One year ago this week, hundreds of violent insurrectionists attacked the US Capitol, seeking to block the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. Their effort failed, but not before they brutally attacked police officers, hunted lawmakers, and carried out a dangerous attack that left five people dead. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
One year ago this week, hundreds of violent insurrectionists attacked the US Capitol, seeking to block the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. Their effort failed, but not before they brutally attacked police officers, hunted lawmakers, and carried out a dangerous attack that left five people dead. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

“This was the most serious assault on our democracy and our democratic institutions that we have witnessed maybe since the War of 1812,” said Michael Traugott, a research professor at the University of Michigan.

MICHIGAN—Can you imagine America without freedom? Can you imagine it without democracy? How about another civil war?

A decade ago, the answer to all three questions would almost definitely have been a firm “No.” But after years of political tumult and increasing radicalization following the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump, American democracy and freedom are indeed on the brink of collapse, with a second civil war now a distinct possibility.

Perhaps nothing has highlighted the shocking decline of democracy in the United States better than what happened one year ago this week, when hundreds of violent, armed insurrectionists attacked the US Capitol, seeking to block the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. Their attempted coup failed, but not before they brutally attacked police officers, hunted lawmakers, and carried out a dangerous attack that left five people dead.

So far, 13 Michiganders have been arrested and charged by the US Department of Justice over their roles in the insurrection, which followed a similar armed takeover of the Michigan Capitol in 2020. 

This sort of violent, anti-democratic behavior isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s being actively encouraged by Republican leaders. These insurrectionists were spurred on for weeks by Trump and his Republican allies, who lied to their supporters about the outcome of the presidential contest. While Joe Biden won the popular and electoral vote, Trump claimed without any evidence that the election was fraudulent and asked his supporters to go to the Capitol to “Stop the Steal.”

They listened. And though they might have failed to keep the former president in office, Trump, his allies, and supporters aren’t stopping their attacks on democracy. Instead, they’re ramping them up

To better understand the events of Jan. 6 and the threats facing Michigan and the US, The ’Gander spoke to Michael Traugott, a research professor at the Center for Political Studies and Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

The below interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

What was your reaction to the events of Jan. 6, 2021? How did you feel watching the attack on the US Capitol unfold?

Traugott: My initial reaction was disbelief. Then as a political scientist, I’ve become increasingly worried about the state of our democracy. … It was clear that this was the most serious assault on our democracy and our democratic institutions that we have witnessed maybe since the War of 1812.

Historically speaking, how big of a deal was it and what does it say about this moment in time that there was an attack on a Capitol?

Traugott: One of the fundamental elements of a democracy is that we have periodic elections in which we want people to assume responsibility for governance. One of the underlying concepts is the peaceful transfer of power, where a person who loses an election—sometimes they have to wait a little bit until there’s a recount or whatever—concedes based on the results and then the person who got more votes becomes the acknowledged leader.

During the campaign itself—perhaps with an expectation of not winning—Donald Trump started to challenge the authenticity of the process. When over time it became increasingly clear he was not the winner, he raised doubts about the tabulation and the accuracy. He actually has never conceded the election, even to this date. 

There’s been a continuing assault by Republicans on the process itself: the way in which votes are tabulated, about the reliability of the results, questions about fraud from all different kinds of angles. I view [all of this] as a set-up to challenging the results of the 2022 and the 2024 elections. It’s not just the problem of 2020; it’s an attack on our system of elections and vote tabulation that is expected to be pressed going forward.

Many Republicans have tried to downplay or outright move on from the events of Jan. 6. What do you think about that?

Traugott: The party apparatus has been seized by Donald Trump, partly as a function of concern about who might become the candidate from the party in 2024, but also because of [US House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy’s interest in gaining control of the House in 2022 for the Republicans and becoming Speaker himself. And so there is a lot of posturing that’s taking place with regard to important political outcomes, and a concern among elected officials and a substantial portion of the Republican base not to alienate Donald Trump. They seem to be quite willing to go along with this Big Lie about 2020 and also about altering the system of elections that we have to favor Republicans going forward.

How worried are you about the state of democracy and the general political climate in America?

Traugott: I think it’s very worrisome because of the change of tenor of the political conversation [and] because of the interest in some people in taking aggressive and violent action. In the state of Michigan, for example, there was a group that plotted to kidnap our governor. The use of social media to promote misinformation and disinformation about, for example, election administration officials is very troubling. There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the current state of American politics.

Michigan was one of the nexus points of the battle over the 2020 election and continues to be a state in which voting rights are targeted by Republicans. What are your thoughts on voting and democracy in Michigan specifically?

Traugott: Michigan is a kind of microcosm of what’s going on nationally. If you look at the votes cast on a statewide basis for president, governor, even for the state legislature and the US Congress, the Democrats pretty consistently get a majority of the votes, but because of gerrymandering … the Republicans hold a majority of the congressional delegation and also in the House and in the Senate for the state of Michigan. 

So we have this issue in Michigan of this active and vocal minority. We have a disjuncture between the totality of votes cast and the control of important political institutions, representative institutions, that reflect what’s going on in many other states in the country, as well as the US Congress, especially in the Senate.

What can be done or what needs to happen to try to prevent another Jan. 6?

Traugott: The main factor I think that will affect whether or not another Jan. 6 event occurs will be how the judicial system handles the cases which are being brought to trial. The main means of dissuading people from participating again would be lengthy jail terms and the risk of financial loss. That is actually outside of the legislative process, but relies upon another important element of our democracy: how well the legal system works.


Editor’s Note: This story is part of our coverage of the one year anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol. You can find all of our coverage here.