about the events of that day. In fact, both the GOP leaders of the House and the Senate, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), used the term early this year. Trump impeachment attorney Michael van der Veen also conceded at Trump’s trial, “The question before us is not whether there was a violent insurrection of the Capitol. On that point, everyone agrees.”

Not so much anymore, it seems.

The argument that this wasn’t an insurrection generally boils down to one or more of a few points: the lack of more weapons, the ragtag crew that stormed the Capitol, the failure in overturning the election results, and the fact that it ended within a few hours.

The thing is, though, that none of these really bear on whether it was an insurrection.

Merriam-Webster defines insurrection as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “an organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government and take control of their country, usually by violence.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law defines it as “a rising or rebellion of citizens against their government, usually manifested by acts of violence.”

Even if you somehow accept that the Capitol riot wasn’t as violent as some made it out to be — which, I mean, we have the video evidence, and there were multiple deaths and tons of injuries — it clearly included large-scale violence. There needn’t be hundreds of people with guns or other arms for it to be an insurrection.

Nor do these definitions carve out exceptions for failed or even poorly executed efforts to thwart or replace a government. It doesn’t matter that many of these people were old or hapless, as Carlson and other pundits often emphasize.

Some critics of the insurrection doubters have pointed to Sideshow Bob’s quip on “The Simpsons” in which he said, “Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is that? Can you win a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry?” But this is actually more clear-cut than that. Insurrection loops in both failed and successful efforts; a successful one is generally also regarded as a revolution or a coup d’etat. That this didn’t reach that level and perhaps never could have doesn’t mean it wasn’t an insurrection. Nor do these definitions require any kind of sustained revolt.

One could seemingly quibble with whether one aspect of the Cambridge definition applies: “an organized attempt.” But this was certainly organized at least to some extent, as many of the indictments lay out in detail and as the bipartisan Senate report lays out in discussing the missed warning signs. Just because some people might have been swept up in the moment and didn’t take part in organizing themselves or were bad at organizing doesn’t mean there wasn’t organization. What’s more, organization is a broad term that could seemingly even be read to include the actions of those who incited others.

What unites all of these definitions is in what the actions are directed against: the government. The reference works cite actions taken “against civil authority or an established government,” “to defeat their government and take control of their country,” and “against their government.” That’s what made this not just a riot, but also an insurrection. There was an effort to change control of the government by force — the government two weeks hence, yes, but all the same.

The insurrection doubters have also cried hypocrisy because “insurrection” was not used last summer to describe racial justice protests that turned violent. But the vast, vast majority of those supposed “insurrections” involved no effort to directly target government officials, nor were they aimed at defeating or violently forcing the replacement of an established government. One can argue that the violence in those protests was glossed over too much, perhaps, but an “insurrection” isn’t defined by the level of violence; it’s defined by its purpose.

And that’s why a term that is rarely applicable to such violent scenes is most definitely applicable here. Just because it feels too severe to you and you believe it connotes something closer to Napoleon and Fidel Castro than 60-year-old Richard “Bigo” Barnett doesn’t mean Barnett didn’t engage in an insurrection.