I admit it: I watched nearly every moment of the House committee extravaganzas on the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. I did more than that. I was transfixed. I couldn’t even multitask.
Were the mislabeled “hearings” beyond all criticism? Of course not. They were choreographed, but only mildly so; the production effort lent an orderliness that I appreciated. I accept the point that the presentations had nothing to say about FBI-informant intrigue if it took place. Such mischief has occurred in the past, and if credible allegations exist, they should be pursued vigorously. Of course, it wouldn’t let off the hook anyone who followed the directions of an agent provocateur. The same goes for other government misfeasance and malfeasance apart from Donald Trump’s.
Still, even given all that, I see no good grounds for dismissing the presentations as worthless partisanship. The reason ought to be obvious. The presentations enabled us to watch senior White House, Justice Department, and Trump campaign lawyers and other key staff describe Trump’s horrifying complacency as he entertained himself before, during, and after the violent outburst. Gruesomely riveting!
One need not be a small-D democrat to be concerned about what took place on January 6, 2021. The source of rational concern is not only the target of the violence. It is the violence itself. We’ve seen a good deal of domestic political violence in recent years, and I’m confident that no good would come from more. On the contrary, to the extent that violence becomes an acceptable political tactic, we will be in deep trouble. As Leonard E. Read, founding president of the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote in “On that Day Began Lies”:
Consider the mob. It is a loose-type association. The mob will tar and feather, burn at the stake, string up by the neck, and otherwise murder. But dissect this association, pull it apart, investigate its individual components. Each person, very often, is a God-fearing, home-loving, wouldn’t-kill-a-fly type of individual.
What happens, then? What makes persons in a mob behave as they do? What accounts for the distinction between these persons acting as responsible individuals and acting in association?
Perhaps it is this: These persons, when in mob association, and maybe at the instigation of a demented leader, remove the self-disciplines which guide them in individual action; thus the evil that is in each person is released, for there is some evil in all of us. In this situation, no one of the mobsters consciously assumes the personal guilt for what is thought to be a collective act but, instead, puts the onus of it on an abstraction which, without persons, is what the mob is.
Apart from the direct threat from the violence, we must also consider the secondary threat: namely, that of the government’s inevitable crackdown. If the violence becomes more widespread, average people will understandably demand safety, and the politicians will be only too happy to comply with less-than-discriminate force. A weak state response could prompt the emergence of a “strong leader,” a Bonaparte, who promises to restore order forthwith.
This is why the peaceful transfer of power after elections is desirable. To be sure, representative democracy places a distant second to complete and authentic individualist, free-market liberalism, but it beats gangs fighting in the streets.
So think back now to January 6. Trump clearly lost the election. His 60 attempts to persuade judges that the election had been stolen had failed. (Many of the judges were appointed by Trump or other Republican presidents.) He was told repeatedly by senior officials that he had appointed, from the attorney general on down, including expert investigators in election security, that he had no case — but to no avail. A conspiracy to perpetrate such an election fraud and its coverup would make any other alleged conspiracy look like child’s play.
Undeterred, Trump merely brought in a small group of toadies led by the faithful Rudy Giuliani to press his worthless case. Trump insisted he actually won the election by a landslide and set out to gaslight the American people into thinking there was something to that claim. Considering the lack of proof and all the contrary information he had been given, we are entitled to conclude that Trump never actually believed that he had been reelected. This was no delusion; rather I suspect it was merely a grand Trumpian scam that would surely rake in lots of money; it was also a what-the-hell longshot at retaining power. He apparently didn’t care about anything else. In other words, he was playing with fire. At best it was gross negligence.
When he got nowhere with his staff and the courts, he encouraged a mob, which he had every reason to think would be unruly, to gather in Washington, D.C., on the day that Congress was to certify the states’ electoral counts. Trump and his small circle worked every angle, including encouraging supporters to fraudulently pose as alternative electors in their states and trying to convince Vice President Mike Pence that he could exclude Biden electoral votes or at least delay Congress’s certification by sending the matter back to the states — when no vice president has any such power. Pence deserves credit here. I shudder to think what might have happened in the streets had Pence slavishly done what Trump pushed him to do.
The mob assembled as Trump requested, and he lifted their hopes that they could “stop the steal.” Informed that some supporters had weapons and so wouldn’t go through metal detectors for Trump’s speech, he told security to remove the detectors because “they’re not here to harm me.” Then he urged the mob to march to the Capitol. Tens of thousands did so, breaking through doors and windows and signaling that they meant to threaten or harm those who stood in their and Trump’s way. Thwarted by the Secret Service in his wish to go to the Capitol, Trump went back to the White House and watched the show from his dining room.
Repeated pleas by his staff that he call for an end to the riot fell on deaf ears. On the contrary, he tried to turn up the heat by condemning Pence on Twitter for his lack of courage. When his supporters chanted that Pence should be hanged, he was heard to say that maybe those supporters were onto something. Late in the day, when he finally made a video appeal to the rioters, he couldn’t resist telling them: “We love you…. You’re very special.”
All in all, this was a sad day that capped a sad few months — again, not because democracy is sacred, but because violence is uncontrollably toxic. Does the record establish Trump’s legal liability for incitement to violence? I am not qualified to say. Moreover, we who distrust political power must be wary of vaguely defined offenses that originate in speech.
But Trump does seem to have left himself open to charges related to his failure to secure the Capitol despite repeated desperate pleas and to his obvious attempts to obstruct Congress. It was at least a dereliction of duty. (I highly recommend Walter Olson’s “The Jan. 6 Committee’s Findings Have Met the Appropriately High Bar for Prosecuting Trump.”)
Mob violence isn’t the only thing to be feared in this world, but it ranks pretty high up there.