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In an all-too-common alternative reality, the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was merely a sightseeing group that got a little over its skis. Or it was a Democratic “false flag” operation meant to make Republicans look bad. Or Antifa infiltrated the good-natured, good-government groups and lit the kindling that left the Capitol shattered. No one—let alone democracy itself—was ever at risk, the death and injury tolls are totally bogus, and anyone suggesting it was an insurrection is just fake news.
Well, that fanciful hogwash once again fell apart. A federal jury here in Washington on Thursday convicted four more far-right Proud Boys—the so-called Donald Trump’s Army—on charges of seditious conspiracy, a crime dating back to the Civil War era when secessionist Southerners tried to break the Union government. (A fifth Proud Boy was found guilty on lesser charges but was found not guilty on seditious conspiracy charges.) Those convictions follow two other trials of members of a separate but equally noxious group, the Oath Keepers.
Put simply, the Department of Justice is now 3-and-0 in its most serious cases against the leaders who orchestrated and carried out a plan meant to overturn the results of the 2020 elections and to install its loser, then-President Donald Trump, in the White House for another four years despite a deafening loss. It is entirely fair to call the planning and execution of Jan. 6 what it was: an insurrection.
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At least 10 ringleaders of the assault on Capitol Hill have now added their names to an inglorious list of those convicted of seditious conspiracy that includes Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and nine followers who in 1995 were convicted of plotting to blow up the United Nations, an FBI office, and two New York tunnels; a group of white supremacists who in 1988 planned to establish an all-white nation in the Pacific Northwest, while plotting to kill an FBI agent and judge; and Oscar Lopez Rivera, who was found guilty in 1981 in a bombing campaign in the 1970s and ‘80s to push Puerto Rican independence. In other words, these are among the most serious threats to the United States you can summon.
And yet, it may not matter to the hardcore denialists who make up at least a quarter of the current Republican Party. The closed-loop right-wing media environment has conditioned the hardcore audience to ignore such facts and insist this is all somehow the fault of Democrats. Their fantasies might be tough to drown, but it’s getting harder and harder for anyone to keep them afloat given the crushing consistency of prosecutors’ cases.
That conspiracy theory, much like the mob that marched on the Capitol wearing body armor and clinging to weapons and bad-faith notions alike, represents a standing threat to the United States.
All told, more than 1,000 people have been charged for their roles that day. A stunning 562 people have pleaded guilty, according to NPR’s invaluable database of the cases, and only one case has ended in an acquittal.
Thursday’s news rang the loudest so far, coming at the end of a trial that started in January. Former Proud Boys leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Joe Biggs, Zachary Rehl, and Dominic Pezzola were the latest extremists to be held to account. (Pezzola alone was not found guilty of seditious conspiracy.) A federal jury took seven days of deliberation before finding the group guilty on more than 30 of 46 counts. The conspiracy counts alone could earn each man decades in prison, and they were found guilty of other felonies as well.
The GOP talking points downplaying the severity of the Jan. 6 scene—one that involved tear gas wafting through the halls of Congress, windows broken out, statues smeared with blood, and lawmakers’ offices ransacked—simply are falling apart. No matter how much the now-deposed Tucker Carlson tried to rehabilitate the insurrectionists, there is no denying that their actions prompted lawmakers from both parties to cower in fear and flee for their lives, and for Trump’s own Vice President to shelter in a loading dock while White House allies begged contacts inside the West Wing to do something.
Washington is still grappling with Jan. 6. There has been a pronounced exodus of longtime workers from the Capitol. Democratic staffers and their bosses are still shook, and with good reason. Members of Congress have been open about seeking PTSD treatment. The Justice Department has since changed the rules so that the four Capitol Police officers who died by suicide after the attacks are eligible for benefits matching those killed in the line of duty. And other officers, 150 of whom were injured that day, are still skittish. Journalists who covered the attack while enduring it have formed their own underground support network.
Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to find the proper balance of outrage over the threat to their lives and many of their colleagues’ indifference to democratic norms. After all, Trump, whom many Republicans in Congress have already endorsed for 2024, released a song that featured him and The J6 Choir, prisoners being held for their alleged roles in the attacks. He often plays it at his political appearances.
The seep is massive and the tone so toxic that some members can’t even look at colleagues without open disdain. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who owes his current role almost entirely to Trump’s permission for him to have it, gave Carlson and Fox unfettered access to closed-circuit video of the Jan. 6 attacks so they could whitewash the filthy history of that day. Fox viewers were left with the impression that the whole coup was a load of hooey. Most serious Republicans were critical of that decision—and the faux proof of exoneration—but were careful not to tweak Trump too badly given he remains a massive power center in the GOP.
Just look at how Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis handled the first anniversary of the attack: “This is their Christmas, January 6th,” he said. “They are going to take this and milk this for anything they could to try to be able to smear anyone who ever supported Donald Trump.”
The House spent a whole lot of valuable time in 2022 examining the roots, the run-through, and the reaction to the Jan. 6 attacks. Their must-see-TV hearings laid bare the threats of these anti-democratic movements and left most reasonable Americans with little doubt about the challenges ahead. And yet, polling shows Republicans remain unfazed: 54% of them regard the Jan. 6 events as “legitimate political discourse” and 27% of them approve of the takeover of the Capitol.
Those views should get harder and harder to hold. The jurors who agreed to convict four Proud Boys with seditious conspiracy on Thursday not only advanced the fight against extremism, they struck another blow to the most dangerous kind of denialism. But that threat has to this point proven tough to shake loose, facts be damned.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com