Look Back in Anger
It was weird, it was wild, it was America.
I have never seen a good reckoning of how many people were at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. My own estimate—an eyeball number—was somewhere in the tens of thousands. From where I stood on the Capitol steps, the crowd stretched back well across the National Mall, almost out of sight at the Washington Monument. There were many hundreds, maybe a couple thousand, in front of me, on the steps alone.
It has become fashionable on the right to downplay the events of January 6, largely in response to the left’s hysterical interpretation of it and the key role it has played in the weaponization of the Department of Justice against the American people. I have often downplayed it myself, with respect to the supposed severity of the rioters’ offenses. This is all well and good. When our enemies hyperventilate over the Temple of Democracy, we should meet their whining with the mockery it deserves; when they insist that the skirmish of 2021 was the gravest threat ever faced by our republic, we should respond in force with a counternarrative that is actually rooted in history and fact.
But the sheer scale of the demonstrations, and the riot that broke out of them, should not be forgotten. A crowd whose size is rarely ever seen in politics—certainly in the politics of a nation famously disengaged—gathered at the center of our government to register its sense of profound injustice. The actual disorder is downstream of that fact. (Nostalgia is at the heart of the conservative disposition. Who doesn’t remember fondly when the great scandal of the age was a dust-up over attendance numbers at Obama and Trump’s respective inaugurations?)
To say that it was a mass event, however, is not to say that it was not a fringe one. Another element of the Capitol affair that has largely been forgotten as it moves into history is just how weird the whole thing was. In large part, the Capitol riot—at least up front, in the militant sections—was a QAnon affair. It was on the signs: SAVE OUR CHILDREN from Hollywood pedophilia and crimes against humanity. It was in the chants: Biden loves minors, inter alia. It came through the megaphones, most eerily in a singsong accusation against Mike Pence.
It is easy to dismiss the whole QAnon narrative as more left-wing panic, or worse. Yet I saw it sincerely spouted at the Capitol that day, by people who did not seem naturally cut out for undercover work.
In general, I believe that QAnon is true, just as I believe that both of the Genesis creation stories are true. It is symbol and sense and revelation, more than it is history. It is, in some ways, truer than true: a fuller explanation than can ever be rendered by mundane fact alone. Whatever else QAnon is (cognitive infiltration, anyone?), it is a poetic distillation of the American divide: the great and growing chasm between the people of this country and an elite whose moral framework is inscrutable to us—whose moral framework, that is, seems scarcely human. Does Hillary Clinton literally drink the blood of babies in a New York penthouse cosigned by Jeffrey Epstein? Probably not. But it is as good an image as any of our political reality.
If the Capitol riot was driven by the divide between the populace and their rulers, its aftermath has only served to accelerate the split. It has made liberals on both sides of the congressional aisle ten times more sanctimonious than they were on January 5. It has made a quasi-religious body out of their praetorian guard, especially those like Harry Dunn who have leaned into the politicization. But most importantly, it has made an example of more than 1,200 Americans arrested on a variety of charges, the vast majority of them nonviolent. By the reckoning of the Washington Examiner, those convicted so far have been sentenced to a total of 847 years’ imprisonment.
Washington, D.C. has long been a place apart from America. Racially, it is more or less in line with most of the big blue cities, which is to say out of line with America at large. It has both a poverty rate and a per capita income well above national averages, and its percentage of college-educated residents is nearly double that of the country at large. (Even Boston, the usual metonym for our educated elite, trails D.C. here by more than ten points.) It is a city of extremes, full of the very poor and the very privileged—all of them Democrats. Well, more than three fourths of them, anyway.
Which is all to say that in our capital, for the average American to receive a trial by a jury of his peers is a virtual impossibility. (Pat Buchanan, this magazine’s founder and a close advisor to President Nixon, drew heat from the professionally offended for making this observation with respect to the Watergate defendants.) Even setting aside the question of an FBI setup, and the prior question of whether the election was really stolen, can we honestly pretend that the men and women convicted by this jury pool of anti-Democratic action are much more than political prisoners?
Maybe they are the lucky ones, relatively speaking. Like so many details of January 6, Ashli Babbitt has mostly faded into memory three years down the line. Yet the Air Force veteran, the only person killed in the melee, is perhaps the best embodiment of the day and the broader problem. Babbitt was unarmed and unthreatening, but she was swept up in the chaos of the riot. She was shot and killed by Michael Byrd, a Capitol Police officer who had previously made headlines for leaving his loaded service weapon in a Capitol bathroom, where it was discovered by a tourist.
Maybe we can say that Ashli Babbitt was killed by the Regime. From baby’s blood to the halls of state, not everything needs to be literal. But if we are going to be literal, Ashli Babbitt was killed by a man: Michael Byrd, whose actions had already shown that he did not have the mental capacity required to carry a service weapon, and who was rewarded with a promotion for his trouble. Politics is flesh and blood, and the truth of a regime is revealed both in bloodshed and in the elevation of heroes. Let the trail of symbols end there: In Babbitt and Byrd, we have our image of America, 2021, 2024, and on for heaven knows how long.