The violent events of 6th January 2021 should be a turning-point, but what if history fails to turn?

12th January 2021


Writing of the effects (and lack of effects) of the 1848 ‘revolution’ in Germany, the historian A. J. P. Taylor once wrote:

‘German history reached its turning-point and failed to turn.’

Identifying a moment in time as a potential turning-point is one thing, but it is quite another for it to actually be a turning-point.


Take, for example, seven days before the 2016 referendum when the British member of parliament Jo Cox was murdered by a person shouting ‘Britain First’.

That incident which took place at the most unpleasant moment of the referendum campaign – the ‘swamped’ poster was about the same time – felt as if it should have been a turning-point. 

That the passions and indeed frenzy unleashed by the referendum campaign were out of control, that things had gone too far.

But it was not a turning-point – the referendum campaign quickly resumed – and the murder had no obvious impact.


The events in the United States of 6th January 2021 also seem to be a potential turning-point.

In what this blog and others aver was an attempted coup, and what was an insurrection on any view, there was a violent attempt to disrupt an essential constitutional step in the peaceful transfer of power, at the behest of (or at least in the interests of) a defeated politician.

Five people died.

There is currently an attempt, in the last few days of the current presidency to impeach that defeated candidate, President Donald Trump.

At the moment it looks unlikely that the impeachment will result in a conviction in the Senate and that Trump will be removed from office before 20th January 2021, when the presidential term ends by automatic operation of law.

One view is that the events of 6th January 2021 will shock Republican politicians and political supporters of Trump.

That the passions and indeed frenzy unleashed by his attempt to discredit the election result and to hold on to power were out of control, that things had gone too far.

Surely something will be done in response to what happened, in what Der Spiegel regards as a putsch (with Trump as Putschistenführer).


But even if something decisive happens in respect of Trump personally – either that he is impeached or discredited as an individual – this does not directly address the ongoing challenge of Trumpism.

Even after everything in the last four years, 74 million Americans still voted for him to be president.

Indeed, even after the visible manifestation of Trumpism on 6th January 2021, there still seems to be substantial political support for this nationalist authoritarian populism. 

It may not be going away.


Contemporaries are often not in a good position to tell whether some dramatic political event is either the end of something, or the start of something, or just an illustration of something.

The quotes in this tweet should be read carefully and in full.

In 1923 many thought that the attempted putsch of the war hero Ludendorff (then a more famous figure than the nationalist authoritarian populist leader who accompanied and then succeeded him) could be dismissed as some delayed after-effect of the great war.

And indeed Ludendorff was to a large extent personally discredited, but the cause for what he stood for certainly was not extinguished, and it was to take power within a decade.

An attempted coup, an insurrection, a putsch – all can be as much a start of something than an end of something.


It is easy to warn ‘we should not be complacent’.

(After all, nobody ever says ‘let us be complacent’.)

But liberals and progressives should be careful not to assume that the dramatic violence of 6th January 2021 will convert into some ongoing impediment to Trumpism – even if it converts into an impediment to Trump himself.

Trumpism should be taken just as seriously as a threat to liberal democracy and constitutionalism after 6th January 2021 than before.

The attempted coup, the insurrection, the putsch has not, at a stroke, discredited Trumpism – even if Trump (like Ludendorff) may no longer be the leader of the movement.

All because a tragic event should bring people to their senses, it just as often does not do so.

Sometimes things do meet what should be their turning-point, but things fail to turn.


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42 thoughts on “The violent events of 6th January 2021 should be a turning-point, but what if history fails to turn?”

  1. I agree with all of that. And my fear isn’t so much that this is a warning that will be ignored, but that it will be a guide to assist those who are smarter in the future. The US must recognise that it got very lucky last week, because those trying to do a coup weren’t competent and smart enough to make it happen. But what if someone in four or eight years is, or is backed by a hostile power? If there’s a rush to ‘heal’ rather than ensure everyone in that mess understands and suffers the consequences for their actions, I fear history will just repeat.

    1. It simply failed because the natural leader was sitting at home watching TV. This motley crew was simply to disorganized to pull it off. What they lacked was the leader. Lenin jumped on the train, Wałęsa jumped the fence. Both change history. Trump was simply to lazy and stupid. He could have changed the history on the 6th of January if only his TV was off.

      1. I’m not sure that even Trump is certain about what he really wants from one minute to the next. He stirs up trouble, then backs off. He can’t decide between Big Power and self-indulgence. But it’s true that a more “competent and smart” (ref Craig Grannell) leader might well succeed.

  2. The situation is far more dangerous. Trump has been in power for four years. He has been active politically for many more years before that. He still has the support of roughly half the Republican Party voters which might amount to 25-30% of the people.

    The US is enduring the worst of tragedies during the Covid crisis. So far its legal system has just about held up but how much longer can that continue?

    This has to be the most serious crisis in my lifetime and I thank you for providing your daily commentary.

  3. I heard Alan Dershowitz on BBC 4 this morning defend Trump’s “right to free speech”, but he totally ignored the responsibility for the content and results of such speech. A spurious argument. Yes, he had the right to say what he did, and yes, for that reason he should be punished for the results.

    1. Exactly. The first amendment right of freedom of speech means in broad terms no prior restraint. The state can’t stop you saying that you want. It does not mean that you shouldn’t be judged and held accountable for what you say, and for the consequences. Quite the reverse. The reason for that freedom of speech is to give listeners access to a variety of ideas, to allow then to make better judgements. But, for example, defamation is still actionable in the US, although on a much more limited basis than in the UK.

      To continue the German analogy, there are so many people with guns in the US, many with military experience. Some organised into bodies similar to he Freikorps. What there isn’t, yet, is a substantial level of political violence on the streets.

      The wrong reaction in the US is to be content that the institutions held. They very nearly didn’t. What if the judges had been swayed. What if the protesters in the Capitol had managed to interfere with the certification of the election result. What if violent organised and armed political gangs appear on the streets in the next week. Another four or eight year of toxicity damaging the US body politic and the institutions might not hold the next time.

      1. And it matters where and when you make your “free speech”. A private individual expressing anger at Speakers Corner is one thing, the POTUS speechifying for hours to an already inflamed crowd minutes away from the Capitol and the validation of the POTUS Elect is quite another.

        1. A dirty (not so) secret is that, in exercising first amendment rights, in practice it matters very much who you are and where you are. The state’s response to an exercise of first amendment rights by a T-shirted black person holding up their hands or fist (“Hands up, don’t shoot”, “”I can’t breathe”) in say Lafayette Square – tear gas, batons, arrest – is very different to a white person in militia gear waving a Confederate flag inside the Capitol (“Stop the steal”).

          America’s opponents in China and Russia must be beside themselves with joy at the prospect of the US ripping itself apart, in a much more violent manner than the UK did over Brexit. Biden is going to have one hell of a job trying to pull the country back together again. He’ll need to be JFK and FDR rolled into one. It is almost at the level of requiring a second Reconstruction.

      2. Might I consider “freedom of speech” from a slightly different angle.

        Many of those at the Capitol were not wearing masks; they were expressing their personal freedom not to wear a mask. But at the same time, this freedom was (potentially) endangering others. Do these others not have the right to be protected from the actions of those who don’t wear masks? Where are “rights”, “personal responsibilities”, and “responsibilities to others” in all this?

        Or is it the case that my rights, my freedoms trump your rights and freedoms?

  4. In the end if you want peace and a political solution you always have to talk to the terrorists – the IRA our most recent example. The US deplorable have legitimate grievances “left behind” etc and these have been appropriated and reguided by darker forces. The corporatisation of US politics and its rigid two party gerrymandered system has disenfranchised ordinary voters. Like the UK how many seats in the US are “safe seats” for one or other party this denying voters real choice? Reasoned argument is drowned out by hate speech defended as free speech by overmighty media owners with other agendas. That is why there may be no “turning point”. But it is the insidious corporate and billionaire PAC financing of the political process that is at the nub of the problem. Major corporations are now taking funding away from Republicans – but only because it is now bad PR. So I would say decorporatisation is the key.

  5. It’s right to draw attention to these issues, but let’s be careful about some of the points of articulation of the argument.
    “the ongoing challenge of Trumpism.
    Even after everything in the last four years, 74 million Americans still voted for him to be president.”
    Let’s remember that the link between voting for one side and espousing everything that side can be thought to stand for is shaky. Did everyone vote for Johnson’s government because they thought Johnson would make a very good prime minister, or becasue they preferred that option to another one that had been painted as very undesirable? The percentage of Republicans who actually support Trump will be shown in the coming weeks and months.

  6. Fascinating, as always. Many thanks for your thought-provoking analysis. If I may, Ludendorff is misspelled as Ludendorrf with a double-r and single-f in your text rather than the other way round (German speaker here…it leaps from the page to us). Quite happy for you to exclude this comment on the public forum. I will not take the slightest offense!

    1. My apologies to you and other German-speakers. I was typing from memory and without spellcheck stepping in to save me!


      1. What a nice and considerate reply, DAG.
        I know of so many other bloggers who would have had no hesitation to just throw our German friend’s comment in the bin.

  7. Yet another excellent piece. Thank you DAG.

    Trump is not a very good coup leader. He did the first bit of overthrowing the constitution very well – building doubt, getting a personal following and getting control of some of the media, putting his people at the head of the security services, physically removing the security people from the locations of government (which I fear may be the correct explanation for the very weak security at the Capitol and the failure to have the National Guard on standby or call them in immediately) and then taking over the “parliament” building.

    Trump is too useless to have planned what to do next, which should have been to get the hostage Congress to appoint him as next president, and to impose martial law until such time as the conventional authorities recognised his legitimacy or gave up protesting. The plan should have been to go through the motions of constitutional government but with the threat (or actuality) of violence hanging over the congress.

    Luckily, not all state actors went along with this route. Pence for instance. And Trump was winging it, because he has always done things that way, and possibly because he could recognise that openly leading a coup is a high risk strategy and if it goes wrong, can go very badly indeed.

    The next coup leader may not be bad at planning or be so cowardly.

  8. I may be being pessimistic but I do not see the situation in the USA ending well. I think if they are lucky they may well end up with decades of low intensity warfare, a situation that constantly simmers but only occasionally boils over, if they are unlucky it could resemble Yugoslavia.

  9. The attack on the US federal apparatus was unprecedented and will likely cause the US state to protect itself. This is explained here –

    If this happens then the overall direction of US state policy will align on a new axis. Biden will seek bipartisan consensus against anti-state actors within and then outside the US, supported by the machinery described in the article.

    The rest of the world may then align with the new US direction. Perhaps this is too hopeful.

  10. I suspect it will fail to turn. The argument for not doing so is that we’ve already heard the phrase that, despite everything, “the institutions held firm and continued to function”. The Democrats, despite everything, roundly won the election, so is it in their interests to change the system?

    The thing about turning points actually turning depends on how ‘engrooved’ the various systems, cultures, practices, mind-sets, etc. are. What frequently happens is that there is a shock to the system. Many agree that ‘things must change’. There may even be an actual shift. But unless that shift becomes truly embedded in the systems, cultures, practices, mind-sets, etc., the probability is that there will be a snap-back to the old ‘engrooved’ ways.

  11. I just cannot see the situation in the USA ending well. If they are relatively lucky they may just suffer years of low intensity conflict where the conflict is always simmering away but rarely boils over. If they are unlucky it could resemble former Yugoslavia.

  12. Disturbingly accurate, thank you for the clear warning. One point for what it’s worth. I think the murder of Jo Cox did reduce the numbers voting for Leave. The press talked of the Jo Cox Bounce at the time.

    1. It may well have done, but I am still shocked that intelligent, educated friends of mine still voted to leave after that terrible day. I haven’t told them this – I sometimes wonder if I should have done?
      I think there is an archetypical Brexit voter who suffers a bit of an empathy deficit. They rarely, if ever, express regret for the effect of their actions on anyone else.

  13. In situations such as these I turn to the words of the great Jack Reacher.
    “Hope for the best but plan for the worst”
    I’m sure they are not original but Lee Child will no doubt clear that up.

  14. Excellent point, as ever. By turning point, though, we often mean returning point – that, as in this case or the murder of Jo Cox, the hope the horror of an event will make us recoil and return to better ways. There have been a lot of those recently. What may be less clear to the contemporary observer is that if a turning point doesn’t turn it not only fails to restore an old norm, but helps to establish a new one.
    Which is probably just a pedant’s way of repeating what you have said….

  15. I really hope that you have a keyboard shortcut for typing “by automatic operation of law”? ;-)

    Joking aside, another insightful article – thank you

  16. Good stuff as ever. I assume you are saying that Jo Cox’s death should have been a turning point in hauling the debate back to civil terms. If so, I agree. If you are saying that it should have caused people to consider afresh their voting intentions I don’t see how.

    Trumpism as a way of doing things (i.e. populist ‘strongman’ leadership) needs to be quashed, but Trump rose to prominence in large part by recognising and describing the predicament of people who felt forgotten by a political system and its consequences for them. That recognition needs to be maintained and expressed coupled with an acceptable way of addressing what it describes.

    I am a fan of the history podcaster Mike Duncan (History of Rome, Revolutions) and, without wanting to overstate the similarities, there is something in his warning that the US needs to look at extreme disparities of wealth and influence (as do we in the UK) which are getting baked in and which contributed to destroying the Roman Republic and providing an incentive to revolutionaries throughout the ages. At the turn of the 20th century the US Government and Legislature understood the need to break up the monopolistic companies, they need to do so now. Another huge evil is Gerrymandering, which needs to be seen on district maps to be believed ( and its effects must be reversed and not extended. It is not a problem for the UK in anything like the same way thankfully.

    I fear, however, that US Legislators are so used to corporate funding and staying in power with gerrymandering that any action will be too little too late (at state and federal level – it is the state legislators who re-set the boundaries). People have lauded his speech, but another very important thing that Schwarzenegger is doing is campaigning against gerrymandering.

    Ultimately I agree that looking back this should prove to have been a turning point – the breadth of action required is huge, far more than addressing whatever ‘Trumpism’ means.

  17. Looking at what is happening in the US it would appear that the revulsion against the storming of the Capitol building is such that it may well mark a turning point. The closing of the President’s twitter account, the shutting down of Parler, the withdrawal of political funding some big businesses, let alone the very personal hit of moving of the PGA championship indicates that there is a change afoot. Here’s hoping.
    But to underline how fragile the situation is it is worth remembering that had the virus not hit, it would have been entirely possible that Trump would have won the election. Yes bad things were much more likely to happen under such a person (same in the UK), but the virus could easily have happened a year later, post the election. The full monstrous spectacle of Trump’s authoritarianism is now unavoidably visible, but had he won, the Republican party would have had four more years of being shaped in his image, there would have been four more years of Twitter madness and a continued building of the neo-Nazi movement in the US. That is why a full reckoning needs to be carried out as to how the US reached this nadir.
    As for the UK, well.

  18. it is ok and fun to discuss turning-points, but the real problem with the US is that in two out of the first five presidential elections this century the popular vote victor did not become President. The Republicans have many built-in advantages over the Democrats and are known to wilfully make it difficult for Democrat voters, especially black Americans, to cast their votes. The Electoral College needs to go!

      1. By using the word “fun” I was referring to the concept of turning point; I would regard this as a philosophical matter, and therefore (IMHO) quite a fun activity. I would certainly agree that the mendacious, tyrannical, bigoted, stupid, psychopathic and racist demagogue who is Trump is not really a matter for fun, even though he at first sight does seem to be a figure of fun. You might like to look at this article on the concept of turning points if you have not already done so; the author regards the definition of “turning point” as one that is “idiosyncratic” as well as essentially retrospective.

    1. “in two out of the first five presidential elections this century the popular vote victor did not become President”

      Which is bad. But then look at the UK: the last time a single party won an election with the majority of the popular vote was 1880. The last time a party was in power on securing a majority itself was 1931. And only once in my lifetime has there been a government backed by a majority (the 2010 coalition). Plenty of soul searching required on this side of the pond, too.

      1. agreed. Britain suffers more from having a less complete two-party system than in the US (though I think that Ralph Nader MAY have unintentionally hurt the Democrats in at least one past presidential election). Also, and more exactly relevant to my previous post, Labour lost power in 1951 despite polling more votes than the Tories. The UK’s first-past-the-post system is bad, but the block voting system in the US seems still worse

        1. “The UK’s first-past-the-post system is bad, but the block voting system in the US seems still worse”

          It’d be interesting to compare the biggest imbalances the two systems have created. 2005 in the UK was pretty stark: 35% of the vote nets 55% of the seats! That’s just nuts.

          1. agreed again! But (I hope I can express this clearly) the British political parties are exacerbating the inherent injustices of FPTP; in particular, the left-of-centre parties usually fail to sink their differences in face of a reasonably unified Conservative enemy (though your example concerns the island of Labour success under Tony Blair). This multi-party situation is much less the case in the USA. Why I regard the US system, which is usually described as block voting, as even worse that FPTP is that the population of a state (especially in a large populous state) who voted for the losing candidate actually, via the Electoral College, benefit their candidate’s opponent. I suppose that, if the US states could be broken up into constituences of roughly similar populations, some of the unfairness might lessen

  19. Joe Biden is going to have to crack down seriously on the right wing extremists groups in the US, the Proud Boys and others. Hopefully the FBI will be on board as it described home grown terrorists as a significant threat to US democracy. For good measure some violent leftists groups – if any- must be included in the crackdown. But it is absolutely indispensable if US democracy is to survive. An article in Prospect this week explained how the Republican party has ceased – for years before Trump- to be a genuine democratic party with its history of gerrymandering, voters suppression and corrupt practices in the States but also by paralysing federal government actions through filibuster etc. The only hope is to neutralise the groups which act as organisers for their voters and hope that if this malign influence can be removed to some extent, they will become less radicalised.
    The other aspect of course is that Biden must engage into a genuine and highly visible “drain the swamp” exercise. American politics are corrupt and under the control of an oligarchy. This is obvious for all to see. Unless Biden addresses this, it is only a matter of time before a more ruthless and organised demagogue like Ted Cruz, a highly intelligent man, assumes power and continue the process of dismantling American democracy while paying lip service to it.

    Mr Biden’s in-tray grows by the day. Until now he has sounded the right notes. I hope he will rise to the occasion. If not the world, not just America, is in dire trouble.

  20. Germany in the 1920s had a big unemployment problem, no-one had any use for the mass working class. Hitler invented a use. Roll forward, America today has little use for its working class, it manages to tick along at a very low and frustrated level. Trump looked like he would change that – but didn’t, the frustrations are still there.

    The WW2 story will I hope not repeat itself, too many in the US are quite comfortable with the status quo. Who to make war on? – China? Weaker in nuclear terms but the loss of most American cities is not a good look. That option is a non runner. America’s working class will have to wait for a lot more socialism within the USA. The war will be internal.

    With a Covid record that of a third-world country and repeated government-by-shyster-lawyers the US needs to grow up, it has no other realistic choice. The US is very usefully hemmed in, sit back and wait, possibly another century.

  21. One thing Trump can’t face up to is the reality that he did worse than his Party. The fact that the Republicans did rather well despite Trump’s bad defeat might be a good sign for an otherwise very gloomy future for the USA. It perhaps makes it more likely that the Democrat strategy of going for impeachment will do for Trump and help restore the Republicans to respectability.
    But then I’m an optimist.

  22. I think we make a mistake when those who voted for a given leader or party are assumed to fully support what (often partial commentators believe) is taken to be their position. Many people in the UK backed Johnson, not because they wanted to “get Brexit done” or were fans of his “oven ready deal”, but simply because they could not stomach backing Corbyn. Both the US and the UK have essentially binary choices when it comes to political elections, but that should not be grounds to suppose that opinions on a given subject are also binary within the country – they are not.

  23. Excellent article as always. With regard to the horrific murder of Jo Cox, I have often wondered about the impact of the postal vote in the referendum. The postal vote accounted for 21.7% of the total votes cast. A huge number of those will already have been cast before she was killed just a week before polling day. So even if people wanted to change their minds, they couldn’t. I think postal voting is a valuable tool in the democracy box and the recent US elections have shown just how valuable. But one major disadvantage is the potential for events which should be factors in a voter’s decision not to be able to be included at all.

  24. The question ‘who benefits?’ is always worth a turn, even after the most chaotic and humiliating failures: they always turn out to be successes, for someone.

    Who benefits from discrediting the electoral process and destabilising the democratic institutions of the United States? It seems that Donald Trump is pushing on an open door, there.

    Someone wants this.

    Who benefits from the visible weakening of the rule of law when the rioters or insurrectionists simply walked away from the scene, unhindered?

    That’s not much of a defeat at all.

    Whose violent militias and ‘street-politics’ are strengthened by seeing that, and now have heroes to emulate?

    I say ‘whose’ because they don’t just have members and leaders: they have users. Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts were useful, for anyone who’d pay them, and the London dockers had a reason to dislike them.

    The early Methodists, and the early Salvation Army, had all sorts of trouble with men who look a lot like Moseley’s rent-a-riot without the shirts: someone organised that violence, and someone paid for it.

    Violent street politics is a profitable business with a long history.

    Anyone who owes a favour to the sort of people who ‘help out’ with street-level voter suppression in North Carolina might have gained something, or believe that they did, on January 6th.

    Prominent Republican politicians who are chasing the MAGA voters, and are far too respectable to have any use for street politics, might have gained something if they can take up the narrative of a ‘stolen’ election, and fuel the anger of a ‘Trump Vote’ who appear to be impressed by the invasion of the Capitol.

    Less-respectable political figures who look at the historic patterns of failure in democracy: destabilisation, escalating political violence, a loss of trust in the institutions of the state, chaos and disorder?

    They’ve gained something, and they know it.

    Perhaps, with a little help, patriotic white Americans can be persuaded that the country can be rescued from disorder by a bold and authoritarian leader.

    Who gains from clinging onto their coat-tails? Or from selling their followers guns?

    It seems that such ‘fringe’ politicians are never short of money: sometimes, asking “Who profits?” is like shooting fish in a barrel: ridiculously easy but you’d better have steel toecaps on your boots.

    Insurrections and failed coups serve another function: polarisation. A certain type of politician, and a certain type of media outlet, has much to gain from that.

    Polarisation has a very specific effect, in the more extreme forms of disorder: not just forcing people to take sides, it’s flushing-out sides to support. Like, say, finding out that fellow police officers are actually onside with something you’re reluctant to consider until ‘things get very bad’. Or fellow-officers in the Border Force or tge Detention Centre. Or fellow-citizens and managers, who realise that we can’t have ‘that sort of people’ working here, or living in our middle-class suburb, or electing those divisive and disloyal politicians.

    On a wider scale, politically-extreme events that are peceived as ineffective – turning-points that don’t, as you will – are the impetus for hidden turns in public sentiment, where a more diffuse sort of polarisation becomes a diffraction, a drawing-of-lines that aren’t openly acknowledged to be ‘taking sides’.

    Think of certain minorities becoming far less visible, and no-one talking about it in polite company.

    Someone has a use for that, too: hate campaigns flourish amidst diffuse and diffracted, less-cohesive societies with hidden divisions. Narratives about traitors, or ‘remoaners’, or scroungers and welfare queens and moral degeneracy: someone creates them, and someone cultivates them, profitably, in mass media and in managed social media environments.

    To what ends?

    I will offer an unpopular opinion: every chaotic thing that Trump has done, culminating (I hope) in the Capitol invasion, has been profitable for someone – financially, or politically in ways that will turn out to be material, not moral and philosophical.

    Failed coups aren’t failures, not even Trump’s incompetent minor insurrection in the Capitol; and Trump’s chaotic failures have always offered opportunties for extremely unpleasant successes, for some.

    1. Indeed and, given the build-up of military protection of the Capitol and Biden, I’m clearly not the only person to think now that Trump is in fact plotting an attempt at a successful coup on 20th! His language indicates so.

      1. In more normal circumstances we would dismiss such thinking as being the product of Conspiracy Theories.

        With Trump, however, anything seems possible…

  25. Another interesting question is what scale of turning-point which histories will recognise. For example, it may turn out that 2020 and 2021 become considered to be a turning-point in the mobilisation of the Black vote in the USA.

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