Until 2021, attempted coups were something that always happened elsewhere.
We thought of South America, Africa, and the Middle East, but never of the United States of America.
Our traditions of government and our robust constitution would protect us from blatant power grabs of that kind we believed - but then January 6 happened.
For the first time in the nation's history, a president and his enablers in the GOP tried to overturn the will of 81 million voters by blocking Joe Biden's certification as president, in an attempted American coup, led by the defeated candidate to fraudulently re-elect himself.
After months of Trump's false claims that the election had been stolen, his enraged supporters violently attacked the Capitol. Within hours, the building, which dates from 1793 and was conceived as a monument to freedom and the American people, was breached by an anti-democratic lynch mob who left five people dead and 138 police officers injured.
On the same day, the then-Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell understood what was at stake. If the Trump administration found a way to overrule the will of 81 million voters “it would damage our Republic forever,” he gravely told the Senate.
McConnell continued: “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again. Every four years would be a scramble for power at any cost.”
We have reached a time when one party will no longer accept the result of any election it does not win. The scramble for power at any cost is playing out even now across all levels of state government. We are in that democratic death spiral now.
A recent poll discovered that fully two-thirds of Republican voters believe the lie that Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Indeed, one-third of Republican voters now say that if they don't prevail at the ballot box, these so-called American patriots may have to resort to violence “in order to save our country.”
The use of “our” gives you a really big clue about what is going on here. America, many Trump voters believe, is their private possession. That is why its direction can not be allowed to fall into the hands of unknown “others.”
This kind of tribal thinking reminds us that Trump's voters are united not only by principle but by identity. This is not merely a political fight, in other words, it has become an existential fight to protect their understanding of themselves too.
This country's levers of political power have always been their birthright, the thinking goes. That inheritance must be protected, not shared. So all of this goes much deeper than pure politics into issues of power and identity, of who traditionally holds power and who lives under it, and that makes it all so much more dangerous.
When an election becomes something more than a democratic exercise, when it instead becomes an existential deathmatch, with victory or annihilation as the goal, you can call what you are doing a power grab but you can not call it democracy.
For decades now, the breathless onscreen anchors at Fox News have insisted to their credulous viewers that they are in a caged fight for the soul of the nation. Mention Christmas to them and they don't picture a pleasant family gathering, they see a smoking battleground and a brutal identity war.
Mention the border and they don't see a line dividing us from Mexico, they see tens of thousands of murderers, rapists, and criminals coming to replace us at the ballot box.
At Fox News, the sky is always falling, liberty is always dying, the foreign hordes are always invading, the PC police are always canceling - and only one man can fix it.
No wonder that so many conservatives were willing to put their own lives and the lives of others on the line to protect Trump's failed presidency and hold the line against violence and chaos. But ironically in doing so, the former president, Fox News, and their most ardent viewers all helped to foster the very violence and chaos they claim to stand against on January 6.
If we do not bring the planners and instigators of that deadly insurrection to trial soon, where the nation can hear about how they conspired to overthrow the will of the people, then January 6 won't just be a day of unprecedented infamy, it will be a dress rehearsal for far worse to come.