Originally published in Hankyoreh.
In the 2005 film The President’s Last Bang, Korean audiences were able to glimpse the behind-the-scenes events surrounding the assassination of strong-arm ruler Park Chung-hee. The movie is something of a satire, given the baroque murder plot and the incompetence of the perpetrators. Back in 1979, however, Koreans were shocked by the “10-26 incident” and worried about the trajectory of South Korean politics.
The current U.S. congressional investigation into the events of January 6 might seem at times like a similar exposé. In this case, the plot was not to kill a president but to keep him in power. Also, the intricacies of the plot and the sheer ineptitude of the plotters—which Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Trump’s chief of staff, has described in almost cinematic detail in her recent testimony—lend the “1-6 incident” a similar air of dark comedy.
But there is nothing funny about what is happening in American politics today. Let’s briefly review the details of what was essentially a plot against America—against the constitution, against U.S. democracy, against the rule of law.
In November 2020, Republican President Donald Trump lost the presidential election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden. The popular vote was not close: Biden won by more than 7 million votes, 51.3 percent to 46.9 percent. The Electoral College breakdown was also not particularly close: 306 to 232. But if the vote had gone the other way by a few thousand votes each in several key states—Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania—Trump would have won the election.
Trump supporters demanded recounts in these close “battleground” states. They alleged voter fraud. They filed numerous court challenges. None of the recounts turned up any cache of additional Trump votes. None of the court challenges succeeded. Even Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, did not support the president’s allegations of widespread election fraud.
And yet Trump refused to concede. He put pressure on election officials in Georgia to “find votes” to overturn the results in that state. That pressure is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the district attorney in the Atlanta area.
Employing another tactic, Trump supporters in several battleground states where Republicans controlled the legislatures attempted to create alternate slates of electors that could step in to cast their votes for Trump at the Electoral College if given an opportunity to do so by either the Justice Department or Vice President Mike Pence. This strategy amounted to a criminal conspiracy to overturn Biden’s victory.
All of this was prelude to the events of January 6, 2021. On that day, the results of the Electoral College votes that took place in the states in mid-December were officially tallied in Congress. Vice President Pence was then legally required to certify those results and officially announce the winner of the presidential election.
Since Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, Trump’s last hope was that Pence would at least postpone this final confirmation of Biden’s victory.
On January 6, Trump spoke to a rally of his supporters at noon near the White House. The crowd included many members of far-right political groups and paramilitaries who were planning to assault the Capitol building, located a little more than a mile away, as part of an attempt to interrupt the official tally and force Pence by any means necessary to block Biden’s ascension.
Thanks to the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to then-Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, we now know that members of the Trump administration expected that the situation would likely turn violent that day, that Trump himself knew that some of his supporters were armed, that the president tried to join the crowd streaming toward the Capitol building, and that many of the president’s top allies in Congress were angling for preemptive pardons for their actions to overturn the results of the election.
Still to come in the congressional investigation is testimony on the specific links between the Trump team and far-right militias. The key figures have been Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, and Roger Stone, a long-time political operative. Both were holed up on January 6 at the Willard Hotel, near the White House, and both served as intermediaries between the Trump administration and extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the First Amendment Praetorians.
Unlike the assassination of Park Chung-hee, all the details of January 6 have yet to emerge. But all the elements of satire are already present.
For instance, four days after the presidential election, Trump legal advisor Rudy Giuliani spoke to the press to discuss his client’s efforts to dispute the election results in Pennsylvania. The press conference was held at the Four Seasons. But someone in the campaign must have made a mistake because the event didn’t take place at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia but at Four Seasons Total Landscaping outside Philadelphia where Giuliani appeared just steps away from a sex shop and a crematorium.
Then there was the sheer legal incompetence of the Trump team’s efforts to overturn the election, the bizarre bullying of election officials by Trump himself, and the outlandish conspiracy theories that his administration embraced, like the idea that an Italian defense contractor worked with the CIA to use military satellites to switch votes from Trump to Biden.
And then there’s what Cassidy Hutchinson describes in her recent testimony. In one particularly vivid scene, Trump ordered his Secret Service detail to follow the marchers on their way to Capitol, tried to seize control of the wheel of his presidential limousine, and then lunged at a secret service agent after failing to commandeer the car.
As comedian Steve Allen once said, comedy is tragedy plus time. It took 26 years before the assassination of Park Chung-hee could be satirized in The President’s Last Bang. It is clearly too soon for the events of January 6 to be presented as comedy.
After all, Donald Trump is still a powerful political figure. He is gearing up for another run at the presidency in 2024. Many members of the Republican Party still believe that the last election was “stolen.” Right-wing extremist organizations are still operating throughout the United States, have influence on some members of Congress, and continue to maintain links with their counterparts in other countries.
The current congressional investigation into the events of January 6, in other words, is not simply coming to terms with the past. It is investigating present-day America.
The committee is also hoping to shape the future by delegitimizing Trump’s anti-democratic activities and disrupting the next plot against America.
And there’s nothing funny about that.