The Impossible Insurrection of January 6

The right couldn’t stage a coup because liberals dominate nearly every institution of American politics and culture. Yet liberals refuse to see it.

After the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, the New York Times and other publications on the left began calling the event an “insurrection” and an attempted “coup.” The riot was an appalling and dishonorable event, and the perpetrators of its crimes are rightly being prosecuted. But to call it an attempted coup is preposterous—and not simply for the practical reason that the prosecuted rioters weren’t indicted for treason or conspiracy to overthrow the government but for obstruction of an official proceeding, trespassing on government property, disorderly conduct and the like. The idea that Donald Trump and his followers had any chance of overthrowing the U.S. government, or even that they aimed at that outcome, is a delusion. That delusion springs from American liberal elites’ failure to accept the fact of their own predominance.

The literary critic Lionel Trilling observed in “The Liberal Imagination” (1950) that “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” He went on to assert that “nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation” and that “the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

You can quibble with the claim—the works of Friedrich Hayek, for one, were well known at the time—but his point was basically sound. In 1950 there was no conservative movement in America. There was a general disposition to honor traditional virtues, valorize patriotism and promote religious observance. But as a social and political philosophy, liberalism was the only game in town.

In later decades a homegrown conservative movement would shake things up (more on that in a moment), but a lifetime later the essence of Trilling’s claim still obtains. It is irrefutable that some form of modern liberalism or progressivism prevails in nearly every sphere of American public life: the news media, the universities, K-12 education, the entertainment industry, corporate boardrooms, mainline religious organizations, college and professional sports (excluding the fans), much of U.S. military bureaucracy, and state and federal agencies. The only spheres in which the left’s dominance is seriously disputed are electoral politics, for the simple reason that American voters still incline in a broadly conservative direction, and the judiciary, which is shaped by the political branches.

As a cultural and political outlook in the U.S., the ascendancy of liberalism—or progressivism, as its more strident manifestation is termed—is about as certain in 2021 as it was, according to Trilling, in the middle of the last century. Liberalism faces political opposition from time to time; its march has been interrupted by the election of people determined to stop it. But even in politics it has eventually triumphed everywhere: Traditional moral values have long since fled from the public square, every new constituency claiming persecution has received special political rights, the welfare state is in a permanent state of growth, and there is no obvious limit to what the federal government will spend in pursuit of liberal aims.

Occasional protests flare up—a “bathroom bill” here, an abortion regulation there—but these are met with ferocious denunciations from celebrities, boycotts from heavyweight corporations and relentlessly censorious press coverage. The protests soon fizzle. Sometimes an entire movement will dispute liberalism’s ascendancy, but it is soon pronounced a threat to civilization and fades from view. Remember the religious right?

Yet liberals and progressives always sound as though liberalism is on the brink of demise, a step or two away from overthrow by a rival ideology. They fail to appreciate that American conservatism is—and has been for the past 70 years—a response to a hegemonic liberalism. Conservatives dabble in irredentist tropes during elections, as if they might actually one day overpower their adversaries. But American conservatism doesn’t have the power, even if it wanted to, to sweep aside cobwebbed liberal institutions and remake them along the lines of a conservative philosophy.

John Stuart Mill, in “Considerations on Representative Government” (1861), called the Conservative Party “the stupidest party,” now often misquoted as “the stupid party.” There is something to the notion that conservatives are, on balance, dumber than liberals—at least on subjects liberals care most about. Liberals are urban sophisticates and cognizant of the latest ideas; conservatives generally aren’t. Most conservatives have arrived at their views by instinct and disposition, not by formal instruction and reading think pieces.

Members of the stupid party have their virtues. They don’t fall for highfalutin ideologies and avoid changing things for no good reason. But on political topics their views are often inconsistent and undisciplined. A substantial minority of them, however sound their instincts on the largest questions, are at all times in danger of expressing idiotic bigotries or alleging nonsensical conspiracies.

In part for these reasons conservatives don’t figure prominently among the U.S. cultural elite, media class and tenured professoriate. The right has always been a force in politics and policy making—because, again, politics turns on elections, and there are a lot of conservative voters in a lot of places. But conservatism has never been much more than an intermittent annoyance in, say, the Washington press corps or higher education.

It was the great achievement of William F. Buckley Jr. to consolidate what was otherwise a disparate and fractured right. By the force of his personality and superhuman productivity, he managed to bring together free marketeers and social conservatives into a more or less coherent movement. Some had to be kept out—Ayn Rand, the irrationally anticommunist John Birchers. But other figures used their gifts to ensure that the right remained consolidated and politically effective: this newspaper’s longtime editor Robert L. Bartley, who championed the virtues of markets and warned against the encroachments of governmental rationalizers; Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol and other neoconservatives who embraced a hawkish foreign policy and urged the right to champion specific policy reforms; social conservatives who fulminated against the cultural hedonism of aging beatniks.

By the 1970s it was no longer true, as Trilling had it, that there were “no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” That didn’t mean conservatives held anything close to the cultural power of liberals. Because attention tends to fix on electoral politics, a casual observer could be forgiven for positing a rough parity between left and right. But there was no parity at, for instance, the network news channels or Ivy League universities or the big movie studios.

One way to gauge the power of left and right is to consider the policy positions of the two parties. I am not sure how many books by liberal authors I’ve read over the past 15 years claiming that the Republican Party has drifted so far to the right as to be a lost cause and perhaps a menace to democracy itself.

But has it moved so far? The Congressional GOP’s tactics became extreme during the Obama years—threatening government shutdowns and the like. Mr. Trump gave the party an attitudinal assertiveness it never had before. But on policy the Republican Party has remained mostly static. In 2021 the GOP holds about the same positions it held 40 years ago. Republicans favor lower personal and corporate taxes, reform of entitlement programs, less government spending (at least when Democrats are in charge), a traditional lock-’em-up approach to law enforcement, broad restrictions on abortion, higher military spending and a more hawkish foreign policy. Republicans may be faulted for a lack of imagination on questions of policy, but not for “drifting” in a rightward direction, except perhaps on immigration and trade. On some important questions—same-sex marriage, for example—the GOP has either moved leftward or given up.

The national Democratic Party in 2021 is another thing altogether. The party has moved consistently leftward over the same 40 years, dramatically so over the last five. The Democratic Party, or a preponderant part of it, now advocates universal prekindergarten, federal child care, direct welfare payments to parents, a massive rearrangement of the economy to address climate change, free college education and fully socialized health insurance—including for illegal aliens. The party flirts with any radical idea to come along: a tax on wealth, racial reparations, abolition of police and prisons. These aren’t views that Democrats of 1980, or 2000, would recognize.

The party of the left, owing to its overwhelming presence across an array of American institutions, has the luxury of staking out novel and ideologically attractive positions. The party of the right doesn’t. So comprehensive is the mastery enjoyed by today’s liberals that many of them show little awareness that holding conservative views is something intelligent and morally responsible people sometimes do. One reason so many people on the left have abandoned their belief in free speech and adopted a prissy totalitarian outlook is that they rarely or never encounter people who openly hold standard conservative views.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump. His nomination in 2016, and even more his election to the presidency, was an anguished outcry against decades of aggressions. It wasn’t wise or sensible, but it was understandable as a frantic attempt to stay the hand of an uncompromising cultural leftism.

The leftward-inclining elites who dominate American institutions didn’t interpret it that way. They classified it, as they had classified the tea-party revolt of 2009–10, as an expression of racism and hatred, thus relieving themselves of any responsibility to take it seriously or to discern its meaning. They employed every conceivable tool in an effort to remove Mr. Trump from office. Intellectuals and commentators called him a fascist; top-drawer authors blamed him for coronavirus deaths; officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked with political operatives and for-hire spies to frame him as a Russian asset; the U.S. media accepted and publicized the hoax wholesale; former military and intelligence officials openly called him a traitor; federal security bureaucracies hatched plots to have him impeached; and the entertainment industry used every opportunity to cast him as a villainous madman and a snarling racist idiot.

Mr. Trump’s postelection claims of election theft were not worse than his enemies’ attempts to delegitimize his 2016 election by pretending the outcome was a consequence of Vladimir Putin’s machinations. But his claims were false and without excuse, and his maniacal repetition of them led directly to the disgrace of the Capitol riot.

What the former president’s cultured despisers fail to appreciate, however, is that four years of subversion, slander and scorched-earth resistance made his cockamamie claims sound credible to a large audience of otherwise sane and sensible Americans. They may have entertained many incorrect notions about the 2020 election, but they were right to conclude that Mr. Trump’s enemies possessed far more power and influence than he did and were willing to defeat him by any means necessary, including unethical ones.

The idea that the Capitol rioters threatened the American republic is a fantasy. Even to pose such a threat, they would have needed to do far more than break into an unguarded Capitol building and stop Vice President Mike Pence from certifying the count of the Electoral College. To stage a coup, these renegades would have needed the backing of the military; and to govern afterward they would have needed cooperation from other institutions, including the news media and the federal bureaucracy. They had no support from those quarters and no hope of getting it. Their effort was witless and pointless, a dud grenade thrown at an armored division.

Even so, the riot will live on in the public consciousness as an “insurrection” and attempted “coup” because it encourages the left’s irrational fear of conquest by the right. The danger is that this paranoia keeps liberals from understanding their own dominant position—and acknowledging how illiberally they often exploit it.

Mr. Swaim is an editorial page writer at the Journal.