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'Dark day on the calendar of American history': Historian explains how Jan. 6 will be remembered

Security fencing has been reinstalled around the Capitol on Sept. 16, 2021, ahead of a planned Sept. 18 rally by far-right supporters of former President Donald Trump who are demanding the release of rioters arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Security fencing has been reinstalled around the Capitol on Sept. 16, 2021, ahead of a planned Sept. 18 rally by far-right supporters of former President Donald Trump who are demanding the release of rioters arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

For historian Douglas Brinkley, Jan. 6 is a day to remember why it’s important to fight for democracy.

An outgoing president inciting a riot at the Capitol is historically significant, he says, and Americans need to remember this event for years to come.

“It’s a dark day on the calendar of American history,” he says. “But we have to use the anniversary every year to remind people how fragile our democracy is.”

Brinkley joined Here & Now during the insurrection last year. As the events unfolded, he sounded stunned as he explained that he’d never seen anything like this before.

Insurrection is the right word to describe what happened on Jan. 6, 2021 — but it’s the date that matters most, Brinkley says.

“Now every Jan. 6, we’re going to have to remember what happened,” he says. “I worry if we lose the date that it will lose some of its wallop over time.”

One year later, Jan. 6 holds an “even more hallowed place” in history, he says. In his remarks on the anniversary, Attorney General Merrick Garland noted that 725 people have been charged for their role in the attack.

Americans must also remember the people who died during the insurrection and afterward, Brinkley says.

“It’s also caused post-traumatic stress syndrome, not just for the first responders on the Capitol, but really all of America. We all went into a kind of shock,” he says. “I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from the thought that it actually happened.”

Months before the insurrection on Sept 29, 2020, Brinkley was jarred to hear then-President Donald Trump tell the far-right group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

Trump hasn’t taken responsibility or lost traction in the Republican Party as a result of the insurrection — which is troubling as the country heads toward midterm elections. If the Republicans take Congress, that means Americans aren’t learning from Jan. 6, he says.

“For President Trump to still have some gasoline in his tank after trying to destroy our democracy, it is a warning sign,” he says. “And so I do worry about the future of American democracy if we can’t learn the lessons of Jan. 6 correctly.”

The House Select Committee is expected to release its report on the root cause of the violence this spring. Brinkley is hopeful the report will draw some conclusions — though it won’t tell the whole story.

“There are always going to be puzzle pieces added to what occurred on Jan. 6,” he says, “because the president of the United States was sitting there watching this on television in the White House, as we all know, allowing it to go on and on.”

The insurrection is a sign of the “neo-Civil War” going on in the U.S. right now, Brinkley says.

When Brinkley first watched Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” documentary on PBS, he thought it was an exaggeration when one of the commentators said “the lesson of the Civil War is that it’s not over yet.” But now, it’s clear that the country’s wounds have not healed around issues like voting rights, he says.

“It’s really all hands on deck in our democracy right now. It takes participation not just to vote in a democracy,” he says, “but to be aware of people that are trying to deny you the vote.”


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.