Collection

January 6th

The attack on the Capitol in the early days of 2021 shocked the nation. At first, it struck many as not only completely unprecedented, but also unrepresentative of American values. But as historians and others pointed out in the weeks and months that followed, the warning signs had been present, and parallels with past events abounded. This collection gathers a selection of their writing, organized loosely based on analytical approach. Following a selection of "first impressions," we offer a sampling of reflections about historical antecedents, the ways that rioters themselves invoked history, and about the terms that have been used to make sense of the event. Finally, the collection delves into the ways that the riot has registered in American politics and memory in the three years since Jan. 6th, 2021.

This Is Who We Are

The rioters at the Capitol are part of an unbroken American tradition. Sweet talk about our “better angels” did not defeat them before and will not now.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: THIS IS WHO WE ARE 
In the riot's immediate aftermath, politicians on both sides of the aisle expressed shock and disbelief, condemning rioters' actions as "not who we are." Historians quickly countered by highlighting historical continuities.
Person walking with Confederate flag inside of the U.S. Capitol

The Capitol Riot Reveals the Dangers From the Enemy Within

But the belief that America previously had a well-functioning democracy is an illusion.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: ANTIDEMOCRATIC MOVEMENTS
Two days after the riot, historian Eric Foner traced the long history of antidemocratic tendencies in the U.S., as well as the constant work that generations of Americans have put into preserving the nation's democracy.
Alt-right man holding an American flag with no shirt but a bull-horned headress on.

The Hour of the Barbarian

What happened on January 6 was profoundly American, emerging as it did from our long and very specific history. No one did this to us.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM
One reason many were surprised, argued journalist Vincent Bevins, is that they bought into the myth that coups only happen in "other" places. This piece debunks that kind of American exceptionalism, while pointing to the very American origins of this particular uprising.
Person walks with Confederate flag in the U.S. Capitol

The Whole Story in a Single Photo

An image from the Capitol captures the distance between who we purport to be and who we have actually been.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: CONTINUITY WITH HISTORY
As can be seen in this very collection, one photo quickly took on iconic status in media accounts of the riot. This piece offers a deep dive into the different elements in that photo, and asks whether the art on display in the Capitol might actually mirror values projected by the rioters.
Trump supporters standing outside of the U.S. Capitol building.
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What Pro-Trump Insurrectionists Share — and Don’t — With the American Revolution

Some supporters of the violent mob scene at the Capitol proclaimed it was the beginning of a “Second American Revolution.”
CONTESTED FRAMEWORKS: REVOLUTION
Some rioters claimed they were fomenting a second American Revolution. This piece argues that the Revolution may have be an antecedent, but not in the way they thought. Instead, it was an instance in which "a small number of highly mobilized people embraced violent direct action on the basis of false beliefs." (Sarah Swedberg suggested another: "blaming powerful political figures or the press for insurrection" <bunkhistory.org/resources/echo-chambers>)
A sign being held at the January 6 Trump rally that depicts Donald Trump holding the head of Karl Marx.

Vikings, Crusaders, Confederates

Misunderstood historical imagery at the January 6 Capitol insurrection.
CONTESTED FRAMEWORKS: MIDDLE AGES
Some rioters dressed as Vikings and invoked medieval holy war to support their ideas about racial purity, Christian nationalism, and violent masculinity. Here, historian Matthew Gabriele explains the long history of right-wing uses of "pop culture in combination with outdated historiography" to create myths about the Middle Ages.
Different colored pillars

The Capitol Riot Was an Attack on Multiracial Democracy

True democracy in America is a young, fragile experiment that must be defended if it is to endure.
CONTESTED FRAMEWORKS: RACE & DEMOCRACY
Many writers saw the riot as part of a long tradition of backlash to the inclusion of racial and other minorities in the nation's political processes. This piece by journalist Adam Serwer was among the first to explain January 6 as a rejection of multiracial democracy.
An insurrectionist holding a Confederate flag in the Capitol building.

‘Sedition’: A Complicated History

As a mob stormed the Capitol, the word “sedition” was on many people’s lips. Its force is clear, but its echoes across American history are more complex.
LANGUAGE & CONCEPTS: SEDITION
The events of January 6th brought terms like "sedition" to the forefront of political rhetoric. This piece turns to history to understand the complex concepts behind such terms, and the gravity of the actions they describe.
Person wearing pro-Trump attire in front of the U.S. Capitol.

What Should We Call the Sixth of January?

What began as a protest, rally, and march ended as something altogether different—a day of anarchy that challenges the terminology of history.
LANGUAGE & CONCEPTS: INSURRECTION
Was it a riot? An insurrection? A revolt? A protest? Was it treason? Here, historian Jill Lepore delves into the definitions and historical contexts of these terms in an attempt to come up with an accurate label.
Black and white photo of protestors climbing the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021.

Ask the ‘Coupologists’: Just What Was Jan. 6 Anyway?

Without a name for it, figuring out why it happened is that much harder.
LANGUAGE & CONCEPTS: COUP D'ETAT
As the public learned more about the involvement of members of Congress and the executive branch, many Americans started to wonder if Jan. 6 was actually an attempted coup. Politico asked experts who have studied coups in other times and places to weigh in.
Flags flying at the Capitol Siege.

Making Sense of the ‘Mob’ Mentality

Why do some mass gatherings turn violent? Experts in crowd behavior say there’s still much to learn.
LANGUAGE & CONCEPTS: MOB VIOLENCE
Whether the attack was "an angry throng, a chaotic demonstration, a protest turned ugly or a deliberate insurrection — or some combination of them all," this piece argues that the history and psychology of mob violence can help explain how the events unfolded.
QAnon proponent and Trump supporters

Bad Information

Conspiracy theories like QAnon are ultimately a social problem rather than a cognitive one. We should blame politics, not the faulty reasoning of individuals.
LANGUAGE & CONCEPTS: CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Blaming conspiratorial thinking on individuals' psychology suggests that debunking misinformation is the cure. Here, Nicolas Guilhot makes the case that conspiracy theories are cultural phenomena with social remedies, and that their root causes "may require a reexamination of our economic and social arrangements."
Donald Trump and American flags.

What Trump Shares With the ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy

It is hard to miss the parallels between now and then of rewriting history and campaigns of disinformation.
ANTECEDENTS: LOST CAUSE OF THE CONFEDERACY
While Jan. 6 struck many as unprecedented, historians found many events in the nation's past that paralleled at least some parts of the Capitol riot. Here, historian Karen Cox suggests that post Civil War-myth-making by white Southerners may be one useful framework for understanding it. (See also this piece by David Blight on another aspect of the "Lost Cause" comparison: <bunkhistory.org/resources/opinion-how-trumpism-may-endure>)
Wood engraving of November 7, 1837 mob attack in Alton, IL. Antislavery publisher Elijah Lovejoy was killed and his press, hidden in this warehouse, was destroyed, with the pieces thrown into the Mississippi River.
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Elijah Lovejoy Faced Down Violent Mobs to Champion Abolition and the Free Press

Lovejoy, who ran a weekly paper called the Observer, was repeatedly targeted by mobs over his persistent writings against slavery.
ANTECEDENTS: ATTACK ON FREE PRESS 1837
During the impeachment proceedings against Trump, Congressman Jaimie Raskin compared the rioters' attacks on journalists to the murder of abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy at the hands of an angry pro-slavery mob.
Wilmington coup marker

We’ve Had a White Supremacist Coup Before. History Buried It.

The 1898 Wilmington insurrection showed “how people could get murdered in the streets and no one held accountable for it.”
ANTECEDENTS: WILMINGTON COUP
A successful coup took place at the municipal level in 1898, when white supremacists in Wilmington, NC violently overthrew the city's elected bi-racial coalition government.
Ku Klux Klan members marching on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925

A Century Ago, White Protestant Extremism Marched on Washington

A historian of the 1920s KKK sees frightening similarities between that culture and the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
ANTECEDENT: KKK MARCH IN 1925
The displays of Christian nationalism on Jan. 6 have a long history. They reminded historian Kelly Baker of Klan marches in the 1920s, when white supremacists carried flags and crosses to "show their dominance and presence in American life."

Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Apotheosis of Washington

What a video of an Jan. 6 insurrectionist illustrates about race, religion, and nationalism in the MAGA movement.
JAN 6 AS HISTORY: DOCUMENTS ATTACKERS CREATED
Over time, analyses shifted from historical analogizing to attempts to understand Jan. 6 as a historical event in itself. This deep dive into the videos created and shared by rioters themselves asks what these primary sources tell us about participants' motivations and ideologies.
Rep. Bennie Thompson speaking at the Jan. 6 committee hearings.

January 6 Committee Final Public Meeting

Video testimony and evidence presented by the House Select Committee to recommend criminal prosecution of Donald Trump.
JAN 6 AS HISTORY: CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE PROCEEDINGS
The U.S. House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 Attack presented its assessment of the events as a video. Entered into the Congressional Record, that video itself is now an important historical document.
Stack of papers with an image of the Capitol building printed on the side.

What the January 6th Report Is Missing

The investigative committee singles out Trump for his role in the attack. As prosecution, the report is thorough. But as historical explanation it’s a mess.
JAN 6 AS HISTORY: CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE REPORT
Here, Jill Lepore critiques the January 6th Report not on its content, but rather on its style. These sorts of reports, she explains, are intended not only to explain the results of congressional investigations, but also to gain public support and inform policy moving forward. Will this document be up to the task?
A crowd of Trump supporters, one holding a "Dems Cheated" sign, on January 6, 2021

‘Stop the Steal’ Didn’t Start With Trump

Mainstream Republicans and conservative commentators have been pushing the idea that Democrats can win only through fraud for decades.
FRAMING DEVICE: ELECTION DISINFORMATION
In the days, weeks, and months after Jan. 6, the event remained ever-present in political discourse. As a common experience, it began to serve as a framing device in discussions of other issues. Here, NYT columnist Jamelle Bouie suggests that rioters' "Stop the Steal" slogan serves as a window into the history of voter suppression efforts by the Republican Party.
A custodian moving furniture in the Capitol building.

The 'Racial Caste System' at the U.S. Capitol

After the Capitol was cleared of insurrectionists on January 6, it wasn't lost on many that cleaning up the mess would fall largely to Black and Brown people.
FRAMING DEVICE: RACE & INCOME INEQUALITY 
Watching the coverage of the event, sociologist James R. Jones noted the racial distinctions between the rioters at the Capitol and the janitors who worked there. That observation served as the starting point for this discussion of inequality in Washington, DC.
An illustration of the caning of Charles Sumner.

The Caning of Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate: White Supremacist Violence in Pen and Pixels

Absent social media, the artists of the past shaped public knowledge of historical events through illustrations.
FRAMING DEVICE: DEPICTION OF VIOLENCE
For the authors of this piece, the selfies and social media posts created by Jan. 6 rioters serve as a window into the artistic and media depictions of white supremacist violence.
Vietnamese immigrants parading the flag of the Republic of Vietnam during the Tet festival at a North American Little Saigon.

The South Vietnamese Flag and Shifting Representations of the Vietnamese American Experience

The sight of the flag on January 6, 2021 has aroused curiosity and criticism. Missing, however, is the multiplicity of its symbolism to Vietnamese Americans.
FRAMING DEVICE: VIETNAM WAR MEMORY
Here, one of the flags carried by participants in the Jan. 6 riot serves as an entry point into a discussion about the shifting nature of Vietnamese immigration to the U.S. since the end of the Vietnam War.

Republicans Are Moving Rapidly to Cement Minority Rule. Blame the Constitution.

Democracy is in trouble, but a lawless coup isn’t the real threat.
FRAMING DEVICE: MINORITY RULE
On the one-year anniversary of Jan. 6, historian Corey Robin used the events to frame his argument that the nonviolent, constitutional pathways to minority rule make it a much greater threat to the nation than an angry mob could ever be.
Man holding bible outside Capitol with Trump supporters
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Christian Nationalism Is Surging. It Wasn’t Inevitable.

How the decline of liberal religion transformed American Christianity — and politics.
FRAMING DEVICE: CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM
The prayers recited by a group of rioters once they had breached the Capitol rotunda serve as the starting point for this discussion of the ways Christian nationalism has shaped American religion and politics.
The Capitol building.

Preserve (Some of) the Wreckage

We must remember the very real challenges to the preservation of our democracy.
LOOKING FORWARD: MEMORIALIZATION
While the mob violence lasted only a few hours, the ideologies that drove it, and the structures that enabled it, continue to shape the nation's future. Here, historian Louis Nelson reflects on the challenge of remembering January 6th without letting its perpetrators shape our collective memory.
Man walks through the U.S. Capitol holding a confederate flag on Jan 6, 2021.
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1871 Provides A Road Map for Addressing the Pro-Trump Attempted Insurrection

Commitment to racial justice, not conciliation, is needed to save democracy.
LOOKING FORWARD: POLITICAL ACCOUNTABILITY
When the KKK perpetrated a vigilante reign of terror, the federal government responded with strong legislation and a congressional investigation. This piece from two days after the riot calls for a similar approach, warning that otherwise "the silence and inaction of our political leaders will only embolden the white-supremacist mob, undermine democracy and endanger those who have fought" for freedom.
Donald Trump behind bars made of the US Constitution

The Constitution Prohibits Trump From Ever Being President Again

The only question is whether American citizens today can uphold that commitment.
LOOKING FORWARD: ELECTION OF 2024
Immediately after the attack, some scholars began making the case that the 14th Amendment's Section Three, drafted to prevent former Confederates from holding office, makes Trump ineligible to be president again. These arguments were present as Congress weighed impeachment, and have continued as state courts have considered the legality of his future candidacy.

It’s 2086. This Is What American History Could Look Like.

Two curators at the National Museum of American History are regularly confronted by hard physical evidence of just how slippery the past can be.
LOOKING FORWARD: ARCHIVES
This piece from the one-year anniversary of Jan. 6 looks at the potential impacts of archivists' decisions about what to preserve from that historic day. (See also this piece about how Jan. 6 may fit into the commemoration of the nation's 250th birthday in 2026: <bunkhistory.org/resources/insurrectionabilia-at-the-smithsonian>)