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It’s been three years since insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. As we approach yet another election that could be contested, it’s critical to continue unpacking what happened and what is in fact continuing to happen around Jan. 6. To do so, I spoke with Jeff Sharlet, a professor at Dartmouth College and the author of, most recently, The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War, published by Norton in March. The book draws from his writing as he traveled around America, meeting with, as the Washington Post put it, “furious people in forgotten places.” This book is one of the most stunning pieces of writing I have read in a long time. An excerpt of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, follows. Listen to the whole conversation on the most recent episode of Amicus.

Dahlia Lithwick: Jan. 6, 2021, sure looked like the start of what could be a civil war to many of us. This was a moment that we teetered into something and then we came back from the brink, but it was also a moment at which, I think, even the most fervent Trumpists and most Republicans publicly were trying to call off the dogs.

But it feels as though we’ve evolved into something quite different in the three years since, and at least according to polling, more than 7 in 10 Republicans say way too much is being made of Jan. 6 and it is time to move on. And I find myself wondering what you take from the fact that, to the extent that we had a preview of what civil war might look like, everybody is either bored by it or trying to play it down. I mean, more than 1,200 people have been charged in connection with that attempt to interrupt the certification of the election. It’s a serious thing. And yet, it just feels as though it’s in the way, way, way, way past now.

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Jeff Sharlet: So, here’s, like, a little bit of good news, because this is a hopeful book, really. I’m not worried about another Jan. 6. I don’t think there will be another Jan. 6. In the book, I meet a militia commander in Marinette, Wisconsin, walk into his home, and it’s an arsenal. Playing on loop in a corner is the video—he’s got hours and hours of video he took at the Capitol.

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On this question of weapons, of course he was carrying. He said, “I wouldn’t go to Washington without a gun.” He has this imagination of it as a very dangerous place. He thought I might be an FBI agent, but other than that, he’s not been bothered.

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But he would never go again. I think movements change. One thing that may be useful to understand how Jan. 6 plays is to understand the Trump rhetoric. I write about this move that he does as “Joking, not joking.”

It’s like that schoolyard bully who pretends he’s gonna punch you and then says, “Just joking” and then does it again, until you get that sort of normalized terror. You see that playing out as Trump introduces these ideas over the years: “I’m the chosen one. No, I’m just joking.”

Well, but now it’s a commonplace on the Christian right. Especially that Trump is divinely anointed, or maybe he’s gonna stay for 12 more years. At a rally he says, “Tomorrow the press will say it, but I’m just joking. Or maybe I’m not.” Now it’s a commonplace that he’s gonna be dictator on Day 1. Joking, not joking.

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So Jan. 6 was that move of normalizing the possibility of violence, trying it out. Think of Jan. 6 more as a trial balloon for the exercise of state power.

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Listen to the full conversation here:

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A document I don’t think is getting reported enough about is called Project 2025, spearheaded by the Heritage Foundation but involving 75 other of the real heavy hitters across the spectrum—right-wing groups that wouldn’t normally work together. It’s on the dictatorship of Trump—it’s 900 pages, going agency by agency, and they’re recruiting lawyers and so on. And it includes the kind of institutionalization of Jan. 6, not least of which, by the way, is Trump saying: “If I get in, I’m gonna pardon these guys, and I’m gonna apologize to them.”

So I think it’s still very real, but it does seem in the past. The mistake we can make is to think, Well, that was a terrible day that we must never let happen again. Yes, correct. But on the other hand, we’re already in scarier territory than Jan. 6. We need to deal with the threats ahead as well as behind. This is not a crime scene. This is an ongoing crime.

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QOSHE - What to Think About Jan. 6 Going Into Another Presidential Election - Dahlia Lithwick
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What to Think About Jan. 6 Going Into Another Presidential Election

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06.01.2024
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It’s been three years since insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. As we approach yet another election that could be contested, it’s critical to continue unpacking what happened and what is in fact continuing to happen around Jan. 6. To do so, I spoke with Jeff Sharlet, a professor at Dartmouth College and the author of, most recently, The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War, published by Norton in March. The book draws from his writing as he traveled around America, meeting with, as the Washington Post put it, “furious people in forgotten places.” This book is one of the most stunning pieces of writing I have read in a long time. An excerpt of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, follows. Listen to the whole conversation on the most recent episode of Amicus.

Dahlia Lithwick: Jan. 6, 2021, sure looked like the start of what could be a civil war to many of us. This was a moment that we teetered into something and then we came back from the brink, but it was also a moment at which, I think, even the most fervent Trumpists and most Republicans publicly were trying to call off the dogs.

But it feels as though we’ve evolved into something quite different........

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