On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, “The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” He was right that the Declaration of Independence would become a world-defining event—he just got the date wrong.
Adams wasn’t alone. History can be hard to pin down when you are living through it. Sometimes, little events take on far more significance than we expect. We can’t appreciate their impact until decades or centuries later. Other moments are obviously historic as they unfold.
The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was one of those moments. It was immediately apparent that the insurrection was unprecedented and historic. But even when we know we are living through history, we can’t predict the long-term ramifications. In 20 years, for example, we could look back and see the attempted coup as a significant step toward the collapse of American democracy. Or it could be the moment when authoritarian impulses peaked, and the nation began to claw its way back toward a more stable democracy.
Two years after the January 6 insurrection, we cannot answer that question. But for the first time in a long time, I’m hopeful that the attack was the nadir rather than a notable chapter in a long decline.
In the past year, four developments offer a reason for optimism.
First, the January 6 Committee provided a much fuller picture of the attempted coup. Through its diligent efforts, we now know about the widespread attempts to overturn the 2020 election at the state and federal levels, in the courts, and ultimately through violence. We’ve discovered former President Donald Trump’s central role in coordinating and facilitating these attempts—even though he knew he had lost and there was no evidence of significant voter fraud. The committee also demonstrated that this plan’s violent climax was not accidental but carefully planned.
Questions remain, especially about the failure of federal authorities to prevent an attack when all evidence suggested that violence was a real possibility on the day of certification. But over the past two years, the narrative of the attack has crystallized. It is now impossible for anyone to seriously claim that the insurrection was an accident or merely a protest that went a bit too far.
As Bennie Thompson, the chair of the committee, said in the final hearing, accountability is the most important step to preventing another coup. In the past year, the Department of Justice has brought charges against hundreds of rioters who illegally entered the Capitol, ransacked it, and assaulted the law enforcement officers charged with protecting it. The department has also taken steps to hold the assault’s masterminds accountable, not just its foot soldiers. In November, the leader of the Oath Keepers was found guilty of seditious conspiracy, the highest possible charge. The leader of the Proud Boys—the white supremacist militia that appeared to have instigated the worst of the January 6 violence—is on trial for the same charge.
And perhaps most importantly, the special counsel charged with overseeing the prosecution of the efforts to overturn the 2020 election and Trump’s mishandling of classified documents at his Florida resort appears to be moving with all deliberate speed to investigate the former president and his allies. The January 6 Committee recommended that the Justice Department charge Trump with four crimes: obstructing an official proceeding; attempting to defraud the government; giving a false statement to the government; and inciting and assisting an insurrection. Whether Jack Smith, the special counsel, will bring charges—let alone these specific charges—remains to be seen. That charges are being considered is a very positive step.
Another reason for optimism is that as Trump faces legal accountability on multiple fronts, his popularity appears to be slipping, even if just a tiny bit. His handpicked candidates mostly lost in the midterm elections, even under favorable conditions for standard Republican candidates. In particular, prominent Trump-endorsed candidates who spouted election denialism mostly lost. Voters in 2022 preferred candidates who supported free and fair elections. That’s a great sign.
Finally, Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and Kyiv’s inspiring resistance, have reminded us of the stakes in the fight between authoritarianism and democracy. Supporting Ukraine is not about supporting Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, the shakedown of whom was the focus of Trump’s first impeachment. Nor is it about sticking it to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The fight for freedom affects every nation that believes in elections. It is encouraging to see that most politicians and most Americans understand these stakes.
All of these positive developments should not obscure the challenges that face our nation. America’s partisan divide is still extreme. The threat of political violence hasn’t diminished, and voting rights are constantly under attack—not to mention ongoing threats such as climate change, economic inequality, and the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, on the second anniversary of January 6, there is reason to hope.