If Trump can still run for President in 2024, are the January 6th hearings meaningless?
Is there meaningful historical context or precedent to be set?
Today the House Select Committee will hold their fourth of six public hearings investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on America’s Capitol. While details continue to surface about what Trump’s inner circle communicated to the twice impeached President and how the Justice department is processing 840 defendants who have been arrested in connection to the insurrection, a few thoughts on how this political moment relates to similar antecedents:
In the rarely discussed War of 1812:
On June 25, [Rear Admiral George Cockburn] wrote to [Vice Admiral Sir Alexander] Cochrane stressing that the defenses [at Chesapeake Bay] were weak, and he felt that several major cities were vulnerable to attack. Cochrane suggested attacking Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia. Rear Admiral Cockburn accurately predicted that "within a short period of time, with enough force, we could easily have at our mercy the capital". He had recommended Washington as the target, because of the comparative ease of attacking the national capital and "the greater political effect likely to result.” Major General Ross was less optimistic. He "never dreamt for one minute that an army of 3,500 men with 1,000 marines reinforcement, with no cavalry, hardly any artillery, could march 50 miles inland and capture an enemy capital"
..never dreamt for one minute that:
From the White House Historical Association’s account of that moment in history:
Even though Washington had no strategic significance for the British military, the commander and chief of the North American station, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, had it in mind to give the American “a complete drubbing.” It would avenge the excesses of American who had plundered and burned public and private buildings the year before in York (modern Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. Above all, seizing the capital would humiliate and demoralize American and, as a bonus, might even lead to the disintegration of the United States. Early warning signs that Washington would be targeted went unheeded, even though the British press had openly speculated on the fate of the American capital. Little action was taken..
The nation was not even 50 years old when the White House was set ablaze. The British wanted vengeance for prior American actions, which the United States did not think justified such barbarism. The code of conduct American leaders claim was violated by the British was even violated by its own people as noted in the White House Historical Association’s account, which not so subtly condemns the looters who plundered the White House after the British left.
More than 200 years after that war, America’s Capital was left (practically) undefended and was laid siege by an angry, undisciplined and easily duped mob convinced the 2020 election was stolen. I am inclined to speculate that many in that rabble believed Trump was robbed of his reelection as retaliation for Trump’s detractors refusing to accept his supporters put him in the White House, not Russia.
Yet the historical parallel only goes so far. Despite intelligence indicating a potential attack, American defenses did not adequately prepare. Similar to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, a security breakdown does not by itself shake the foundation of a constitutional democracy. Those who advocated and actively support the January 6th Commission want all of America to be hypervigilant that democracy not be stolen by Trump and his ilk. Yet, that perspective feels like an overreach. The Constitution and American state laws have built-in backup measures in place if its citizens choose to continue the representative democracy experiment.
Security breakdowns on a national scale do however force a nation to look at itself or lash outwardly in rage. The War of 1812 defined the scope of American territorial ambitions and evolved the American relationship with Great Britain. Pearl Harbor effectively ended any remnant popular insular political views of politicians not wanting to be embroiled in foreign affairs and put the United States on a soon to be century-long path of global hegemony in the name of humanitarianism and democracy. September 11 led to forever wars with an unrecognized body count; and while American intelligence and military forces continue to coordinate resources to fight Islamic jihadists, the United States has not been as effective in fighting domestic terrorism. On January 6, Trump personified and catalyzed culturally downtrodden rage simmering and wanting to boil over. In the mobs’ eyes, America lost itself and though it objectively remains unclear where the US is heading, it’s not an America that wants them, the ‘real Americans’ to be in it. Is genuine socioeconomic progress leaving this part of America behind? It would seem this subset of the American populace is being stoked and suppressed simultaneously. Trump did not win 70+ million votes in 2020 because of Russia. And he did not sway millions of votes in 2016 throughout the Rust Belt (specifically Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania) just because he was not Hillary Clinton.
While President Madison led troops during the War of 1812, President Trump led an insurrection without ever taking any responsibility (to date).
Prior to the January 6th hearings, President Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for his role but was spared by the Republicans in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell after his dubious Nay impeachment vote:
Former President Trump's actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty. Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.
Without quoting Constitutional law and referencing legal opinion, Congress by design is meant to be a check on an Executive abuse of power. Not entirely unique from how a Democratic Senate would not pursue the impeachment of President Reagan for his undoubted involvement in the blatantly illegal Iran Contra affair, the rule of law and the cardinal balance of power which can forever make American democracy the shining beacon of hope it purports to be was abandoned.
From the Oval Office, Reagan told the nation:
A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.
America bought/forgave that duplicity. The Gipper was beloved. His predecessor, Richard Nixon, was not.
In the past week, there were quite a few articles on the 50th anniversary of Watergate - the watershed sociopolitical event that indelibly shaped American culture ever since. Nixon wanted to win at any cost, which in his defense was not a vice only he held. But beyond his intentional actions to break the law to maintain power, I have to imagine (having not lived in the 1970s) that his utter lack of charisma was part of his deathknell. Yet, as unlikable and contemptible as Nixon was, he at least could say in his farewell speech:
..greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you're really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes because only if you've been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.
In contrast to, without any evidence, President Trump blatantly deceiving his remaining supporters and telling them to “fight like hell.”
The hearings, as designed, cannot and will not ensure Presidential accountability. Nor will it suppress an unquenchable thirst for power. The former must be considered as seriously in doubt of becoming a reality anytime soon, and the latter is only too damn human. Had Nixon not resigned, there is every reason to believe multiple members of his own political party would have voted to impeach him in the House and Senate. But what if he was as charismatic (and politically potent) as Reagan was to blue-collar workers or Trump continues to be to the ‘forgotten America’?
What clearly separates Trump from Reagan and Nixon though is his predecessors’ desire to keep the political class intact. Nixon would have broken every law in the book to stay in power, had an enemies list and was never held to account for expanding and extending the Vietnam war; but he didn’t bring down the political class and was allowed to live his remaining days as an elder statesman. Reagan upon his death was discussed by Democratic and Republican media figures alike as one of America’s 10 greatest Presidents with no mention of Iran Contra (of course).
Trump during his 2016 campaign, while serving his one (and I surely hope only) term in the Oval Office and to this very day continues to tell the entire DC establishment - Fuck you! And while many Republicans like McConnell are not publicly disavowing him entirely, Trump’s ‘enemies’ are showing their rage and wanting to capitalize politically on his contempt for order via now 2 Presidential elections, the January 6th Commission and beyond.
Donald Trump is the center of the January 6th Select Committee hearings while the Justice Department pursues cases against more than 800 Americans who have been arrested for their involvement in January 6th. The final Congressional report is projected to be released in the Fall of 2022 (just prior to the Congressional midterm elections). If Trump is not directly implicated in any crime, his return to the White House could very well gain momentum in the aftermath. And if Democrats brandish a limp accusation as a prominent 2022 campaign theme, Republicans will almost certainly carry their 2022 midterm election gains into the 2024 election cycle (absent a political reckoning within the Democratic party).
While my logical brain knows the January 6th Committee only recently started hearings, it feels as if they have been going on for months. Likely because Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announced she planned to form a Committee on February 15, 2021 and it’s a bit baffling as to how it would take nearly a year after the Select Committee was announced on July 1, 2021 for evidence to be collected for a very public and heavily covered event. Now, given a potentially impending economic recession, an ongoing war which America claims not to be directly involved with but will continuously fund with US taxpayer dollars, gas and food prices escalating to heart attack levels and mass shootings once again gripping the little sanity the nation was holding onto, it’s hard to understand the value of these hearings in the moment.
As a result of the final report, it will not be surprising if Congressional security will be beefed up as America witnessed firsthand happen at airports post-9/11. But the check on Executive power which resides in the Legislative branch already exists. It wasn’t enforced. And it is noteworthy that those who support this Commission did not publicly advocate as fiercely that the 2016 Electoral College exert their power to prevent a potential demagogue from seizing Executive power, which is literally why that group exists. Continual legislative behavior that places a political premium on the moment over long-term stability negates a meaningful precedent from taking hold.
However, if the Select Committee found a way to harness the findings from their investigation to accomplish something more than political gamesmanship, America could be on better footing. The stated purposes of the January 6th Select Committee (bold text by me):
(1) To investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances, and causes relating to the January 6, 2021, domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex (hereafter referred to as the “domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol”) and relating to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power, including facts and causes relating to the preparedness and response of the United States Capitol Police and other Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies in the National Capital Region and other instrumentalities of government, as well as the influencing factors that fomented such an attack on American representative democracy while engaged in a constitutional process.
(2) To examine and evaluate evidence developed by relevant Federal, State, and local governmental agencies regarding the facts and circumstances surrounding the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol and targeted violence and domestic terrorism relevant to such terrorist attack.
(3) To build upon the investigations of other entities and avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts by reviewing the investigations, findings, conclusions, and recommendations of other executive branch, congressional, or independent bipartisan or nonpartisan commission investigations into the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol, including investigations into influencing factors related to such attack.
I purposefully am highlighting that which is not directly related to the attack on the Capitol and focusing on that which relates to the attack. Domestic terrorism was institutionalized after the Civil War by groups like the KKK in the Jim Crow era. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States correctly viewed Islamic jihadists hellbent on killing Americans (and others) as enemies of democracy. But centuries of vigilante justice dating back to the killing of Native Americans to ‘settle new land’ continues to this day to blind the whole of the American political class from recognizing white domestic terrorism as more than a ‘few bad apples.’ In a nation with hundreds of mass shootings per year, take a look at how many of those mass shooters cite the same racist garbage as a moral defense of utterly despicable murders. When armed protesters in Michigan took to the statehouse in 2020, any rational person watching the news knew full-well what would have been the media (and political) reaction if the majority of those gun-wielding Michiganders were black and brown.
Last year in June 2021, the White House released a report entitled the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. The report honestly characterizes actions dating back to Jim Crow until many mass shootings of the present as domestic terrorism. Addressing the cultural dissonance that enables such domestic terrorism to continue perhaps is outside the purview of the January 6 hearings; but removing the political weaponization of their findings in the 2022 elections and framing the findings as a national dilemma to be addressed could have long-lasting benefits to American democracy, which the Committee claims to value above all else. The White House report, broken down into 4 pillars with context and strategic goals, is a worthy primer:
Understand and share domestic terrorism–related information
Prevent domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence
Disrupt and deter domestic terrorism activity
Confront long–term contributors to domestic terrorism
It is too soon to know what effect the January 6th Commission will have on American politics and culture, but the most terrifying potential backlash from its touted self-righteousness will be neo-fascist in character. Domestic terrorism is rooted deep in American culture; the rule of law has evolved to subdue the flames of bigotry but only if they continue to be applied universally, not politically.
..to learn more about January 6 investigations: