For most Americans, January 6, 2021, was a harrowing day, as a mob ransacked the Capitol, looking for politicians to terrorize or even kill in revenge for their unwillingness to steal the presidency for Donald Trump. For the Oath Keepers, however, the saddest part of the day is how quickly it ended. The right wing militia had been planning the insurrection for months, but when the day itself came, their hopes for political assassinations and the overthrow of democracy were largely dashed. Trump never showed up, as promised, to lead the mob to victory. The politicians targeted managed to escape. Eventually, it became clear the insurrection had failed, and Trump finally, with great reluctance, told the mob to go home.
But, as revealed in the seditious conspiracy trial for five Oath Keepers on Monday, they weren't quite ready to throw in the towel. "You ain't seen nothing yet," Stewart Rhodes, the militia's founder, texted in a group chat.
"We aren't quitting!!" member Kelly Meggs texted the team. "We are reloading!!" He promised that the Oath Keepers would return to the Capitol to finish the job and grumbled that they had not been able to find Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi after another Oath Keeper expressed disappointment over not seeing her "head rolling down the front steps."
The Oath Keepers did not go back to the Capitol but instead convened at a nearby Olive Garden to plot the next steps in their not-yet-abandoned plan to finish the insurrection. Joshua James, an Oath Keeper who turned state's witness, testified that, at the dinner, the group started spitballing plans to interrupt President Joe Biden's inauguration. "Declaration of illegitimacy is step 1," Rhodes texted in the middle of a dinner of middlebrow Italian-American cuisine. But the planning was cut short when members began to fear the police finding them chowing down on endless baskets of breadsticks. They decided to flee after divvying up the enormous weapons cache between three cars.
The group never did get it together to make one last big attempt to prevent Biden from assuming office. Now, unlike Trump, they are facing legal consequences for their role in the violence. With all the evidence against them, these five Oath Keepers are likely facing stiff prison sentences. But even with Biden in office, the sad fact of the matter is their goal on January 6 — installing Trump in office against the will of the people — is now a lot more likely to happen than it was the day they stormed the Capitol.
That's because insurrectionists are poised to take power across the country in an election that looks like it may be determined mainly by low-information voters who know little about the threats to democracy and are focused instead on incorrectly blaming Biden for inflation. In the purple states that determined the 2020 election, most Republican candidates running for major offices have spent months dog-whistling to the GOP base their intentions to steal the 2024 election for Trump, even as they play dumb about it to media outlets that might attract swing voting audiences.
"In a typical year, we are not often faced with the question of whether the vote we cast will preserve democracy or put it at risk," Biden said in a speech from Capitol Hill on Wednesday night. "But we are this year."
Sometimes Republicans do say the quiet parts out loud. On Monday, the far-right election-denying candidate running as the GOP gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, Tim Michels, flatly declared, "Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I'm elected governor." His campaign office followed up with an attempted clean-up, telling the Washington Post he only meant "voters will reward the Republicans at the ballot box" after the great job he intends to do. This is a transparent cover — Michels has backed Trump's Big Lie and has repeatedly refused to answer reporter questions about whether he would certify a Democratic win in 2024.
Lots of Republicans are playing the "will they or won't they" game this cycle, though anyone who is paying attention knows they have no wish to accept, much less certify, statewide elections where the Democrat wins. The Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, Kari Lake, has only agreed to accept the election results if she wins. In Pennsylvania, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano, was part of the "fake elector" scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 election and participated in the events of January 6. The GOP candidate for Michigan governor, Tudor Dixon, also has declared the 2020 election fraudulent, making it likely, if not certain, that if elected she would find her way to refusing to certify a Biden win in her swing state in 2024.
As Mother Jones reported, insurrectionists touting the Big Lie met for a conference over the weekend. In attendance were "the Republican candidates runsning for secretary of state—the guardians of election integrity—in the crucial swing states of Arizona, Nevada, and Michigan, respectively, Mark Finchem, Jim Marchant, and Kristina Karamo." The GOP targeting of election denialists for roles as state secretaries is not a coincidence. The positions would give them control over how elections are run in the state, making it that much easier for the party to pull some of the illegal stunts Trump demanded in 2020. Finchem, like Mastriano, was at the January 6 riot. Finchem's lawyer was deep inside the plot to stop the real electors from registering Arizona's vote in 2020 in favor of a slate of illegal electors sent to vote for Trump instead.
Unfortunately, there are few safeguards in place to keep this motley crew from pulling off the "fake electors" plan in 2024 if they are in office. They are not only running with "coup 2024" as their top-of-mind goal. They've also been able to spend the past couple of years gaming out strategies to get away with it, time that was not available in the failed scramble to throw out the results of the 2020 election. The Oath Keepers may go to prison, but alas, the people who were organizing the paperwork aspects of the coup have mostly been left untouched and are therefore free to try again in 2024, only this time with more power and know-how. If they win office this election cycle, it's unclear if there's much that can be done to stop them.