A Conservative Reflects on January 6

J. S. ScifoUndesignated Leave a Comment


Below is an excerpt from “Fragments,” my book of essays available at J.S. Scifo on Substack | Substack.  This was written in January 2022.

Well, the first celebration of the January 6 Insurrection has come and gone.  For as much as I love the holidays—the lights; the tinsel; the music; the sanctimonious political grandstanding; the histrionics; the vilification of one’s fellow citizens—I do get a little blue when they’re over.  If only every day were Insurrection Day.

Like most Americans, I was as shocked and dismayed by what have come to be known as the “events of that day.” But a year on, a feel a little different about the episode.  Not that I condone them, it’s just that I see them in a different light.  This is a bit surprising, even to myself, because as a conservative, I’m supposed to hate disorder, lawlessness, and crazed weirdos.  But, unlike the commentariat, I’ve actually made an effort to understand what took place and why.

First, for whatever they were, the “events of that day” were not an “INSURRECTION!” We know this because the Department of Justice has not yet charged anyone with insurrection and, a year on, is unlikely to.  I’m not a U.S. Attorney, but it would seem to me that the most consequential charges would be brought first (getting past the heavy lifting and all that).  Thus far, it’s been mostly misdemeanors and disrupting a public meeting without a proper permit and such.  Hardly worth the trouble.[1]

Neither was it a coup.  As defined, a coup d’état is led by the military[2], perhaps on behalf of a strongman.  But it’s public knowledge that the military hated Trump and tried to thwart him wherever it could.  Let’s not forget, it was Lt Col Vindman, he of the president’s own National Security Council, who dropped the dime, as they say, on Trump for an inconsequential phone call to the leader of an inconsequential country.

Funny thing happens when you decide there is no objective truth and words are endlessly malleable—when you need words to defend the institution or the process or the building you cherish, you’re left grasping.  And so it has become with the Left’s description of January 6: One big scary word after another, each one not completely accurate as a legal definition (which is a problem when you are bemoaning the single greatest act of lawlessness in American history), followed by characterizations that are suitable for blaring headlines but not historical accuracy.

Such as “Assault on Democracy,” the day’s other preferred designation. I guess that’s true, if one means democracy writ large.  But the rioters thought they were defending democracy and the Constitution against an attempt to put a pretender on the throne.  You can say what you want about the Capitol rioters (riot being my preferred term for the events of that day), but they were not without some guiding principle (although there were provocateurs and clueless by-standers and thrill seekers in the mix).  But even had they managed to burn down the Capitol that day, Joe Biden would be president.  This is the crucial point that rioters did not understand. (There was a lot they didn’t understand, but more on that later.)

On that note, the Capitol Building, for as majestic as it is, is not the “Citadel of Democracy.”  As someone who worked in the Capitol Complex for several years, I can attest to the awe I felt every morning when I arrived and thought “Wow, I get to work here.”  But the Capitol wasn’t around when the country was founded.  Washington, DC wasn’t even an idea yet.  So somehow American Democracy got up and running without a Capitol Building, or a White House, or the Mall, or the Washington Commanders, or a Gridiron Club, or a Cherry Blossom Festival.  I can certainly understand how the politicians and the staffers and the lobbyists might think the Big White Dome is the sine qua non of American Democracy (as I did when I worked there), but in the end it’s a building, not a bulwark.  And it if it disappeared tomorrow, American democracy would still exist in its present form.  No, the citadel of democracy is the states, or perhaps the citizens, or the spirit of the nation, or the defenders of the Constitution, wherever they are.  That’s one thing the rioters got right.

So then, what was January 6?  A premonition.


When I was about 18 or 19 years old (1989 or so), I discovered that I was something called a conservative.  I’d probably heard that word, but certainly didn’t know what it meant.  My parents were not political, and until then I hadn’t been much interested in anything other than hanging out with my friends and trying to score beer.  But from some reason I had picked up a book by French conservative philosopher Jean-Francois Ravel titled “How Democracies Perish” and learned that there were people in the world who thought communism was superior to democratic-capitalism (still are).  How could that be? At about the same time, I picked up an issue of National Review, and it was off to the races.

In addition to using big words just like William F. Buckley, at that time, being a conservative meant being familiar with the canon of conservative literature: “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” “Democracy in America,” “The Conservative Mind,” “The Gulag Archipelago,” “The Road to Serfdom,” “The Federalist Papers,” and, of course, the Constitution.  It took effort.  Reflections (a book I still reread—for pleasure—to this day) is not an easy read, especially for a kid from southern California with no real reference points. The archaic language, complex legal reasoning, and constitutional arguments of the Federalist Papers are even more challenging. And I was reading these on my own, without formal instruction.  Looking back, I spent more Saturday evenings reading 18th century treatises than was healthy for a 19-year-old, but, as a result, I now have the tools I need to understand nuanced arguments about a range of constitutional and political issues that I wouldn’t otherwise.

To this day, among conservatives of a certain type, it is the Federalist Papers that reign supreme.  To be a conservative is to embrace the Constitution as Madison wrote it and how he and Hamilton interpreted it in the Papers.  And so I believed for many years.

But at some point, I came to learn that there was a whole other group of Founders who had opposed the Constitution–men like Patrick Henry and George Mason.  Even Thomas Jefferson was an ambivalent supporter, egged on by Madison.  The anti-Federalists had serious (and, it turns out, prescient) concerns about the Constitution.  Thought it gave too much power to a centralized government.  The Bill of Rights exists because of these men, not Madison and Hamilton (although Madison, out of a sense of obligation, did navigate the amendments through Congress).  And this “anti-federalist” tradition goes even further back to the Whigs of the English tradition.  But men like Henry were disappeared; relegated to minor roles; reduced to one line (“Give me liberty or give me death’).  They were superseded by more respectable conservatives—the Federalists who believed in a strong central government.

So was the Constitution a fulfillment of the revolutionary ideals—the latter being the true touchstone of American conservatism—or a perversion of them?

Don’t get me wrong, the Constitution (as written) is a genius document and, as the world’s oldest extant written constitution, has served this country well.  But that’s mostly because between its ratification in 1788 and the New Deal in 1933—some 145 years—the federal government didn’t do much.  The country had a small military, a postal service, some customs houses, and that was about it.  No income taxes, no EPA, no Department of Education, no Federal Reserve, no CDC—no nothing.  And yet America became a great country despite these supposed deficiencies.  More importantly, it maintained its system of limited central government. As a result, the anti-federalists had nothing to oppose (at least not in the years immediately following ratification).  Even after the Civil War, following the federal government’s triumph over a group of renegade states more-or-less carrying the anti-federalist banner, the power of the central government remained extremely confined.  The American conservatism of states’ rights and limited central government may have died on the steps of the Appomattox Courthouse, but its dead hand reached from beyond the grave.

Thus, it appears that the Constitution contains the seeds of its own destruction.  If allowed to exist within proper limits, it will not draw opposition and is even a boon to certain national projects (national defense, foreign affairs and trade, westward expansion and the transcontinental railroad, for instance) that unite and strengthen the country while also preserving individual liberty and local autonomy. If, however, the implied powers of the Constitution are taken to their wildest extremes (that not, even the most nationalizing of the Founders—such as Hamilton—could have imagined), it will engender resistance that may at times become more than just rhetorical.


An old friend who considers himself a moderate but is more or less progressive was shocked when, during a casual conversation about politics, I refused to condemn the January 6 rioters.  I conceded they were misguided, but that was as far as I would go.  As for them being the equivalent to BLM/Antifa, nothing could be more absurd.  BLM/Antifa are Bolsheviks dedicated to the elimination of private property and the destruction of the constitutional order.  In contrast, the motley crue of Proud Boys, Bugaloos, QAnon, and Oath Keepers believe in individual liberty and were, in their own warped way, trying to uphold the Constitution.  If I had to live in a world where either BLM/Antifa were in charge or the Oath Keepers, I’d choose the latter every time.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot wrong with the right populists who stormed the Capitol.  As I recounted above, when I came of age politically, being a conservative actually meant knowing some stuff about the Constitution, as well as history, politics, the law, culture, philosophy, and economics.  Even if I was just mouthing arguments, they were arguments made by really erudite, lettered people (You know, Nobel prize winners like Hayek and Friedman, to name just two).  Today, from what I can gather, being a conservative or Patriot (or whatever term the Capitol Rioters use to describe themselves) means trolling and gaslighting and clickbaiting and owning and Memes and Hawaiian shirts and tiki torches.  Combine that with a public education system that hardly teaches the Constitution at all other than to demean it, and the stage was set.

So it’s no wonder that when a guy who’s never given much thought to the finer points of constitutional theory (one Donald J. Trump), tells another equally uninformed bunch of guys that the election is being stolen and can be stopped if they disrupt a purely procedural action (akin to trying to stop a marriage by crashing a wedding held the day after the couple picked up the license at the county clerk’s office) the outcome is chaos.

And if the nationwide furor over Critical Race Theory is any indication, these yahoos would have done more good in the service of their cause had they attended a few school board meetings in their hometowns rather than traveling thousands of miles to punk Nancy Pelosi.  But school board meetings are boring. And getting informed on issues is work.  And real grassroots organization, the kind that involves more than a hashtag and a putdown, is hard.  Much more fun to dress like a Shaman and hang with your bros.  Not that I’m judging.  I did the same kind of thing at fraternity socials, for which the riots were a substitute of sorts for many participants.

Perhaps the most pointless aspect of the whole affair is the belief held by the rioters, and many right populists, that the problems of the country can be solved by one man.  If that were true, Ronald Reagan would have fixed this mess decades ago.  We wouldn’t need a Donald Trump.  But for as great as Reagan was, he didn’t stop the left-wing takeover of every institution in the country, up to—and now including—the military and the corporate board rooms.  Even if Donald Trump were the most astute bureaucratic infighter, the most subtle legal thinker, the most adroit political tactician, he would not be able to undo what the past 50 years has wrought—not even if had won a second four-year term.

Yet, given all that, the capitol rioters may not have been so misguided after all.

Unlike many (if not most) of the conflicts throughout our history, the current contretemps are virtual, not sectional.  There is no North vs South or East vs West.  The divisions are being played out on social media. Welcome to Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village.  Furthermore, the nationalization of almost every political issue means that people feel the need to express themselves on the national stage.  No more PTA and city council meetings, the Federal City calls!  So if the modern-day Patriots also resemble Tik Tok celebrities, welcome to the future–the revolution will be livestreamed (unless Facebook shuts it down).

And the January 6 rioters can be forgiven if they feel America has gone wrong—so do a lot of other Americans who, it could be argued, lack their commitment. The Capitol Rioters may not be able to articulate their angst beyond “Stop the Steal!,” but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.  Many Americans share their fear that the country—the idea—is lost.  America was not meant to have a national government (by which I mean a top-down, unitary, all encompassing, centralized government).  Even the federalists (the proponents of a strong national government) said that the proposed federal government would be a limited government, having power over a few essential functions (defense, international trade, and foreign relations generally).  And America must be something more than a large social-welfare state that simply redistributes the wealth through one “worthy” government program after the next.  To be a “right-wing extremist” increasingly means to NOT believe the federal government should regulate every aspect of American life.  I guess we’re all (at least we conservatives and libertarians) extremists now.

That’s not to mention the unease over the off-shoring of the country’s industrial base, the destruction of thousands of good jobs in the process, the diminishing quality of public services (most notably the schools), and the denigration of citizenship and cultural pride in favor of open borders and multiculturalism.

Like their anti-federalist antecedents, the Capitol Rioters harbor a deep (and well-deserved), distrust of government and the elites who purport to act in their best interest.  Like the debate over the Constitution, January 6 was not so much a conflict between democratic and anti-democratic forces as it was between democratic and aristocratic forces.  Between those who think they are protecting some kind of mythical political center that emerged from the post-WWII liberal consensus and those who do not believe that such consensus is possible, or even desirable.  Far from being outliers, the Capitol Rioters, like the anti-federalists, may in the long run prove to be the ones who kept the ancient faith of the Republic.  Perhaps time will show them to be the real democrats and the prophets of the future of American politics.

And, assuming it were the last days of the Republic; and, assuming every lever of government had been taken over by a left-wing junta of experts, specialists, and consultants; and, assuming the media were almost totally in the thrall of one narrow band of allowable ideas—all left-of-center—wouldn’t it be only natural that the conservatives—the people who take the American Revolution and the founding ideals and the Constitution seriously—would be portrayed as the radicals.  Wouldn’t they—not BLM/Antifa, who just the summer before had laid waste to whole cities—become the real threat.  No doubt, one reason the punditocracy was so shocked by the Capitol riots was that it marked perhaps the first time since protesting was mainstreamed in the 1960s that it was the Squares resorting to violence to get their way.  Until now, they’ve been expected to defend the system, even when it was screwing them over.  Only the radicals were allowed to shut down public discourse, disrupt official business, attack cops, and cause mayhem.  My how the worm has turned!

So, in a sense, the Capitol riot shows the country returning to form. In his book “The People Themselves,” Larry Kramer explains, “mobbing was an accepted, if not exactly admired, form of political action” in America and England in the 18th century.  But, Kramer continues:

Mob action followed implicit, customary rules about how much violence was appropriate and which targets were permissible, making it possible for contemporaries to distinguish constitutional mob action from a simple riot (27).

And there’s the rub:  What happened on January 6 was clearly a riot, if not a simple one.

Whether that outcome was intended by the vast majority of people in attendance or not really doesn’t matter. Had it been otherwise, had it just been a Patriot Woodstock, it would—I think—have been a powerful statement by a marginalized stratum of American society that its concerns could not be ignored, Donald Trump or no Donald Trump.  Instead, it has, at least for the near term, played into the hands of the very forces seeking to destroy the right-populist movement.


Which all, of course, leads us to one man—Donald J. Trump…Read the rest at A Conservative Reflects on January 6 (substack.com)

J.S. Scifo is a North County resident who has worked in national and state politics


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