Chapter 0 - Prologue
The confusion that has taken hold around January 6th hit Caroline Edwards on a personal level. She had been on the receiving end of insults from people who supported the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. In her words: “I was called Nancy Pelosi's dog, called incompetent, called a hero and a villain. I was called a traitor to my country, my oath, and my constitution.”
Ms. Edwards, actually Officer Edwards of the Capitol Police, received all this abuse during and since the attack for the sin of simply doing her job and defending the Capitol from a mob intent on breaking through barriers and windows to get to people inside the building.
Edwards was knocked unconscious in the early part of the attack. But on it went, for hours, and she got up and fought again, injured.
Officer Edwards, testifying in front of Congress about the experience, later said she has asked herselves many, many times how we had gotten to the point where Americans were attacking other Americans on the steps of one our most American institutions. Maybe you have asked this as well. A lot of Americans have. A large part of the reason—and to why we are still asking the question 18 months later—is, my friends, that misinformation about January 6th is rampant and effective.
As Caroline Edwards was recovering from her wounds late that evening, the Congress eventually assembled to finish formalizing the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States. They were supposed to have done it much earlier in the day. They had in fact convened for that purpose, but the mob disrupted those Constitutionally prescribed proceedings. Never before, until this time, had the United States seen a less-than-peaceful transition of power from one President to the next. Never before, until this time, had the United States seen a defeated President refuse to concede. Or call supporters together to “fight” for him. Our country had never seen anything like it before.
As dramatic as these events were, and for all that we know about them, why do Americans find themselves arguing with one another over the basics about January 6th? We watched our TVs in shock as it unfolded. Almost no one had a clue in the days following, which you might expect in the near aftermath. But you could spend all your time reading and come away confused, still, 18 months later, about what went down. So… why is this episode so hard for us, individually and collectively, to make sense of?
Welcome to our guide to January 6th, in which I will attempt to answer this important question.
I’m Kevin, the editor of Prism Metanews.
But that probably doesn’t mean anything to you! And you’d be right to question whether it makes sense to listen to me on this or any other topic. As an advocate for critical thinking about sources of information and media literacy habits generally… I ENDORSE.
So here’s me in a nutshell: once upon a time and for a long time, I was in public service. I’m an economist who turned into a linguist who turned again into an intelligence analyst. The U.S. Government trained me to synthesize wide-ranging pieces of information into actionable analysis to help safeguard our national security. For many years, I specialized in understanding foreign media environments and analyzing propaganda.
I have been doing Prism Metanews, and precursor projects related to misinformation, for over a year and a half, all on the side of a full-time job and on the margins of the responsibilities that come from being a father of four. It’s not a paying gig, and there’s no glory in it; I do it because I believe we all need to do something about misinformation culture. This is my something.
It is essential that we as a nation deal with the big questions surrounding the bloody, nihilistic Capitol attack. This was the most significant aggression to pierce our temple of democracy since the War of 1812. Why did these people come to Washington, D.C. from all around the country? What was planned, and what was spontaneous? How close did we really come to a full-blown overthrow of the Republic? Which parts did Donald Trump know about, and when, and what did he do about it? And, again, what is it about the answers to these questions that they confound us so?
For those of you who know what Prism Metanews is about, you already understand that I consider January 6th to be a seminal event in the history of misinformation. Believing things that are objectively wrong is what drove the lawlessness, and propagating things that are objectively wrong has surrounded the events of that day from as soon as they happened. With the stakes this high, it is the duty of every citizen to discern what’s fake–and form their judgments around the real things that are left. Week in and week out, Prism’s newsletter tries to help with this. This voice essay is a misinformation-focused recap of our weekly January 6th coverage since we started last year. We have written up January 6th and elections-related developments dozens of times in over 60 editions. I’m drawing here from hundreds of news articles, which you can find linked in our archived editions.
Facts are the watchword. I am slow to draw conclusions, and never do so when unsupported. Some of what I say here is going to sound sensational, but please believe that it is not my style to exaggerate for effect. These events really happened, and they are extraordinary. I try to be fair to the many genuine people whose view of things is different from my own. If it matters to you, I consider myself a moderate conservative, and until recently was a Republican all my life. No editor is without bias. I also make mistakes like anyone else, and I hope you will make me aware of them when I do.
But, also: the attackers weren’t Antifa. I believe our democracy’s future depends on wrapping our collective minds around January 6th, and coming to a shared understanding.
With that as introduction, I hope you will find this voice essay necessary and useful. The January 6th Committee is finishing its work and will be putting out reams of the evidence it has collected and, probably, a final report. Those findings will be all over the place as the midterm election approaches in November. The Department of Justice’s investigations into related crimes will stretch still further into the future. You might be worried, as a lot of people are, that the Congressional hearings are partisan and too much to take in. And the DoJ communicates through dry court filings. And CNN and Fox and other sources sensationalize and editorialize to the point it seems unwise to rely on any one on its own. So what I’ll do is summarize, looking across the range of reliable reporting and weeding out the extra or questionable. I have done my best to make this an alternative yet unified, comprehensive explainer. Thanks for listening.
Chapter 1 - The Facts of the Case
Let’s begin with a few basic things about January 6th, 2021. This is the foundational reality, the parts that are broadly known to be true. In later chapters, we’ll talk more about what is known to be untrue about certain parts. The cutoff for this information is August 18th, 2022.
First. In the United States, finalization of the Electoral College vote happens every four years on January 6th, about eight weeks following the presidential election. By January, the states have counted their votes and certified a winner, usually by their Secretaries of State and Governors. The states have sent these certified results to Washington, D.C. to be counted along with those of the other states. They get counted, and the winner is inaugurated two weeks later on January 20th, the day specified by the Constitution. January 6th has been, with *one* exception in American history, a pretty dull, made-for-C-SPAN affair. Sometimes there are objections to individual states, but nothing really ever comes of them. These challenges have never gotten close to turning a win into a loss, or vice versa. After votes on the challenges, if any, the sitting Vice President oversees the final tally.
Second. President Donald Trump called for his supporters to come to the nation’s capital to be there on this particular January 6th. It was another in a series of demonstrations in his support in Washington, D.C.; two others had happened in the preceding month. But this time would be “wild,” he said. And when they came, in huge numbers to the White House… Trump told them his wish that they would march up the street to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” He said he would go with them.
Third. A mob sporting merch and waving banners emblazoned with Trump’s name descended on the Capitol, assaulted police officers, chanted “hang Mike Pence,” broke reinforced windows, swarmed into the building, caused lawmakers to be evacuated mid-session, and hunted aggressively for Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and others. One of the attackers was killed rushing a door that security officers had barricaded to keep the intruders from reaching members of Congress. They looted and trashed and desecrated the seat of our government.
Fourth. Trump did not keep his promise to walk with thousands of his supporters to the Capitol. It’s still not too clear what he did during the hours before he finally spoke up to stop the attack. There is no evidence that he talked with anyone who could have helped stop the attack, for example the National Guard. But it is clear that he knew what was happening down the street, and who was doing it. His chief of staff fielded request after request, mostly from friends and allies, for him to call off the mob. Everyone knew he was the only one who could make it stop. Hours later, after law enforcement had started to regain their footing against the mob, he finally did.
Fifth. Whatever was intended by Trump or his loyalists in government or elements of the mob, in the end their efforts came to naught. Joe Biden was certified as the winner of the 2020 contest and went on to be inaugurated at noon on January 20th.
So that’s the story, high level, of what went down on January 6th. Those five pieces are the pillars that we, the House Select Committee, the Department of Justice, and (most of) the American public have as a basic structure. Good start! Let’s try to fill out some of the rest.
Chapter 2 - Cast of Characters
If you would, please turn your playbills to page 2, where you’ll find the names and brief descriptions of the players in this drama.
The lawyers: John Eastman, Kenneth Chesebro, Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell, Lin Wood. Without the legal-sounding justifications for extraordinary and illegal actions to deny Joe Biden the presidency these individuals supplied, January 6th would have been far less dramatic. Better for the continuance of our Republic—which they wounded with their quack theories—but less dramatic.
The loyalists: Mark Meadows, Peter Navarro, Jeffrey Clark, Kash Patel, Ezra Cohen-Watnick. After losing the election, turning the mob on Congress was actually Plan D to undo that loss. Plan A was to have the Justice Department declare the election fraudulent and then use the levers of government to create facts on the ground and prevent the certified results from taking effect. Plan B was to have the military seize the voting machines using the pretext of a foreign threat to national security. We’ll show how Trump put, or tried to put, men who would answer only to him into key positions to see these plans through. We still don’t know how close they got.
The Sedition Caucus: Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Kevin McCarthy, Andy Biggs, Scott Perry, Barry Loudermilk. More than 100 House members and a dozen Senators committed to voting against certifying the election. Plan C, then, was to flip states into Trump’s column so the Electoral College would hand him a “legitimate” second term. Senators and representatives, especially from key states like Arizona, were instrumental in suggesting this course of action to Trump and working to make it a reality. The state legislatures or, failing that, outright unauthorized Republicans would designate Trump electors instead of Biden electors, and when the vote reached Congress these individuals would make sure the alternate slates would be considered. Some encouraged Trump’s mob and fist-pumped them. Some gave tours of the Capitol on January 5th. Some solicited a preemptive pardon from Trump after the scheme failed. All broke their oath of office.
The propagandists: Sean Hannity, Ali Alexander, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Mike Lindell, Patrick Byrne. How many Americans would have supported what Trump and his allies wanted to do to the country if not for the steady drumbeat of “stolen election” rhetoric blasted over the airwaves since November? These influencers brought Republicans along from sad-that-Trump-lost to certain-he-was-justified in laying waste to the Constitution to keep his power. That he owed this to himself and the 74 million people who voted for him.
The insurrectionist LARPers: Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Three Percenters, First Amendment Praetorians. Unlike most of the Trump supporters there that day, these ex-military, unregulated militia, and wannabe tough guy types were organized. And they had plans. They met beforehand. They prepared provisions, and arms, and ammunition. They had comms and body armor and zip ties. They had backup plans. Most importantly, they were confident that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act and deputize them to impose martial law over the Congress. That’s why they came.
The misinformed mob: Most of the people outside the Capitol, all of whom were convinced that Trump had in fact won, were straightforward victims of the explosion of misinformation about the election. The propagandists used things like the dozens of court cases filed, thousands of affidavits sworn, and vague but technical insinuations to create the impression of an election riddled with Democratic fraud, foreign interference, or both. No matter that none of it held up in court, or could withstand expert scrutiny, or was even in the realm of possibility. Many of those present at the Capitol, in fact, had been taken in by the fantastical pro-Trump Internet fairy tale known as QAnon. However they came to their beliefs, though, it was real to them. They turned out to speak their truth, and in the process more than 800 of them were carried away by the historic passions of the day on to attacking law enforcement, breaking and entering, trespassing, and committing other federal crimes.
The heroes: Eugene Goodman, Caroline Edwards, Aquilino Gonell, Mike Fanone, Brian Sicknick, Daniel Hodges, Harry Dunn. And many others. They were on duty on what turned out to be a day of blood. To those who stood between the lawless mob and the orderly processes laid out in the Constitution, we all owe tremendous gratitude. How differently would we remember this day if they had not held off the mob for as long as possible, giving reporters, staffers, Senators, Representatives, and the Vice President time to get to safety?
The Vice President, pushed too far: Mike Pence. Along with his team, Pence stood firm against enormous pressure from his boss, who repeatedly asked him to unilaterally overrule the will of the people. President Trump wanted Pence to do something that wasn’t possible, and he couldn’t understand why Pence wouldn’t just do it anyway. As a direct result, Trump’s angry mob threatened the Vice President. He faced real mortal peril. His security detail feared for their lives.
The man for whom all of this was dreamed up and done: Donald Trump. The now-former President who is the overwhelming favorite among Republicans to be their nominee again in 2024. Who, to this day, has not expressed regret for the damage he and his supporters caused on January 6th. Nor has anyone with the power to make a difference demanded that he do so. It seems fair to say that, so far anyway, Mr. Trump hasn’t been held accountable—or been deterred from trying something similar again.
Now briefly, since this is an anti-misinformation publication, let’s also clear up who *wasn’t* involved. There were no Italian satellites or Venezuelan officials or Chinese communists who had anything to do with Joe Biden winning the vote. Voting machine executives didn’t intervene to help or hurt any candidate. Actual state legislatures never ended up sending alternative elector slates to Washington, DC. The attack on the Capitol was not perpetrated or instigated by federal agents. Neither BLM nor antifa dressed up as Trump supporters on January 6th. All of these things, each unfortunately believed by many, are fairy tales. Asserted, but never proven or even substantiated. File them all in the column of made-up nonsense that was thrown against the wall to see what would stick. Trump’s loss was like a mural, with unifying motifs, plenty of space for variations on the theme, and thousands of artists of varying degrees of respectability and talent able to walk up and add a part. It’s like, um, art. Yeah. Art.
And on that sidebar note about the creativity aspect of 2020 election misinformation, we move on to stories that really happened and for which there is overwhelming evidence.
Chapter 3 - Plot Lines
January 6th was a day unto itself, but it was also the culmination and intersecting of thousands of individual stories. To help make sense of it all, think of January 6th as having major and minor plot lines running throughout, and individuals plug in to one or more of those plot lines at different points. It’s like a season of Lost—except it actually goes somewhere!
For our purposes, I propose the following eight major plot lines, presented in order of time. We’ll dive into each in later parts:
The Boy Who Cried Fraud. Donald Trump has a habit of saying any contest he loses is illegitimate. Alleging his opponent cheated is, in this arena, his signature move. In 2020, he laid the foundation for this canard early by sowing doubt about mail-in voting.
Stop The Steal. Disbelief that Trump could have lost pushes millions of people to believe something that never was: that someone conspired to steal the election from him. They glide right past seriously considering the veracity of the allegations and begin demanding the supposed perpetrators be punished–and the election be overturned. It is a misinformation bonanza that will power all that is to come.
I’ll See You in Court. Trump’s allies launch a blitz of dozens of legal challenges to the final tally in battleground states. Not one of them comes close to proving significant voter fraud occurred. 46 different judges, including many appointed by Trump or other Republicans, rule against the bogus claims. Essentially all of it is debunked, one by one. But the propagandists don’t seem to mind. And in the minds of casual pro-Trump observers, the evidence feels like it is piling up. They’ve heard it so many times now, and they never see the corrections–or, if they do, proceed to update their beliefs.
Organized Subversion. The outgoing President, who knows he has lost, signs on to suggestions that the certified results in some states could simply be substituted out for ones he likes better. Republicans who hold levers of power in those states would help, he’s told. Here’s the theory: confuse people enough about what states are sending to the Electoral College, and Congress and your Vice President could then throw the thing your way at the federal level. If enough people don’t know how elections work and you can control what information reaches them, you might be able to get away with this.
Insider Threat. When you don’t care what’s true and have the awesome might of the U.S. government at your disposal, you might be tempted to use loyalists leading key agencies to help keep you in power. Trump tried this with the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense, but failed on both fronts.
The Bat Signal. It wasn’t clear whether Pence would play ball with the Electoral College gambit, but the time had come to call in the mob. Fire up the bullhorns, bring on the merch stands. Oh, and telegraph that very big, historic things will be happening. 1776. Et cetera. Suggest to the militias that support you that they should be ready for anything.
Violent Overthrow. They see the signal. It is the ultimate Trump rally, right in the front yard of the White House. With Congress and the VP set to certify the vote against his wishes, Trump’s hail Mary is to rile his supporters up and send them to Capitol Hill. Maybe their conspicuous presence will persuade Republicans to get with the program. Maybe some of the rioters will be able to stop the proceedings from proceeding. The attack is massive and sustained. Ultimately it will not succeed. But it will be with us always.
Aftermath. The attackers retreat. Representative Andy Kim helps clean up the mess. Trump pouts a few days, then leaves Washington. Joe Biden is inaugurated. But the election lies are just getting started. Within a few months, more Republicans than ever are angling for Trump’s approval by parroting them. Millions come to wrongly believe that Biden’s presidency is not legitimate. New lies are added about January 6th itself, for example that the attack was done by Antifa, or that it was entirely peaceful. Amazingly, these narratives find an audience willing to forget the reality of what happened. Largely behind the scenes, though, big wheels begin turning to see if the ones responsible for the attempt to subvert our Constitutional order can be held accountable.
The answer to “why isn’t January 6th well understood by most Americans” is, in part, simply because there are so many pieces to assemble and threads to run to ground. A low degree of understanding is also, though, exactly the outcome that people who wanted the attack to happen have worked toward since it was perpetrated–aided by others who have decided that doing so could help them even if they didn’t initially support the rioters.
The events of January 6th, 2021, and the ones that led up to and followed it, have *at best* been rife with misinformed confusion. The day and how it is perceived by the public are infused with politics, which means any investigation of what happened will by definition be extremely political. And that means people and political parties are acting upon strong incentives to uncover, exaggerate, misrepresent, sensationalize, deny, fabricate, fabulize, and otherwise wield information as a weapon. These actors want to help their tribe either survive the episode–or, they hope, come out on top.
In the following parts of this voice essay, I’m going to do my best to cover each of these eight plot lines, one by one. Not in thorough detail--there is much more that could be said about each–but just synopses to give the idea. For anyone interested, I have all of the information sourced and can provide citations, but I won’t be reading off citations as I go.
As I said before, misinformation skews our perceptions of reality, and that’s never been more true than in the roughly 19 months since January 6th happened and proceeded to become one of the most contentious episodes in living memory.
But knowing this only raises the next question: if we are still grasping for answers now, what can we learn by reflecting on our own lived experience in the year 2020? Are there clues that can help us spot the next major misinformation event before it blows up? Let’s check it out, in Part 2.