Did Kurt Gödel Predict the January 6th Capitol Attack?

by Steve Gimbel and Gwydion Suilebhan

Kurt Gödel

Kurt Gödel, one of the most important logicians of the 20th century, is best known for his incompleteness theorem, which proves that any attempt to formulate a logical basis for arithmetic will either be unsound or incomplete. He was also famous for being a strange egg: walking around in a heavy coat in the summer, attending an occasional séance, and living in fear that someone was trying to poison him. There are lots of odd anecdotes about Gödel, but one happens to be a particular favorite among historians of logic: the story of his becoming an American citizen.

Gödel taught at the University of Vienna. After Hitler’s invasion of Austria, the Anschluss, Gödel would frequently be accosted by Nazi hoodlums in the street who assumed that because he was a skinny nerd with glasses, he must be Jewish. He wasn’t. Eventually, he had enough. He relocated to America, settling in Princeton, where he took up residence at the Institute for Advanced Study.

He became friendly with the Institute’s most famous scholar, Albert Einstein. Gödel had done some mathematical work exposing some of the stranger possibilities of the general theory of relativity, including the possibility of time travel, where a fast-moving electron could collide with itself if there was a bizarre enough distribution of matter and energy throughout space and time. Einstein and Gödel had plenty to discuss as they took walks together in their adopted homeland.

Before long, Einstein and economist Oskar Morgenstern convinced Gödel that he should become an American citizen. Looking into the process, Gödel learned that he would have to swear an oath to obey and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Gödel took such requirements seriously and undertook an extensive study of the Constitution. It is, after all, just a set of rules, and evaluating systems of rules was exactly what Gödel did as a logician. Indeed, he was one of the best in history at doing exactly that.

According to Morgenstern, Gödel’s examination revealed “inner contradictions.” Gödel claimed, in fact, that “he could show how in a perfectly legal manner it would be possible for someone to set up a Fascist regime.” Unfortunately, he never revealed those contradictions, but they were serious enough that Gödel said he could not, in good conscience, take the oath.

Einstein and Morgenstern told him the oath was merely a pragmatic step. They entreated him to put away his theoretical worry and just get it done. Gödel reluctantly acquiesced, but on the car ride from Princeton to Philadelphia, Einstein asked him, “Are you really well prepared for your examination?” and got him all worked up again. Einstein and Morgenstern settled him down for a second time and led him into the courthouse.

As soon as they entered, they were spotted immediately by Judge Philip Forman, who had administered the oath of citizenship to Einstein. Seeing the world’s greatest scientist back in his courtroom, he called for a recess, inviting Einstein and his party back into his chambers. Judge Forman was not going to give up an opportunity to visit with a celebrity.

The men chatted briefly, and Einstein told him that they had come so that his colleague could become an American. The judge turned and asked where Gödel had come from, then inquired about the Austrian government. Gödel explained that Austria was a constitutional republic that had been turned into a dictatorship.

“Oh, this is very bad,” Judge Forman responded. “This could not happen in this country.” He had no idea that he had just stepped on a legal and logical landmine.

“Oh, yes,” Gödel erupted, “I can prove it!” He exploded in a flurry of argumentation about the seeds of democracy’s self-destruction that were encoded in the Constitution. Eventually, though, his friends calmed him down again, Judge Forman administered the oath, and no more was ever said, as far as we know, about Gödel’s deep logical reservations about the unstable foundation of American democracy.

What had he found? He was a master of unearthing unexpected results, like time travel in relativity theory and contradictions in the logic of arithmetic. Surely whatever he discovered is, in fact, there in the Constitution. The mystery has long been a topic of pleasant debate among philosophers and historians, but last year, the stakes of that debate rose significantly. On January 6, Gödel’s theoretical nightmare scenario may have almost become reality.

When Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, he instructed a team of lawyers to start looking for ways to invalidate the free and fair election and install him as President. The resulting plan—the so-called “Green Bay Sweep”—had three steps: one before, one during, and one after January 6.

For the first step, there had to be enough states won by Biden in the general election with both Republican-led legislatures and enough total electoral votes to swing the election in Trump’s favor. Those states would submit their official list of delegates after the election, but Trump-supporting legislators in each state would then set the stage for a coup by falsely alleging voter fraud and sending Congress alternative slates of delegates who supported Trump.

For the second step, on January 6, the Vice President—who has a ceremonial role in tallying the Electoral votes in front of Congress—would point to the competing slates of delegates and baseless accusations of voter fraud and, with vocal support from members of Congress who were in on the plot, declare that he could not tally the Electoral votes from the contested states.

When Trump said Pence should “do the right thing,” this second step is what he meant. The fact that the Vice President didn’t do Trump’s bidding explains why rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence” around the gallows in front of the Capitol. Trump sent his mob across the Ellipse not only to intimidate Democratic members of Congress into silence, but also to either bully the Vice President into going along with the plot or dispose of him in favor of someone else who would.

The Proud Boys and 3 Percenters with prearranged military tactics, baseball bats, bear spray, and zipties had a job to do if the Vice President didn’t play along. The crowd of protestors in which they were embedded was intended to provide cover, making the “Stop the Steal” rally an integral part of the plot.

The third and final step was to send competing slates of legitimate Biden delegates and fake Trump delegates to the legislatures in the key states. Despite the fact that the voters in those states had selected Biden delegates, a simple majority in the states’ Republican-led legislatures would overturn democracy by declaring that the Trump delegates should be counted as Electoral College votes. Subtracting those flipped Electoral votes from Biden’s total and adding them to Trump’s total would have reversed the results of the election.

If enough Republicans in the right places—the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Vice Presidency, and the state legislatures—were willing to abuse their power, the coup might have destroyed American democracy. It was a preconceived, intricately organized conspiracy that seemed to involve the President, his inner circle, members of Congress, state legislators, and violent paramilitary groups. Was this plot the possibility that so concerned Kurt Gödel when he came to America fleeing fascism? Was the Green Bay Sweep really the Green Bay Anschluss? We may never know, but with the seeds of fascism continuing to sprout in America, the stakes of the question have risen even higher.


Steve Gimbel is a Professor of Philosophy and the former Edwin T. and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Chair for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities at Gettysburg College, holding a Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University. He is author of ten books including Isn’t that Clever: A Philosophy of Humor and Comedy (Routledge), Einstein: His Space and Times (Yale), Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion (Johns Hopkins), Exploring the Scientific Method (Chicago), and Defending Einstein: Hans Reichenbach’s Early Writings on Space, Time, and Motion (Cambridge). He has four lecture series in the Teaching Company’s Great Courses: Redefining Reality: Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, Formal Logic, Take My Course…Please: The Philosophy of Humor, and The Great Questions of Philosophy and Physics. He is a frequent contributor with Gwydion Suilebhan to Salon where they write on comedy.

Gwydion Suilebhan is the Executive Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and the Project Director of the New Play Exchange. With Steven Gimbel, he writes about comedy and culture for Salon, with recent profiles of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Ivan Reitman, Bob Saget, Ed Asner, and Jackie Mason, among others. A founding member of The Welders, a Helen Hayes Award-winning playwrights collective in DC, Suilebhan is the author of several plays, including The Butcher, Reals, Abstract Nude, Let X, The Faithkiller, and the Helen Hayes Award-nominated Transmission. His work has been produced by Centerstage, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, the Gulfshore Playhouse, and Theater J. He is also the author of Anthem, a short film directed by Hal Hartley.