Will Be Wild
Will Be Wild
The only verdict on Trump and the MAGA movement that finally matters will be delivered through politics.
Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol
117th Congress, 2nd Session, 814 pp.
When we imagine what it means to live through a political crisis, most of us probably summon visions of extremity: assassinations and coups, depressions and wars—times of unusual danger or alarm, when malevolent forces are on the march. We wonder how long it would take us to realize what’s happening, and how we’d react when we do. We spin heroic scenarios about joining the resistance or taking to the street. There you are, the stakes clear, faced with the great dilemma presented to you by fate. Will you or won’t you? Hurry, time is running out.
But life, even during a crisis, is only sometimes like that. As Hemingway wrote about bankruptcy, crises come upon us in two ways: gradually then suddenly. The “rise of the Nazis” or the “fall of Rome” are acts of linguistic compression that obscure the years in which many people went about their lives—falling in love, working and raising children, adapting to the events that would punctuate hindsight’s tidy narrative. A crisis rarely unfolds without precedent and preparation, and when it arrives, it can owe as much to the piling up of everyday acts of cowardice and compromise—sometimes decades of them—as to the grand plays for power splashed across headlines.
This reality explains, at least in part, the decidedly mixed reactions to the insurrection on January 6, 2021, from the broad left-of-center in U.S. politics—the political factions that range from the mainstream of the Democratic Party to the Democratic Socialists of America. It was a brief event long in the making, which has allowed it to serve as a kind of Rorschach test for American politics during the Trump years. Was it the work of bumbling, conspiracy-addled fools, personified by the QAnon Shaman, as some socialists proclaimed—bad, sure, but also faintly ridiculous? Or did it vindicate, in spectacular fashion, those who call the Trump movement fascist? These takes, and nearly everything in between, could be found in the months following the attack on the Capitol.
The publication, in late December, of the Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, produced after nearly a year and a half of work, has not brought greater clarity, at least among pundits and polemicists. Consider the sheer number of editions of the report. For the MSNBC-watching #resistance types, there is one with a foreword by Ari Melber on the “coup conspiracy”; for those who can’t get enough of the mawkish Adam Schiff, there’s one introduced by the California Democrat; for the New Yorker tote-bag carrier, you can buy one branded with a preface from the magazine’s top editor, David Remnick; and for the New York Times subscriber, the newspaper put out what is probably the most helpful edition of the report, supplemented with its own “reporting, analysis, and visuals.” You can also simply download the full report from the committee’s website. This is not an exhaustive list.
Commentary on the report has also tended to come packaged for readers’ expectations—and, even more, for their disappointments. If the January 6 insurrection was the shocking culmination of Donald Trump’s lawless authoritarianism, the exclamation point on an era, then a narrowly focused report drafted by a House committee was always unlikely to prove satisfying. And it hasn’t. Most of all, it’s been faulted for its strict attention to Trump, his toadies, and their lies and machinations in the months between the election and the insurrection. What about the root causes of Trumpism? What about the social and economic dislocations that feed distrust and despair? Trump didn’t come from nowhere, and to fully understand what happened is to understand how a figure like Trump could emerge, and why so many believed his deranged conspiracy theories.
Those are essential questions, ones that have been asked many times in recent years, but looking to a House committee to answer them is a mistake. The January 6 Report was never going to offer catharsis, provide the last word, or deal a death blow to Trump. The only verdict on Trump and the MAGA movement that finally matters will be delivered through politics—their defeat, or not, in contests for power. And in that task, the January 6 Report provided an opening for those who would take it.
Trump’s fate was sealed after electors met on December 14, 2020, to cast their Electoral College votes. It had been clear for over a month that he’d lost the presidential election, but until that moment, there remained a window of legal opportunity to challenge the results. After the votes were cast, even members of Trump’s cabinet, like Attorney General William Barr, who has dedicated his professional life to helping Republican presidents get away with crimes, understood it as “the end of the matter.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia concurred.
However, in the words of the January 6 Report, “President Trump had no intention of conceding. As he plotted ways to stay in power, the President summoned a mob for help.” As evidence for this claim, it points to a late-night tweet of Trump’s on December 19: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” According to the report, that tweet “galvanized tens of thousands of his supporters around the country.” After that call to arms, the Proud Boys reorganized themselves, seemingly preparing for battle, and a host of other far-right, conspiracy-minded groups began plotting for action as well. The report found that “Federal and local law enforcement authorities were in possession of multiple streams of intelligence predicting violence directed at the Capitol prior to January 6th.” But even apart from these warnings, Trump’s very public role in fomenting the attack means that anyone who was paying attention should have known something was going to happen, and that it would almost certainly include thousands of Trump’s die-hard, potentially violent supporters.
Why, then, wasn’t security better on January 6? You won’t really find satisfying answers in the report. One of its conspicuous weaknesses is the way it fails to thoroughly reckon with why law enforcement and intelligence services did not adequately prepare to stop rioters from surging into the Capitol that day. There are only two slim appendixes dealing with such matters—almost as if they were designed to be little read and mostly ignored.
Reporting published in the Washington Post last November suggests that a major force behind these decisions was former Republican Representative Liz Cheney, who exerted significant control over what would make it into the final document, and what would be shoved into an appendix. She was one of only two Republicans on the House select committee (the other was former Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger), providing the committee with its veneer of bipartisanship. This presumably gave them substantial leverage over its work, which was divided up into various teams, each with a particular area of focus. But it was Cheney in particular, according to committee staffers—fifteen of them spoke to the Washington Post—who demanded the report exclude much of the material that went beyond Trump. Work done by other teams, on the financing of the attack and the role of militias and other extremist groups, was also significantly reduced. The decision apparently baffled several of the committee staff members. The response of a Cheney spokesperson to these complaints is instructive:
Some staff have submitted subpar material for the report that reflects long-held liberal biases about federal law enforcement, Republicans, and sociological issues outside the scope of the Select Committee’s work. She won’t sign onto any “narrative” that suggests Republicans are inherently racist or smears men and women in law enforcement, or suggests every American who believes God has blessed America is a white supremacist.
Apart from its ridiculous particulars, the statement from Cheney’s spokesperson amounts to a refusal, typical of the report, to stray from its main line of argument: “the central cause of January 6th was one man, former President Donald Trump.”
The insurrection would not have happened without Trump, his barrage of lies about election fraud (dutifully parroted by right-wing media), and his calls for MAGA supporters to descend on Washington, D.C., and then march to the Capitol to “stop the steal.” That is what the January 6 Report sets out to prove (and in my judgment, certainly does), making it a narrow but deep examination of Trump’s plot to remain in office despite losing to Joe Biden. It is the most thorough debunking available of Trump’s myriad fabrications and fictions, and a shocking account of just how relentless he was in clinging to power. Have questions about conspiracy theories involving Dominion voting machines? Confused about Team Trump’s plans for “alternative” slates of electors from key states? It’s all explained.
Had the report gone further, digging into factors beyond Trump—telling a more expansive story that examined the years and even decades preceding the 2020 presidential election—what might it have dwelled upon? In Jacobin, David Sirota (writing before the final report was released) made a case for focusing on the fallout from the 2008 financial crash—what he calls “the long American meltdown.” He reaches back to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, which eventually meant that “the government was not addressing eminently solvable economic problems that have been enriching a handful of billionaires while making life miserable for millions of people.” The well-financed conservative assault on government—starving it of resources, hobbling its efforts to help ordinary Americans—led, among other things, to a “loss of faith in government.” Right-wing authoritarianism grows in the soil of economic precarity, suspicion of the government, and a barrage of propaganda from corporate media. Eventually, an event like January 6 was inevitable.
In the New Yorker, Jill Lepore also critiqued the report’s narrow scope. For her, the question of why anyone believed Trump—and why so many were ready to leap at his commands—is paramount. She notes a shift two decades ago in Americans’ views of Congress, with its approval tumbling from nearly 80 percent down to 20 percent today. Even more, she points the finger at a panoply of pandemic-related factors that, in the context of an already cynical public, might have led to January 6. Election Day 2020 was “weird”: “unprecedented numbers of people voted by mail and by absentee ballot, and, even if you trudged out to the polls, you were met with the general misery of masks and loneliness and loss and, for many people, a sense of impending doom.” More people were spending more time online than ever before, causing them to stew in a fetid swamp of internet conspiracies and misinformation. And with so many losing their loved ones, their jobs, and their social lives during the pandemic, a sense that many things were being “stolen” from them became pervasive.
Neither Sirota nor Lepore argue that Trump’s responsibility for January 6 should be ignored. And they are right that a serious reckoning with the deep causes of the insurrection, the more-than-proximate reasons it happened, must include the cumulate force of decades of austerity, endless war, the growth of right-wing media, and what was lost—both in terms of actual lives and how those who remain now live their lives—during the pandemic. To fully understand January 6 would require, in Lepore’s phrase, “the knowledge of what has happened to America.”
That’s a tall order for a House select committee. It would remain so even if, as Lepore suggests, such work was given to an independent commission. By Lepore’s own accounting, the record of more artfully written narratives—the Warren Commission Report, the 9/11 Commission Report—is, at best, mixed. Who would read such work? How many would believe it? A well-crafted historical account of the causes of the present discontents, starting, say, in the late 1970s and running through January 6, might be satisfying to (some) intellectuals and journalists, but it also would just be . . . a history book, one more entry into the maw of The Discourse, accepted by some and scorned by others. It wouldn’t settle anything, and it wouldn’t fix the country. That’s the work of politics, and another way of understanding the January 6 Report is how it fits into that work.
Politics takes place where the wreckage of history and the contingency of the present meet, opening onto a future that is in the making. We are, as Tocqueville put it, free within a circle—hemmed in by the past, but not entirely determined by it. But untangling the causation that led to the insurrection can also direct our focus away from the present, when there are choices to be made and reactionary forces to defeat.
That present remains dire. A discomfiting truth brought home by the House select committee’s work is that, for at least a few months in late 2020 and early 2021, the Republican Party could be best understood as a semi-organized conspiracy against the U.S. Constitution and the government lawfully elected under its auspices. The committee found that between November 3 and January 6, Trump, with the help of the Republican National Committee, raised nearly a quarter of a billion dollars—much of it related to lies about the election. Even after the insurrection, 147 Republicans in the House and the Senate still voted to overturn the election results.
Since then, the Republican Party has, if anything, grown more dangerous. During the 2022 midterm elections, nearly 300 election deniers were on the ballot—from high-profile candidates, backed by Trump, such as Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona, to lesser-known office-seekers running for county-level positions. Republicans in Congress continue to do Trump’s bidding, seizing every opportunity to block efforts to hold him accountable. And as Trump’s legal problems mount—some of them related to the 2020 election, like a case in Fulton County, Georgia, and others not, like his indictment in New York connected to paying off a porn star—the GOP has been nearly lockstep in preemptively declaring Trump above the law and beyond all accountability. Or, worse, saying that he’s the victim of a George Soros–led conspiracy. All this only has improved Trump’s standing with Republicans, bolstering his popularity and increasing his lead in early polling for the party’s 2024 presidential primaries.
Seen from this view—from a clear-sighted acknowledgment of what the Republican Party now is—the highly focused nature of the January 6 Report can be better appreciated. It’s a snapshot of a revanchist party in real time, one that could, importantly, be accepted without agreement about how best to narrate American decline over the past four decades. In that sense, the report—both as a text and as a media event—was politically usable, an effort to keep reminding Americans of what Trump and his party attempted on that day. Though much criticized at the time, not least by those on the left (“The January 6 Hearings are Failed Political Theater” blared one Jacobin headline), the House select committee’s televised hearings were slickly produced, often primetime events that included testimony that was embarrassing to Trump and his allies, and outrageous to any decent person. Out of them came clips and memes that circulated widely: Josh Hawley scampering away from the MAGA mob set to Benny Hill music; Trump throwing ketchup against a wall in a rage. But even more, there could be no misunderstanding the mountains of evidence about just how doggedly Trump wanted to take away something important: the votes of those who took the time and effort to figure out how to vote during a pandemic, whether by mail or by braving a trip to the polling station, sometimes standing in line for hours.
There are good reasons to believe that the January 6 Report, and the broader work of the House select committee, has mattered. Buttressed by Biden’s high-profile speech on democracy, and campaigns that underscored the GOP threat to it, most election-denying candidates, especially in battleground states and races, were defeated in the 2022 midterms, including a number of candidates running for offices, such as secretaries of state, that oversee elections. One survey found that 44 percent of voters identified “the future of democracy” as their top concern, which suggests that even amid so many other pressing concerns, the Republican threat to democracy broke through to some voters, including some who might usually have voted for Republicans.
Democrats ran on other issues, too: abortion rights, especially, but also resistance to Republican assaults on trans rights, defending public schools, and standing up for public school teachers and librarians facing right-wing attacks. They talked about jobs and the economy in credible ways. The January 6 Report, perhaps because of its limits, helped prepare the way for such messaging. It underscored what the Republican Party has become, and provided the backdrop for a message that Republicans are corrupt authoritarians who are lying to their supporters and everyone else, and want to take what simply is not theirs. They want to take away healthcare and economic security; they want to take away free and fair elections; they want to take away your rights, your bodily autonomy, and your dignity.
The January 6 Report drew our attention to a brutal assault on American democracy, such as it is. It provided an opportunity to seize the political moment, and clarified the daunting task before us. Most of all, by underscoring the fragility of democratic politics, and that many who walk among us have no commitment to such a politics at all, it opens the way to making an argument not just about what we are at risk of losing, but what democracy can really mean, and what it will take to get there. That work remains, as it always does.
Matthew Sitman is a writer living in New York City. He is the co-host of Know Your Enemy and a member of Dissent’s editorial board.