For most people, the protests on January 6, 2021, represent a dismal blight on American history; a rot that had corroded its way to the core of the country was exposed for all the world to see. And that is perhaps its biggest legacy: Even during the most tumultuous parts of the Trump administration, notions of American excellence and superiority held remarkable sway in many corners of the world, but now everyone seemed to agree that America was a nation in crisis. It may come as a surprise, then, that public support for the protests actually grew since the media frenzy of their immediate wake (albeit from a low base). A recent poll found that disapproval of the events of January 6th is no longer a majoritarian position among registered Republican voters. Even for many leftist partisans, who do disapprove, the insurrection has slipped in status from the gravest of national tragedies to a merely unfortunate event in a country plagued by unfortunate events (mass shootings, preventable deaths arising from a dysfunctional healthcare system, etc.).
Why is this the case? A lot of it can probably be pinned on the structural inevitabilities of American politics. Public opinion has a cyclical quality to it: after two years of a Biden administration plagued by low approval ratings and the Republicans retaking the House in the 2022 midterms, sympathies have seemingly shifted. And with time, even the acute frenzy that dominated world news on January 7th was sure to dissipate. But on a more fundamental level, the gradual erosion of January 6th as a 9/11-like pillar in the public consciousness reveals one of the faultlines in American politics today: the rise of anti-elite, anti-mainstream sentiment. A lot of interminable bloviation on this ongoing realignment has consumed far too much of our collective energies already, but it’s important to at least impress that there is a large constituency of people in the U.S. who dislike the course that country’s charting, and that they have substantive reasons for feeling that way. And put up against that growing coalition of the disillusioned, the symbolic desecration of American democracy is, at best, nothing to lose sleep over.
Now, two years on, a documentary about the events of January 6th — titled, yes, January 6th — has been released by Discovery+. So how does one tackle such an important but deceptively thorny subject? Sibling directorial duo Jules and Gedeon Naudet (doubtless chosen for their involvement with the celebrated 2002 documentary 9/11) are aware of the limiting factors, and their pitch is a Ken Burns’ Civil War-style chronological retelling of January 6th as a battle, told through interviews of a cross-section of those present, particularly Congresspeople, journalists, and police, with a CGI graphic of the Capitol to navigate us to and fro between the different fronts. And that’s it. This incredibly narrow mandate for the project seems to spell doom from the jump: What are they giving us that we haven’t already been forcibly exposed to with endless news coverage in both the immediate aftermath and later during the hearings?
January 6th opens with a brief series of archival news clips largely depicting recent presidents celebrating the peaceful transfer of power. With this sidestep of the provision of meaningful context, the filmmakers sought to preserve a veneer of impartiality, but have actually robbed the film of its only plausible purpose — to preserve the events for posterity. And the mock impartiality is only the thinnest of veils. Among two dozen or so interviews of Resistance luminaries like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Liz Cheney, there is only one with an individual who feels that the Democrats stole the 2020 election, and even he is a vehement critic of the protests. The protesters are perpetually seen but never heard, and not one of the incredibly powerful set of interviewees who run Congress pauses to consider why the protests happened or if perhaps the way they have been governing the country played a role in inspiring these anti-government protests. Instead, these elites caricature the protesters they encountered that day as “pure evil” and the human embodiment of hate, and even recount how — when coming face-to-face with these mindless hordes – they constantly owned them with pithy West Wing-style quips. There are endless sob stories about how terrifying it was to come an inch from death, imploring us to cry for the trauma levied upon these politicians — the very same foreign policy architects who have presided over countless deaths and directed our military to turn country after country into rubble, despite numerous election cycles providing them with a clear anti-war mandate. Maybe these politicians should be afraid of their constituents. Isn’t that in keeping with what democracy is about?
Amid all this frenetic, self-righteous complaining, there’s an incredibly awkward moment where the film unsympathetically covers the police shooting of Ashley Babbit, the only person to actually die as a direct result of violent acts committed during the protests. Her death isn’t a tragedy in its own right; it’s merely further trauma for the valiant police and cowering Congresspeople who could now add gunshots to the terrifying sounds echoing around them. The film drags on for two-and-a-half grueling hours, giving each interviewee ample time to wax lyrical about the minutiae of events: jokes they told to each other, the clothes they were wearing, and one congressman who even tells the story of how he got down on his hands and knees on the floor of the capitol halls to rifle through the garbage and detritus left behind by protesters and find himself a memento. January 6th ends with little in the way of meaningful summation or closure; it offers absolutely nothing beyond an excruciatingly tedious minute-by-minute summary of every detail you never cared to know, narrated by some of the most insufferable people who were present. Throughout, the CGI Capitol graphic is embarrassingly redundant, but that Google sketchup model is the hair’s-breadth difference between this film and the countless hours of media coverage you’ve already seen. The constituency represented here is the Clinton-era political consensus, clinging on for dear life — people who inform their perspective on the world through the didactic tropes of prestige TV drama. And even for them, the slop that’s served up here only functions some vague level of twisted nostalgia.
For fervent supporters of Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jefferies, this documentary is like a time capsule back to the early months of 2021, when January 6th and the frenzy over Donald Trump being a threat to democracy was a truly powerful cudgel with which you could rhetorically beat your enemies into submission; when the Resistance could have absolute confidence that they were on the right side of history. As that consensus erodes, those most invested in it can only retreat into this self-congratulatory media bubble in which they were right about everything and there is no need to take a hard look in the mirror. And that is perhaps the other great legacy of January 6th: It has given Democrats their new top priority, that being “democracy.” But by democracy, they don’t mean enacting policies that Americans support or reforming American institutions to make them more democratic. What they really mean is defeating the Republican party. All internal debates about progressive reform must come second to defeating Republicans, and if that means maintaining the same unhappy status quo that led to the disaffection manifest in the protests, so be it.
You can currently stream January 6 on Discovery+.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 3.