According to The Crimson, Harvard has completed what it calls the most comprehensive study of the motivations of those involved in the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot. Many will not be surprised to learn that most participated out of loyalty to former President Donald Trump. However, the study also found that only eight percent harbored “a desire to start a civil war.” That is inconsistent with the virtual mantra out of the J6 Committee and many in Congress that this was an insurrection rather than a riot. Some of us (including many in the public) have previously questioned that characterization. Yet, it reflects the relatively small number of seditious conspiracy charges brought by the Justice Department.
The study found that a plurality of the 417 federally charged defendants were motivated by the “lies about election fraud and enthusiasm for his re-election.” It concluded that “[t]he documents show that Trump and his allies convinced an unquantifiable number of Americans that representative democracy in the United States was not only in decline, but in imminent, existential danger.”
The study also found that belief in QAnon “was one of the [defendants’] lesser motives.” The study was hardly pro-Trump and one author even expressed surprise with the results since conspiracy theories “were so prominently displayed in much of the [riot’s] visual imagery.”
Once again, none of this exonerates or excuses those who rioted on January 6th or those who fueled the riot. However, the use of “insurrection” by the politicians, pundits, and the press is not an accurate characterization of the motivation of most of the people who went to the Capitol on that day. It was clear that this was a protest that became a riot.
There is no question that there were people who came prepared for such a riot, including some who are extremists who likely would have welcomed a civil war. Yet, the vast majority of people on that day were clearly present to protest the certification and wanted Republicans to join those planning to challenge the election.
One of the key reasons for the resulting damage was the collapse of security at the Hill. The J6 Committee steadfastly refused to address the myriad of questions of why the Congress was not better prepared despite the obvious dangers of a riot (including warnings before January 6th).
The scenes of that day are seared in the memory of many of us. I publicly condemned Trump’s speech while it was being given and I called for a bipartisan vote of censure over his responsibility in the riots. However, there has been an unrelenting effort to make “insurrection” a litmus test for anyone speaking about January 6th. If one does not use that term (and, worse yet, expresses doubts about its accuracy), you run the risk of immediate condemnation as someone excusing or supporting insurrection. This framing also reduces the need to address the question of how this riot was allowed to spiral out of control.
It is possible to express revulsion about what happened on Jan. 6th without claiming that this was an insurrection and attempt to overthrow the nation. This was a collective tragedy for the entire nation, a desecration of our constitutional process. The effort to mandate “insurrection” as the only acceptable description prevents the country from speaking with a unified voice. It clearly serves political purposes but only makes a national resolution more difficult as we approach a new presidential election.