Jan. 6 attack was a ‘warning shot’ and likely a ‘harbinger,’ experts say. Here’s why

To get a better understanding of the broader effects of the Jan. 6 insurrection on American politics, culture and democracy itself, Judy Woodruff speaks to four writers who have spent the last year engaged in that conversation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    To help us understand the broader effects that January 6 is having on our politics, our culture and democracy itself, and consider where we go from here, I spoke yesterday with four writers who have spent the last year engaged in this conversation.

    George Packer is a staff writer at "The Atlantic," and he has written extensively about the country's political divisions. Jelani Cobb covers race and politics at "The New Yorker" and is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

    Stuart Stevens is a former Republican strategist. He worked on many Republican campaigns, including for Mitt Romney in 2012, but has since written the book "It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump." And Gary Abernathy is a contributing columnist at The Washington Post.

    We welcome all four of you to the program. Thank you so much.

    Let me just lay down the basics. What words would you use, George Packer, to describe what happened on January 6? And how much does it matter that we get to the bottom of it, that we hold those responsible accountable?

    George Packer, "The Atlantic": At the time, I thought it was an insurrection, and I still do, directed by the president. And I still think that.

    But I underestimated it. I thought it was a kind of wild shot that nearly hit its target, could have been fatal, but that we dodged.

    That's not how I see it now. I think it was actually a warning shot and almost a searching for the target that did miss, but that found how to get the target next time.

    And in the year since January 6, what we have seen is efforts by both national Republicans and state legislatures and major figures in the party to figure out how to use January 6 to make sure that, next time, it works, and, next time, what didn't work for Donald Trump in overthrowing the 2020 election and the Constitution last time is going to work next time.

    And that — for that reason, I think, a year later, I'm far more concerned even than I was when I was in a state of shock on January 6, 2021.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Gary Abernathy, what about you? How do you see what happened?

  • Gary Abernathy, The Washington Post:

    Well, I think it was a very disturbing day, Judy, one of the most disturbing and embarrassing things that I have ever seen.

    It makes me actually angry at Donald Trump, because, as someone who supported Trump — and, frankly, I'm still glad he was president. But I think the event disqualifies him from future office, not legally, but by — in the hearts of people, they should say, we can't vote for this guy again.

    And it's because of what he didn't do. But, as president of the United States, he should have done more to tamp down the emotions of that day. And he should be held politically responsible for not doing that. I think it's a stretch to say he's legally responsible for not doing that.

    And I think the worry for me is going too far the other way to try to really use this politically to slam the Republican Party in a way legally that really is better adjudicated at the ballot box, so to speak.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jelani Cobb, how much does it matter that we understand what happened on January 6?

    Jelani Cobb, "The New Yorker": I think it matters. It's crucial. I can't think of anything that's more important, in fact.

    I agree with George. If I were to use a single word here to describe what it was, I would say harbinger, because, at the moment, people thought that this had been averted and that the danger had passed, but, in reality, if we think about January 6 at the Capitol, there was a convergence in a single place.

    And that building was overwhelmed, and, supposedly, the most fortified, secured city in the country in terms of federal presence. And that building was overwhelmed rather easily.

    What would have happened if we had a brushfires across the country in the state legislatures, as we saw in Michigan? What if people had come back, the militias had come back in Michigan, in Georgia, in Arizona, in places where there was suspicion being ginned up? And how would that have played out?

    We could have wound up with a much, much worse situation. And there's no guarantee that we won't wind up with a similar kind of situation in the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stu Stevens, you have heard what the others are saying. How do you look on what happened?

  • Stuart Stevens, Former Romney Campaign Senior Adviser:

    I think that's important to wrap our minds around is that what happened on 1/6 was just part of a larger effort here, which is an autocratic movement in America.

    And I think that it's a mistake just to isolate 1/6 as, OK, this one event, some people came there.

    You look what followed these — coordinated effort to pass these — voting legislation to make it more difficult for people who don't vote Republican to vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, George Packer, we heard Gary Abernathy say, in so many words, that it would be wrong to overinterpret, overreact to what happened.

    What do you think about that?

  • George Packer:

    How can one overreact to a mortal threat to American democracy, the first in my lifetime that actually seems to be on a road toward making it impossible for the popular will to be respected at the ballot box?

    That's been the goal of all these bills passed or debated across legislatures in Georgia, in Arizona, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, which are not just about restricting access to the ballot, but are about putting elections in the hands of reliable partisans, so that, next time around, we will have states that claim that the election was somehow wrongly held, and that it's thrown into the hands of a partisan legislature, which sends its own electors to Congress to choose the next president.

    That's exactly the strategy going on right now, and it's building on what the Republican Party learned from 1/6 and these events around it, which was, you need the right people in the right offices to be making these decisions in order to seize power.

    They didn't have it last time. They're trying to get it next time. I can't possibly overestimate the seriousness of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Gary Abernathy, you're hearing this. You're hearing George and the others say it's impossible not to take this seriously.

  • Gary Abernathy:

    I want to be clear.

    I'm on board with everyone who thinks January 6 was a horrible day for our country. I think it's right to remember it. I think it's right to look back at it as a day that we should all be ashamed of and hope never repeats itself.

    But I think it's being used politically in some cases to then extrapolate those events and say, well, we can't have any election reform. We can't have anything, because it's all an effort to make what happened on January 6 happen again.

    And the fact is, a lot of us would argue that our system actually worked on January 6. None of these terrible things came to be, because people like Mike Pence said, I can't go along with that.

    So there are degrees of differences here. But, in some ways, I think we're on the same page.

  • Jelani Cobb:

    We are not on the same page, Gary.

    And the system did not work, if we think about the law enforcement officers, the Capitol Police officers who lost their lives.

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Absolutely.

  • Jelani Cobb:

    Those — the officer who died on that day and those who subsequently died or have left, we can't gloss this over and make it seem as if it were Florida in 2000, where there were a simple bit of electoral glitches that were resolved administratively, bureaucratically.

    That's not what happened. We have people beating, physically beating police officers and threatening to lynch the sitting vice president of the United States. None of those are minor things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to move in and bring in Stu Stevens again and talk about the role of the political parties, the Republican Party, in this.

    We know most Republicans today say they believe Donald Trump was reelected, that Joe Biden is not legitimately the president.

  • Stuart Stevens:

    When we say that the majority of Republicans don't believe that Joe Biden is a legally elected president, that means the majority of Republicans in this country don't believe we live in a democracy.

    They think that we live in an occupied country. And if you follow that to a logical conclusion, it means not only do they have a right to reinstate the rightful president of the United States; some feel they have an obligation. And that's what they're going to teach their children.

    And if you go down that line of thinking, it justifies terrible acts of violence and terrible acts of legal authorities, legislatures to try to overturn the will of the people. We have never been here, at least not since 1860.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    George Packer, what about the future? How do we keep this democracy strong with this deep division existing in our political body?

  • George Packer:

    The lesson that I have learned over the past year is that democracy actually depends on a kind of reason obtaining among the electorate, people behaving in at least a roughly rational way, and not falling under the spell of conspiracy thinking and irrational interpretations of events, and the spell of an authoritarian demagogue like Donald Trump.

    But what's happened is, one of our two major parties has fallen into that. It really is simply a matter of each and every American citizen finding it in themselves to resist that force and to try to rescue the democracy that we love from our fellow citizens who seem determined to take it into a direction that I think is dark and destructive and that I fear very much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Gary Abernathy, do you see, from where you sit politically, a way through this that keeps our democracy strong?

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Well, one thing I constantly try to argue for is, Judy, we need to respect each other again.

    We need to respect each other's differences again. I don't care what polls you look at. If you look at polls that say 40 percent of Americans and 80 percent or 90 percent of Republicans think the election was stolen, we can't suddenly just demonize and minimize these people as the Americans that they are.

    We have got to work our way through this, talk our way through this, not — not just divide into our media camps and our feeds that just reinforce what we believe. We have got to do a good job of continuing to communicate. And, eventually, truth wins out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stu Stevens, do you see that as the way through this?

  • Stuart Stevens:

    Yes, well, I think that's a — I think that's a fantasy.

    You can't negotiate with evil. How do you negotiate with the person who is in the Capitol of the United States in a Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt? You don't want to meet those people halfway. You don't need to understand them. They're wrong. People who believe in democracy are right.

    The solution to this is pretty straightforward. You have to beat these Republicans. You have to have more days like January 5 last year, where you elect Democrats in Georgia, because the Democratic Party, which I spent 30 years pointing out flaws in, is the party that represents democracy in America now.

    And we have to just accept that and put these other differences aside.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is a conversation we need to continue to have as the American people.

    And I want to thank all four of you for being part of this conversation today.

    Stu Stevens, Gary Abernathy, Jelani Cobb, George Packer, thank you so much.

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