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Yes, January 6th Was an Insurrection

(President Donald Trump speaks to supporters on January 6, 2021 (Evan Vucci/AP))

The attempted insurrection by President Trump and his supporters had failed. But make no mistake: The violent events of January 6th were the direct result of a deliberate months-long campaign by President Trump to overturn illegally an election that he did not win.”

In recent months, several states in the United States have taken up the question of whether former President Donald Trump should be excluded from ballots in the 2024 presidential election on the basis that he engaged in insurrectionary acts on January 6, 2021, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. For example, Michigan, Minnesota, and California have decided to allow President Trump to remain on the ballot. Colorado and Maine, however, have removed him from the ballot. As early as today, it is expected that President Trump will file an appeal to remain on ballot the Colorado and Maine ballots.

The recent decisions by the Colorado Supreme Court and Maine’s Secretary of State, Shenna Bellows, have created a firestorm of controversy among commentators on the Right, many if not all of whom believe that the decisions are political rather than judicial, the latest manifestation of a “deep state” conspiracy to disenfranchise Republican votes and keep President Trump out of the Oval Office. Although Laurence Tribe has pointed out that President Trump has been disqualified rather than sanctioned, many on the Right act as if the decisions are a punishment, angrily pointing out that President Trump has not been convicted of a crime. 

At the heart of the controversy is the two-fold question of whether the January 6, 2021 riot at the United States Capitol was an outright insurrection, as well as whether President Trump bears responsibility for inciting it. The answer should be crystal clear to anyone who has reviewed the abundance of publicly available evidence. The January 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol by more than 2,000 supporters of President Trump’s was a riot directly incited by a months-long campaign by President Trump to overturn an election he did not win. The goal was to install himself illegally as president in lieu of the candidate who won more votes: President-elect Joe Biden. In other words, the January 6th riot was the violent climax of a deliberately directed coup attempt planned by the former President and his closest aides. 

Unfortunately, this claim has faced fierce resistance from the Right, especially after the two recent decisions to remove President Trump from the ballot. The reaction to the decisions in Colorado and Maine was swift and sharp. Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswathy vowed to remove himself from the Colorado ballot. Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have both vowed to pardon President Trump of federal crimes if he is convicted. 

In addition, many on the Right have tried to whitewash the events of January 6th by describing it as a riot that simply got out of control. One account on X posted that “[t]here’s actually a group of people as dumb as flat earthers and moon landing deniers. And they think that some grandmas and a dude with a toy spear tried to overthrow the government.” Higher profile commentators such as Matt Walsh have insisted that the rioters “were not ‘insurrectionists’” and “never posed the slightest threat to our system,” claiming further that “[t]hey were not going to overthrow the government and weren’t trying to.” 

More insidiously, Michael Shellenberger has claimed that “January 6 was a riot from failed security, not a coup attempt. Claims that we must save democracy by destroying it stem from mass psychosis after years of brainwashing.” Parroting this point, Ramaswamy trades shamelessly in conspiracy-mongering claims that the events of January 6th were an “inside job,” stemming from the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to entrap rioters by placing confidential informants in the crowd, who encouraged rioters to storm the Capitol.

These claims fail as a matter of logic and facts. First, it is inconceivable that a small group of FBI agents or confidential informants could incite an entire mob of thousands, already revved up by President Trump’s rhetoric on the Ellipse and in the weeks leading up to January 6th, to engage in the destruction that occurred on that day. Second, and more to the point, the FBI or “deep state” could not have allowed the mob to storm the Capitol or entrap those engaged in the riot, if there was no mob engaged in the act of rioting to begin with, and there would have been no mob but for President Trump’s call to action—e.g., announcing on December 19, 2020: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

But was the riot an insurrection? Merriam Webster defines an insurrection as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” Encyclopædia Britannica defines it as “an organized and usually violent act of revolt or rebellion against an established government or governing authority of a nation-state or other political entity by a group of its citizens or subjects.” Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “an organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government and take control of their country, usually by violence.” In each case, the definition does not say that the uprising needs to be successful. It involves only the organized—and often violent—effort to overturn and replace an existing and established governmental authority. 

The events of January 6th meet this definition.

In the months leading up the 2020 election and its aftermath, President Trump repeatedly cast doubt on the validity of mail-in ballots. There was a reason for this. As the January 6th report put it, “In 2020, it was well-known that Democrats were much more likely to vote via mail-in ballots than in person in 2020. On the other hand, Republicans generally preferred to vote in person on election day.” This results in a “Red Mirage,” in which Republican candidates, when mail-in voting is in play, jump out to an early lead as results come in on election night. The lead dissipates as mail-in votes continue to be counted. 

President Trump and several of his close associates sought to exploit the Red Mirage to sow confusion among voters as a pretext for declaring victory. As former White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President Steve Bannon stated on October 30, 2020 in a quotation also included in the January 6th report: 

“And what Trump’s going to do is just declare victory, right? He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s the winner. He’s just gonna say he’s a winner…The Democrats, more of our people vote early that count. Theirs vote in the mail. And so they’re gonna have a natural disadvantage, and Trump’s gonna take advantage of it. That’s our strategy. He’s gonna declare himself the winner. So when you wake up Wednesday morning, it’s gonna be a firestorm.”

Furthermore, another advisor of President Trump’s, Roger Stone, declared:

“I really do suspect it will still be up in the air. When that happens, the key thing to do is to claim victory. Possession is 9/10s of the law. No, we won. F— you, Sorry. Over. We won. You’re wrong. F— you.”

This is exactly what happened. President Trump exploited the Red Mirage to propagate “the Big Lie” of a stolen election. After losing, President Trump deemed the election fraudulent and, to this day, has not conceded that he lost the election. Between November 4, 2020, and January 6, 2021, President Trump and his allies launched 62 lawsuits challenging the elections results and lost all but one of them. The one victory involved few votes, had no effect on the election outcome, and found no evidence of fraud.

Undeterred, President Trump continued to instigate his supporters with rampant conspiracy mongering. President Trump knew it was all a lie. On December 27, 2020, as recounted in the January 6th Report by the United States House Select Committee on the January 6th Attack, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue met with President Trump and “rebutted false claims regarding: suitcases of ballots in Georgia, Dominion’s voting machines in Antrim County, a truckload of ballots in Pennsylvania, ballots being scanned multiple times, people voting more than once, dead people voting, Native Americans being paid to vote, and more votes than voters in particular jurisdictions.” All of these claims have been soundly rebutted elsewhere as well.

President Trump took George Costanza’s famous advice to heart: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” In the two months following the election, President Trump and his team undertook a variety of actions designed to overturn the election. These actions included a request by President Trump to Acting Attorney General Rosen to “[j]ust say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican Congressmen.” It also included a full-frontal assault on state and local officials in contested states—as encapsulated by President Trump’s infamous remark to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that “I just want to find 11,780 votes…”—to pressure them to replace certified electoral college electors who were planning to vote for President-elect Biden in accordance with the official ballot results. 

The most consequential scheme was the attempt to assemble a group of electors from seven states who would cast their votes for President Trump, pushing aside the electors who would cast their votes for the actual winner of the election. The existence of these electors would then form the basis for then-Vice President Mike Pence, in his formal capacity as President of the Senate, to reject the electoral votes from contested states during the official counting by Congress on January 6, 2021.

The strategy was laid out in memos by outside legal advisors Kenneth Chesebro and John Eastman. It was eagerly embraced by President Trump’s in-house legal advisor Rudy Giuliani and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. By December 14, 2020, President Trump’s team had assembled a slate of electors in the seven contested states of Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin who had pledged to cast their votes for President Trump. On the same day, however, electors for President-elect Biden met officially to cast their votes and, thereby, certify the President-elect’s electoral college victory. 

This “fake elector” scheme was a deliberate attempt to replace electors representing the votes of the victorious candidate, President-elect Biden, with electors representing the losing candidate, President Trump. As fake electors, they never received a certificate of ascertainment from the contested states because President Trump did not win in those states. However, the idea was to create an illusion that there was an alternative set of electors, which would raise a dispute over which electors rightfully represented the victorious candidate in those states. Then, as described in the memos composed by legal advisors Kenneth Chesebro and John Eastman, it would be up to Vice President Pence, in his official capacity as President of the Senate, either to reject the electors which had been officially certified in those states and replace them with the Trump electors or to turn the results back to the state legislatures to give them an opportunity to certify the Trump electors. 

President Trump knew that all of this was illegal. On January 4th, he sat in a meeting with Vice President Pence as Eastman described the two options the Vice President could take while also admitting, in front of President Trump and Vice President Pence, that the Electoral Count Act of 1887 did not permit either of the two options. In other words, if Vice President Pence did what President Trump was asking him to do, the Vice President would be defying his legal obligations as President of the Senate. He would be a criminal. As the January 6th report states, “America’s founders could not possibly have contemplated a scenario in which the Vice President could unilaterally reject electoral votes and decide the outcome of a Presidential election.”

Despite the clear illegality of the plan, President Trump responded to Vice President Pence’s refusal by taking to Twitter to go public and sell the idea to his supporters that Vice President Pence could use his position as President of the Senate to hand the election to President Trump. After lying for months that the election was fraudulent, losing 61 of 62 lawsuits, failing to get all his “fake” electors certified, and not being able to convince Vice President Pence to undertake the illegal act of decertifying the electors of the winner, President Trump undertook a last-ditch effort to incite his supporters to show up on January 6th and intimidate Vice President Pence into overturning the election.

According to documents submitted to the Select Committee, the Secret Service immediately became aware of talk online “regarding the VP being a dead man walking if he doesn’t do the right thing.” Another agent stated: “I saw several other alerts saying they will storm the [C]apitol if he [the Vice President] doesn’t do the right thing.” On January 6th, President Trump then stood on the Ellipse and declared to the assembled mob of supporters, “if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election.” Since the Vice President had refused two days earlier to agree to do such bidding, President Trump made such a declaration fully aware that the Vice President would not be “doing the right thing.” 

President Trump also made such a declaration knowing, as recounted by the January 6th report, that “thousands of people refused to walk through magnetometers to enter the Ellipse because they did not want to be screened for weapons.” As Cassidy Hutchinson testified to the Select Committee, “[w]hen [Trump] arrived at the Ellipse that morning, President Trump angrily said: ‘I don’t [f—ing] care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me…They can march to the Capitol from here.'” 

This “call to arms” should not have come as a surprise. After President Trump’s December 19, 2020 tweet announcing a “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th” and that his supporters should “Be there, will be wild!,” Twitter employees who testified to the Select Committee described the reactions among President Trump’s supporters on Twitter as a rallying cry. As described in the January 6th report, the tweet “created a ‘fire hose’ of calls to overthrow the U.S. government.” Top leaders of far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers explicitly made plans in advance of January 6th to storm the Capitol. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who was not present at the events of January 6th, wrote in a private chat while the rioters were storming the Capitol: “We did this.”

While they were “doing this,” many calls came in from all sides for President Trump to make a public statement asking the rioters to disband. He refused. “By 1:21 p.m.,” narrates the January 6th report, “President Trump was informed that the Capitol was under attack. He could have interceded immediately. But the President chose not to do so. It was not until 4:17 p.m. that President Trump finally tweeted a video in which he told the rioters to go home.” Indeed, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called President Trump to request that he ask the rioters to leave the Capitol, Trump refused, allegedly saying, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

It was, as described by the January 6th report, “187 minutes of dereliction” of duty. When President Trump finally did tell rioters to go home, the crowd gradually dispersed and left the Capitol. The next day, Congress met and certified the electors, officially declaring President-elect Biden the next President of the United States. The attempted insurrection by President Trump and his supporters had failed. But make no mistake: The violent events of January 6th were the direct result of a deliberate months-long campaign by President Trump to overturn illegally an election that he did not win. 

In short, it was an insurrection.

Jonathan Church, a contributing editor at Merion West, is also a government economist and author. He is author of Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality, as well as Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice. He can be found on X @jondavidchurch 

Jonathan Church is a contributing editor at Merion West. He is a government economist with a background in energy economics and inflation measurement. In addition to authoring several essays, he has published two books: Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality and Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice. He holds an undergraduate degree in economics and philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in economics from Cornell University. Contact Jonathan at

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