“This is a picture of things going a little out of hand. This is a sculpture of a couple of things we've gotta get straight.”
The Jan. 6 committee produced a pretty good TV miniseries and a report that – despite its length – left a fair amount to be desired.
This week’s soundtrack: Shellac - “This Is A Picture
Friday marked the two-year anniversary of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a little over two miles from where I sit right now. I’ll save you my memory of that day and point you to the podcast we did at work the week after; I don’t feel markedly different about the actual day-of and the way I feel as a D.C. resident.
A few weeks before the two-year anniversary of the attack, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol wrapped up its business and released its final, giant report (800ish pages) and a slew of transcripts.
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There is part of me – both as a journalist and as a person who cares about American democracy – that wishes that the report and the committee got half the coverage of the other nonsense that the TV media covers (I have genuine disdain for TV news and the way that it drives all over media coverage). Whatever the committee’s (and thus, the report’s) flaws, Jan. 6 was a fundamental assault on American democracy and the culmination of the Trump years insomuch as it was an attempt to break all the otherwise agreed-upon notions of the transfer of power.
The other part of me – the journalist who understands audience habits and the person who lives in the world – knows that this coverage would fly like a lead balloon. I know that each day that we get away from Jan. 6, 2021, the less that we’re likely to care about it. And more than that, I know that a significant portion of the electorate – as high as 40% in some surveys – believes that the insurrection is already overcovered. This makes my head hurt, but people believe what they believe.
The report and the committee are – all things equal – pretty good and I’m glad that they exist. My criticisms are as much criticisms of our bent world as they are of the committee and report.
My main concern with the report is that it does not address the law enforcement failures in the runup to Jan. 6. In fact, the report itself makes an excuse for this:
But the shortfall of communications, intelligence and law enforcement around January 6th was much less about what they did or did not know. It was more about what they could not know.
You may remember that the Secret Service has been less than cooperative about what the agency knew and when before the attack, but the report notes that other law enforcement aspects of the federal government (and the U.S. Capitol Police and local D.C. police) had information upon which it did not act. The FBI office in Norfolk issued an alert on Jan. 5, the D.C. DHS office sent a warning to the Executive Branch and so on. The report, in crafting its narrative of the day, doesn’t entirely absolve law enforcement, but it definitely did not train its magnifying glass too closely on the levels of cop here in D.C. (if you weren’t aware, D.C. is the most-policed community in the U.S.).
I’m not shy in my views about policing in this country (the culture of policing is noxious and police are too protected within the court system and in culture. Hence qualified immunity and the proliferation of boot-licking TV like SVU. ) and I’m hardly a hardliner – I’m not an abolitionist – about policing. But, it strikes me as abundantly obvious that if any police supporters/thin blue line types believe that cops exist to prevent crime, then the slew of police that patrol D.C. (and their bosses people up and down the law enforcement agencies) severely screwed up that day. The oft-cited notion that D.C. is used to peaceful protest, while valuable before the 2016 election, was proven wrong with the violence in Jan. 2017, Charlottesville and its aftermath, etc. In fact, the spring of 2020 saw massive peaceful protests in D.C. in which the cops unleashed tear gas on protestors; there is no way that six months later, these cops could say “we were prepared for tear gassing people calling for justice because they are scarier than strapped up Trump supporters.” Not in good faith.
Connected to this is the culture itself of policing, which is a complicated thing insomuch as it’s hard to pin down. I tooted about this on Friday (Mastodon is weird, but Twitter is noxious):
There’s a far longer conversation to be had about policing holding up white structure, but that is a concept I am pretty sure the committee wasn’t about to get into because, as I also said on Mastodon, that hits a little close to home to the GOPers on the committee.
Instead, the report mostly blamed Jan. 6 on Trump and his retinue. I don’t think this is bad on its face, but I do think it’s lacking. The reductive nature of this is all throughout our culture and I think it’s part of why Trump was elected in the first place; our tendency toward normalcy bias (Jessica Wildfire has a heated, if pretty good analysis of this here) is very strong. My business is lousy with normalcy bias, but so is the entirety of the D.C. ~industry~ or whatever. There was optimism from his election until Jan. 6 that Trump would snap to normalcy or that the office would make him a more conventional president. So many people wanted him to be normal that when he did sorta normal things as president (bombing Syria), analysts tried to fit him into the proverbial round hole of the presidency.
And Trump was not normal, nor was his election ( in the political sense, but I do want to remind people that he’s a deeply weird man). He doesn’t care about norms or rules. He (and his administration) took advantage of loopholes (going up to the line with the Vacancies Act. Or beyond it) or rules without consequences (the emoluments clause). To this day, he’s relying on the lack of speed of our judicial system – especially with appeals! – to run out the clock on the obvious lawbreaking done with regards to mishandling of classified documents.
This is not normal! It’s bad! It’s illegal, it’s norm-breaking and it has obliterated any semblance of good faith politicking and governance. My business – and the country – did too much hoping for normalcy to point this out, often in the service of unbiased journalism or analysis.
(I should note here that I understand this. I mentioned I know a little bit about audience stuff and the too-far-gone aspect of our political culture is that Trump does have a lot of support and any journalist who criticizes him gets an earful. Trump’s fans are not shy about yelling at, emailing or even threatening journalists. It has a chilling effect to get death threats – as I have– after you criticize the big man, but even just getting angry emails about how you’re so biased because you point out facts like election numbers or COVID-19 science – COVID skeptics and Trump supporters are not a perfect circle of a Venn Diagram, but they overlap a lot in said diagram – has a chilling effect. No one likes it when people don’t like them, especially the people who validate your work. Journalists should be better than that, thick skin-wise, but we’re humans.)
The committee was unconstrained by that unbiased journalism stuff and much has been said about former Rep. Liz Cheney nuking her career in the GOP, but the committee perhaps couldn’t – or didn’t want to – explore the anti-government sentiment that lead to Trump’s ascension in the political sphere. Ronald Reagan famously said “The top 9 most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the government, and I'm here to help,’” setting the stage for a government-by-attrition (minus the military budget going up every year) culture that continues to this day. “Deep state,” “swamp” and so on. It identifies government as the problem, though mostly within the context of government being “the other party” (or “whoever I don’t like,” in the Trumpism construct) because Americans don’t exactly have an idea of what government even does.
Trump used this language to get elected and his fascistic tendencies meant that the “deep state” rhetoric metastasized within his followers to mean anyone who crossed him, including Mike Pence. Trumpism itself is a form of paranoid fascism and, as such, the beast always needs to feed on enemies; Kevin McCarthy learned that last week when he – a Trump loyalist – was called a “the biggest alligator in the swamp” by someone who is more loyal to the big guy than even McCarthy is.
Trump didn’t invent this anti-government sentiment, nor is he the cause of the American political conversation’s degradation. Domestic anti-government terrorism was the biggest concern in the 1990s and, as mentioned above, the 2009 DHS report identified it and was quickly pushed aside because Islamic terrorism is easier for Americans to fear than their own (white) neighbors. It is from this mélange that Trumpism came, but that kind of mélange begs introspection and the report doesn't do a lot of that. It just makes Trump the proverbial Big Bad.
And, ultimately, that’s my biggest disappointment with the committee and the report. Having read a bunch of the interview transcripts, Ginni Thomas’ sticks out because she is a very prominent conservative and she literally uses the word “vibes” about election fraud in one answer, while also telling the committee that she believes the U.S. is a nation of laws and a justice system. These two things do not make sense in any rational way, but man, they do if you’re stuck in your own narrative bubble that you “heard” that Trump was gonna win.
While I understand why the hearings themselves were this way, I was very disappointed in the report’s thesis – Trump is the main and, basically, only villain – and its narrative. There is a strong argument to be made – especially in a TV-centric culture and definitely during the televised hearings – that this construction is understandable because the heroes and villains narrative is the only effective way to counter the heroes and villains narrative that created the problem itself. For the hearings, TV was the place to do this and the public – not a nuanced group with a lot of attention span for larger time scales or sprawling systemic issues – watching on TV was more likely to stay rapt if storytelling was the focus. And, so it was and the committee even hired a former TV news producer to make the storytelling compelling, like making each hearing like an episode of a docuseries (with a singular focus and starring roles and so on). I get it. For the hearings.
For the report… less so. While the hearings are certainly history, the report is that which will be studied in the halls of think thanks, of government and in the academy. It is the long-lasting product of the committee for history itself more than the TV show is. The 9/11 commission – while a commission and not a Congressional committee, it did have some public moments on TV – has a legacy of a report that remains to this day. The Jan. 6 report did not have the same focus, nor will it serve history as well.
(I write this as news is trickling out that the new Congress is planning on a series of – certainly made-for-TV – hearings that will counter the Jan. 6 hearings about the “weaponization” of government. Members of Congress who were involved in the fake electors scheme – namely, Scott Perry and Andy Biggs – almost certainly will be involved, which is about as massive a conflict of interest as I can imagine. It is almost an insult to the country that such a thing is happening, but I say “almost” simply because not enough people care and/or there are enough people who believe the lie that the election was stolen and that Perry/Biggs/Jordan/etc. are somehow in the right.)
The heroes and villains narrative loses the important forward-thinking aspects of such a report. There are recommendations in the report, but they are thin as compared to what can and will come. Yes, the committee sent criminal referrals to the Department of Justice and that’s not nothing, but those criminal referrals are a good example of fighting the last war. Putting Steve Bannon in jail won’t fix the weak or nonexistent guardrails like legislation, executive actions and statute would. There will be another Steve Bannon. Just like there will be another Donald Trump. Recommending, at the very least, ways to close the loopholes and codify the gentlemen’s agreements that have dictated presidential transitions (and elections) are as important as outline what happened. If you don’t learn from the past, then what was this? Other than a TV show and an ad for the Democrats’/the anti-Trump GOP’s morel high ground? Being right – and being proud of it – isn’t going to save the American republic. Actually doing something will.
The United States, as mentioned above, has been in the throes of a very tenuous grip on a civilization (one example: our relationship to guns is such that “everyone being strapped up means everyone is safer” is an actual viewpoint of a huge percentage of this country). We’re decidedly bereft of social capital, a key public good within any political culture. I often go back to Bowling Alone as a foundational text; the media, technology and political environment has basically destroyed the fundamental notion of why humans agglomerate in societies. If we can’t take care of one another, if we can’t trust one another without violence, if we can’t put in actionable rules regarding those who exploit others, if we can’t agree as to the role of the umpires (cops), if we bow to the worst of Umberto Eco’s nightmares… how do we even run a society?
There are many more aspects of this (the unremarkableness of the U.S. in the global authoritarian turn, the effects of globalism on the population, why people go towards strong leaders, etc.), but last week, I promised I wouldn’t ramble and I’ve gone way over my word limit already. So, let’s move to the parts of this newsletter about which you actually care.
Since the pandemic, grocery stores have had to adapt by doing the drive-up thing. This makes my life a lot easier because I can bring Lulu to pick up groceries and she absolutely loves going for rides in the car.
I also got a new blanket for my couch and she took possession of it immediately, as dogs are wont to do.
Our show came back last week from our Christmas/New Years break with some very solid shows. I’m particularly happy with the one we did about the Jan. 6 report, as I thought out a lot of the above essay after the mics weren’t hot with Courtney after we finished recording.
A Recommendation: Grocery Pickup
In addition to the ability to bring my dog with me, I have become a big fan of grocery pickup. It’s got the convenience of Instacart shopping without the guilt of abject exploitation that is rampant (I go to the local Giant and Safeway, both of which are union shops). I don’t do it every time, as I enjoy picking out my own produce, but it’s great for the packaged stuff.
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