What the January 6th Report Is Missing

    And that, in brief, is the report, which concludes that “the central cause of January 6th was one man, former President Donald Trump.” And that, in brief, is the problem: chasing Trump, never quite untethering itself from him, fluttering in the biting wind of his violent derangement, like a ribbon pinned to the tail of a kite during a tornado, and failing, entirely, to see the tornado.

    In the January 6th Report, Donald Trump acted alone and came out of nowhere. He has no past. Neither does the nation. The rest of the country doesn’t even exist. No one dies of Covid, no one loses a job, no one sinks to her knees in grief upon hearing on the radio the news that Americans—Americans—are staging an armed invasion of the Capitol. Among the many reasons this investigation ought to have been conducted by a body independent from the federal government is that there is very little suffering in Congress’s January 6th Report, except that of members of Congress running for their lives that day.

    The report is organized around the idea of the “Big Lie,” which is the title of the report’s first chapter. “The Big Lie” is what Democratic politicians and many journalists call Trump’s claim that he had won the election. (It is also an expression first notably used by Adolf Hitler.) It is an inept phrase: it turns an attempted coup d’état into something that sounds like a children’s book written by Margaret Wise Brown. “The Big Lie” is so ham-handed that, unsurprisingly, it’s an expression that Trump adores. “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” he announced at one point. Playing “You lie!” “No, you lie!” with Donald Trump is a fool’s game.

    “The Big Lie” is not a big lie. It is an elaborate fiction, an artful story, with heroes and villains, exotic locales, and a sinister plot. The election was stolen by a cabal of Democrats, socialists, immigrants, criminals, Black people, and spies. This story is vicious and idiotic, and none of it is true, but it is not a Big Lie devised by an orange-haired supervillain born rich in 1946: it is the latest chapter in a fictive counter-history of the United States which has been told by the far right for decades and decades and wretched decades. In 2020, it gained so much speed so fast that it acted something like a stampede. Unfortunately, reading the report is like being in the stampede. “The stolen election narrative has proven to be remarkably durable precisely because it is a matter of belief—not evidence, or reason,” the report states. It does not ask why this should be. Why believe? Two in five Americans and three in five Republicans still believe. Republicans who most fiercely believe hold the Party by the throat. The 9/11 Commission Report asked, “How did Bin Ladin—with his call for indiscriminate killing of Americans—win thousands of followers and some degree of approval from millions more?” The January 6th Committee Report, for all its weight and consequence, never asks why anyone believed Donald Trump, which is why it is unlikely to persuade anyone not to.

    Why believe? Answering that question would have required a historical vantage on the decay of the party system, the celebration of political intolerance by both the right and the left, the contribution of social media to political extremism, and the predicament of American journalism. Calling the system rigged when you’re losing is an old trick. At the end of the Cold War, American zealots turned their most ruthless ideological weapons on one another, Manicheans all. In 1992, Newt Gingrich told Republican candidates to get the message out that the Democrats were going to rig the Presidential election. It didn’t matter to Gingrich that this wasn’t true. “They’re going to buy registrations, they’re going to buy votes,” he warned. “They’re going to turn out votes, they’re going to steal votes, they’re going to do anything they can.” After the contested Bush v. Gore election, of 2000, sowing doubt about elections became common practice for outsiders in both parties. “The system is rigged” was the watchword of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign: primaries rigged against challengers, the economy rigged against working people. Suspecting that things like elections might be rigged, even when that’s not true, isn’t a crazy conspiracy theory; it is a political product routinely sold to voters in every city and state in the country.

    Why believe? In the past two decades, public approval of Congress has fallen from eighty per cent to twenty per cent. Might it be that Congress has lost any real grip on the American experience, and no longer speaks for a nation and a people that Richard Hofstadter once called a “huge, inarticulate beast”? The report lacks not only a sense of the past but also a meaningful sense of the present. A chronicle that runs from April, 2020, to January, 2021, it is a story told out of time. The “facts, circumstances, and causes” relating to the insurrection that it fails to investigate and, in most cases, even to note, include Covid-19 deaths, masks, lockdowns, joblessness, farm closures, guns and mass shootings, a national mental-health crisis, daily reports of devastating storms and fires, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and partisan, and especially congressional, eye-gouging over each and every one of the items in this list. Why believe? Was the election stolen? No. But was 2020 painful? Yes.

    Why believe? Nowhere acknowledged in the report is the fact that November 3, 2020, really was a weird Election Day. In the middle of a pandemic, 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. For the entire stretch of time chronicled in this report, it felt to many Americans, not always for the same reasons, as though a great deal was being stolen from them: their jobs, their co-workers, a sense of justice and fairness in the world, predictable weather, the idea of America, the people they love, human touch. The January 6th Report offers no shuddering sense, not even a little shiver, of the national mood of vulnerability, fear, and sorrow. “The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a cruel and shocking act of violence directed against a man, a family, a nation, and against all mankind,” the Warren Commission Report opens. Nothing in the January 6th report is stated so squarely.

    Why believe? During the pandemic, more people spent more time online than ever before. The report fails to examine the way in which Facebook and Twitter profited by spreading misinformation about the election, providing the organizational architecture for the insurrection, and making possible the doxing and harassment of courageous and dedicated public servants who refused to participate in the conspiracy. When Trump staffers tell him that allegations of fraud are unfounded, he replies, “You guys may not be following the internet the way I do.” Nor did the committee.

    Why believe? Every single television and news outlet that reported live on Election Day, 2020, knew about the Red Mirage, and although some news anchors regularly pointed out that the outcome would not be known for days, they were nevertheless complicit in promoting the fiction of a Trump victory: simply by reporting, second by second, on November 3, 2020, they endorsed the idea that the outcome could be known that night even though they knew it to be untrue. The committee does not remark on this. Nor does it indict the media-run polls and horse-race coverage—vastly greater in number, speed, and influence than ever before, or the growing partisanship of the press. Nor does it inquire into the consequences of an educated national élite of politicians, journalists, and academics increasingly living their lives in a Met Gala to Davos to White House Correspondents’ Dinner world, or the degree to which so many of them appear to have so wholly given themselves over to Twitter—knowing the world through it, reporting from it, being ruled by it.

    Why believe? The answer to that question—the knowledge of what has happened to America—will have to wait for another day. From beneath the Capitol dome, the January 6th Committee has issued its report. It blames Trump. It explains very little. Outside, the whirling wind heaves and twists and roars. ♦

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