The January 6 counterfactual

One of the more curious rationalizations for the January 6 coup attempt draws on Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” Daniel McCarthy’s article in the Spectator is probably the closest you’ll find to an intellectual rationalization for the coup attempt, but it relies on inaccuracies:

The fools who stormed the Capitol a year ago were not killers like Brown, nor even armed like Shays. They had no plan, and if their presence in the Capitol had intimidated Congress into trying to throw out the Electoral College’s results, that would not have sufficed to keep Donald Trump in office. There would have been riots in every major city, as one tumult checked another. Thomas Jefferson and John Brown both would have understood that.[1]

There was, in fact, a plan, however poorly conceived and executed.[2]

The question of what would have happened had that attempt succeeded takes us deep into a counterfactual, which I’m not methodologically fond of, because there will surely be variables in play in such a scenario which are difficult if not impossible to recognize in the abstraction of something that didn’t actually happen.

But let us say that Congress had indeed refused to certify the actual results and instead certified results based on alternative slates of electors. I’ll certainly grant that “[t]here would have been riots in every major city, as one tumult checked another.”[3] But remember who has the guns. It’s not the Democrats or the Left we worry about for their gun nuttery, but rather for a flaccid response to right-wing extremism.

Unleashed by a success on January 6, it seems likely that more militia and, indeed, even ordinary Trumpists, would have joined in than actually did in the event that failed; they would have acted largely in concert with police white supremacist gangsters, possibly with the National Guard. The full constitutional apparatus that nearly failed to keep order in the actual event, presumably because it had been compromised from within, would now have been available to impose order in this aftermath,[4] likely with very different and even bloody results. These riots would surely have been put down, the rioters dismissed or perhaps even indicted as traitors.

We would now already be in the right-wing dictatorship that so many fear.[5]

McCarthy appeals for leniency, even pardons for the coup plotters and ordinary participants.[6] I do not know what the solution is for the polarization that threatens a revived Civil War.[7] It surely cannot be this.

  1. [1]Daniel McCarthy, “January 6 was an alarm bell,” Spectator, January 6, 2022,
  2. [2]Spencer S. Hsu, Tom Jackman, and Devlin Barrett, “Self-styled militia members planned on storming the U.S. Capitol days in advance of Jan. 6 attack, court documents say,” Washington Post, January 19, 2021,; Spencer S. Hsu, Rachel Weiner, and Tom Jackman, “Self-styled militia members in three states began planning in November for recruits, weapons ahead of Capitol breach, U.S. alleges,” Washington Post, January 27, 2021,; Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell, and Marissa J. Lang, “Capitol siege was planned online. Trump supporters now planning the next one,” Washington Post, January 9, 2021,; Aruna Viswanatha, “Conspiracy Charges Filed Over Capitol Riot,” Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2021,
  3. [3]Daniel McCarthy, “January 6 was an alarm bell,” Spectator, January 6, 2022,
  4. [4]Kyle Cheney, Sarah Ferris, and Laura Barrón-López, “‘Inside job’: House Dems ask if Capitol rioters had hidden help,” Politico, January 8, 2021,; Ryan Devereaux, “The Thin Blue Line Between Violent, Pro-Trump Militias and Police,” Intercept, August 28, 2020,; Maggie Koerth, “The Police’s Tepid Response To The Capitol Breach Wasn’t An Aberration,” FiveThirtyEight, January 7, 2021,; Kurtis Lee, Jaweed Kaleem, and Laura King, “‘White supremacy was on full display.’ Double standard seen in police response to riot at Capitol,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2021,
  5. [5]Jacob Bacharach, “The Next Coup Attempt Will Be More Dangerous,” review of The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It by Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague, New Republic, January 4, 2022,; Thomas Homer-Dixon, “The American polity is cracked, and might collapse. Canada must prepare,” Globe and Mail, January 2, 2022,; Stephen Marche, “The next US civil war is already here – we just refuse to see it,” Guardian, January 4, 2022,
  6. [6]Daniel McCarthy, “January 6 was an alarm bell,” Spectator, January 6, 2022,
  7. [7]David Benfell, “A hot U.S. civil war turned cold, now lukewarm, may turn hot again,” Not Housebroken, January 5, 2022,

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