Milbank: January 6 Roots Begin with Gingrich, Not TrumpHistorians in the News
tags: right wing, conservatism, radicalism, Newt Gingrich, January 6
It began where it ended, on the West Front of the United States Capitol.
On Jan. 6, 2021, an armed mob invited and incited by President Donald Trump smashed barriers, overpowered police and stormed the Capitol. The insurrectionists scaled the scaffolding erected for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration and proceeded to sack the seat of government for the first time since the War of 1812.
Called to Washington by Trump, who promised a “wild” time, and sent to the Capitol with instructions to “fight like hell,” the mob halted Congress’s certification of Biden’s victory, sending lawmakers and staff fleeing for their lives. At least seven people died in the riot or its aftermath, and more than 140 police officers were hurt. Some 845 insurrectionists, several with ties to white-supremacist or violent extremist groups, have faced charges including seditious conspiracy.
Many Americans were shocked that Trump, after first considering a plan to seize voting machines, had orchestrated an attempted coup, knowingly dispatching armed attackers to Capitol Hill and then refusing for 187 minutes to call off the assault. And many Americans have been shocked anew to see elected Republicans, after initially condemning Trump’s attack on democracy, excuse his actions and rationalize the violent insurrection itself as “legitimate political discourse.”
But a sober look at history might have lessened the shock, for the seeds of sedition had been planted earlier — a quarter-century earlier — in that same spot on the West Front of the Capitol.
On Sept. 27, 1994, more than 300 Republican members of Congress and congressional candidates gathered where the insurrectionists would one day mount the scaffolding. On that sunny morning, they assembled for a nonviolent transfer of power. Bob Michel, the unfailingly genial leader of the House Republican minority for the previous 14 years, had ushered Ronald Reagan’s agenda through the House. But he was being forced into retirement by a rising bomb thrower who threatened to oust Michel as GOP leader if he didn’t quit. “My friends,” a wistful Michel told the gathering, “I’ll not be able to be with you when you enter that promised land of having that long-sought-after majority.”
Newt Gingrich had almost nothing in common with the man he shoved aside. Michel was a portrait of civility and decency, a World War II combat veteran who knew that his political opponents were not his enemies and that politics was the art of compromise. Gingrich, by contrast, rose to prominence by forcing the resignation of a Democratic speaker of the House on what began as mostly false allegations, by smearing another Democratic speaker with personal innuendo, and by routinely thwarting Michel’s attempts to negotiate with Democrats. Gingrich had avoided service in Vietnam and regarded Democrats as the enemy, impugning their patriotism and otherwise savaging them nightly on the House floor for the benefit of C-SPAN viewers.
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