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The red, white and blue book jacket for John Rennie Short’s “Insurrection: What the January 6 Assault on the Capitol Reveals about America and Democracy,” which depicts a watermark-like image of the QAnon shaman holding an American flag.

Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press

John Rennie Short’s Insurrection: What the January 6 Assault on the Capitol Reveals about America and Democracy (Reaktion Books) wastes no time before indicating its overall posture toward the events of early 2021. The word “assault” alone implies one of the two prevailing assessments of Jan. 6: an intentional act of violence against a target.

The alternative interpretation holds that the crowd at the Capitol building was a normal, altogether peaceable gathering of patriotic tourists who somehow became the patsies of a joint Antifa-FBI false-flag operation run by the deep state.

Upon writing the last sentence, I worried that it might come off as sardonic. But no: Recent polling indicates that about a quarter of the U.S. population thinks that the Federal Bureau of Investigation “organized and encouraged” the events at the Capitol—while the good intentions of the rioters themselves are taken as a given in every reference to the imprisoned ones as “hostages” of a tyrannical administration.

The author, a professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, compares his approach to Jan. 6 to the practice of “thick description” developed in anthropology: an approach to documenting social interactions in a given culture by gathering an abundance of details regarding the participants’ verbal and behavioral nuances, their own explanations of their motives, how onlookers from within the same group understand the situation, etc.

Thick description, in the original sense, typically focuses on commonplace transactions, the routine activities that define a group’s everyday life. The layers of description are built up through systematic interviewing. It is not, in other words, a methodology designed to take on an anomalous, large-scale event like Jan. 6, which requires a telescope rather than a microscope to examine.

Adjusting for scale, then, Short’s approach to a thick description of Jan. 6 treats it as the culmination of a grand narrative of change over the preceding half century. “[T]he ending of the long postwar boom” in the early 1970s, he writes, “along with declining confidence in the economic globalization project pursued by the political and business elites has raised a structural rather than just a temporal crisis of confidence.”

The strain-generating factors are familiar enough: deindustrialization, offshoring, gerrymandering, changing demographics; political campaigns floating on rivers of money; the transformation of mass media from the one-to-many mode of radio and television broadcasting.

The cumulative effect? Every norm of civic life seems rotten from some angle, its claims to authority or validity eliciting suspicion from one sector of the public or another—or in the case of the federal government, nearly all of it. (The Pew Research Center reports that the percentage of Americans viewing the government as trustworthy fell from almost 80 percent in 1964 to 16 percent in 2023.) But the crisis of legitimacy, as Short understands, it is not just the net result of these changes. They have conditioned and reinforced one another, shrinking the horizon of imaginable change.

And then came the stress test of 2020: A global pandemic and a nationwide wave of antiracist protests took place during a presidential election year. The incumbent was the least likely in history to respect civil norms of any sort, and the most prone to rhetorical threats of violence. His tweet—“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild”—was not overly subtle.

Even so, the appearance of 10,000 to 20,000 people willing to attack the Capitol seemed anything but inevitable at the time. The element of surprise may now be the hardest thing to remember about the whole melee.

Emphasis on the decades-broad context of Jan. 6 does not compel Short to neglect evidence showing it to have been a deliberate—if incompetently staffed—effort to overturn the election results. The period from Election Day through the attempted last-minute impeachment is narrated in due course.

But of greatest interest to the author are the composition and dynamics of the crowd itself. He writes: “Many of the participants lived in the liminal area of economic insecurity, part of the declin­ing middle class …” More than half of those arrested faced liens for unpaid federal taxes. The author distinguishes two broad categories of participants, “the organized and the disorganized,” with the former including “those marching with mili­tary precision dressed in paramilitary garb itching to fight.”

This “thin spine of organized violence gave form and coherence to a looser collection of protestors.” The latter “broke into the building but then looked mes­merized and befuddled, not sure what to do.”

Pausing for sober consideration of their options might have been a possibility at this point, but defecating in the hallway was, evidently, more in the spirit of the moment. The transgressive excitement of “invading the hallowed civic space” was documented as it happened, by the participants themselves. “In one video,” Short writes, “you can hear someone ask as they enter the Senate chamber, ‘What’s the plan?’ Someone is heard saying ‘I have no idea.’ He spoke for many.”

Despite the flags of QAnon and the Confederacy carried by the protestors, the report of the House Committee investigating Jan. 6 did not dig into the role of conspiracy theories or the violent racism of the insurrection’s best organized elements. It likewise avoided investigating social media as a contributing factor. The report, the author writes, “depicted a country with no past, no future, just an eternal present.” He fills in many of the gaps, and seems to yearn for a return to normal instability, rather than apocalyptic excitement. But his thick description is of a polity in which “governing degrades into a form of political vendetta,” which does seem to be the shape of things to come.

Scott McLemee is Inside Higher Ed’s “Intellectual Affairs” columnist. He was a contributing editor at Lingua Franca magazine and a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education before joining Inside Higher Ed in 2005.

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