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What the Future Will Remember About January 6th

by R. Anthony Arnold
September 2022

The January 6th investigation confirmed what many of us already knew. If you believed that former President Donald Trump committed, at minimum, shameful neglect and dereliction of duty, then you saw day after day of evidence supporting your case. Every new witness, every previously unknown fact, and every damning tidbit only served to further bolster your belief.

But, what if you went in believing something quite different? What if you believed that the former President, not only didn’t do anything wrong, but has been harassed by his political enemies?

In that case you also had your beliefs confirmed. What you saw were your political enemies, people intent on destroying what the former President built, using the mechanisms of government to unfairly target an adversary. Because of that, any “evidence” that they may have presented was not only unconvincing, but likely only further confirmed how illegitimate the entire process was.

Depending on where you started, one of the two scenarios described may represent how you feel, while the other one sounds ridiculous. The extreme divisions in our political discourse were always going to make coming to a consensus on very basic questions impossible. What happened? Who was responsible? What should the consequences be?

If the goal of the committee was to answer these questions in a way that would lead to a broad political consensus, then it failed. Not due to any particular flaw on its part, but because our political climate makes it impossible. However, that wasn’t the committee’s only goal, and it wasn’t even its most important one.

The events of January 6th were historic. That term is overused now, with far too many things being given false significance. But, it’s not out of place here. Just as some generations remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, or the Challenger shuttle exploded, people will remember where they were when they first saw footage of that day.

So, one of the goals for the committee was to create a historical record. To preserve evidence so that future generations could look at it with their own eyes, listen to testimony with their own ears, and reach their own conclusions; because they’ll have questions, and they’ll want to issue judgements.

Our politics are understandably trapped in the present. Every action, every news headline, is discussed with an eye towards short term impact. What will this mean for the midterms? The next special race? The next presidential election? At most, we see four years down the line, and frequently we don’t even see that far.

But with an event like this, our approach doesn’t work. Somewhere in the future, there’s going to be a reckoning for us. The Great American Experiment is weaker, now, than it’s been in a long time, and those who come after us will ask, “What did they do to protect it?” The committee, whatever its flaws, will be proof that when it mattered most, there were people who were willing to do the right thing.

Of course that doesn’t offer anything, right now. It may be comforting to believe you’re on the right side of the historical ledger, but that won’t help with the brutal and increasingly destructive politics of the present moment. And it’s worth focusing on that, because while I watched the committee and read all the updates, I kept being struck by a single thought.

“Tens of millions of people chose this, and would likely choose it again if given the chance.”

At this point, former President Trump has a decade-long history of challenging the legitimacy of elections. That may come as a surprise to people who are unfamiliar with his history, but I promise you, it’s true.

In 2012, he declared President Obama’s successful reelection a “sham,” a “disgusting injustice,” and said people should “fight like hell” and “march on Washington.” He questioned whether or not Obama had actually won the popular vote, and many of the statements he made then are similar to the ones he would make years later.

In the 2016 primary, he suggested Ted Cruz didn’t actually win Iowa, saying it was stolen from him; and weeks before the general election he said that election was “being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary,” preparing for what he, like many others, assumed would be a defeat.

Even after his victory, he continued to deny that he had actually lost the popular vote. He claimed, falsely, that the popular vote, in places like California and New York, was rigged, saying millions of illegal votes had occurred, going so far as to have his press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeat his lies to the press, and having him question something as basic as the crowd size in a photograph, a moment that was equal parts disturbing and farcical.

Of course, Trump’s election denying tendencies came to a head in the most recent election. Facing the fact that he lost, not just the popular vote, but the electoral count, he reacted as expected, and launched a full fledged campaign of denial and refusal, behavior consistent with how he’s acted over the years.

Former President Trump is a man whose ego, pride, and vanity make him incapable of admitting defeat, even when it’s been nearly two years, like now.

So, when nearly 63 million people voted for Trump in 2016, and 74 million voted for him in 2020, they were voting for a candidate with an undeniable history of wanting to undermine our democratic institutions. His belief that you should fight, even when you legitimately lose, was and is one of his primary draws.

One of the reasons why there’s been such a laser focus on the legality of what the former President did is because legal questions always seem so cut and dry. You either broke the law, and should face consequences, or you didn’t. But, the legal challenges of charging, arresting, and attempting to prosecute a former President are extreme. That doesn’t mean they’re insurmountable, but anyone advocating going that path shouldn’t be naive about them, either.

So, what should be done about this fact? The legal question doesn’t do anything to answer the primary problem we’re facing, which is that some substantial portion of our electorate is comfortable voting for a candidate, who is not only promising to try and destroy the very thing that makes choosing possible, but has encouraged others to do the same.

The January 6th committee may, or may not, have proved that Donald Trump is legally culpable for the events of that day. But, what it did show, and what’s always been true, is that Donald Trump was, and always will be, completely unsuited for the office of President. His beliefs and his behavior, stretching back at least a decade, paint a picture of a man who lacks the temperament needed for the job.

We shouldn’t demand that our leaders be saints, but we should never choose a leader who wants to gleefully tear down that which took centuries to build.