The January 6 hearings aren’t acknowledging the elephant in the room | Thomas Zimmer

The January 6 hearings have been more impressive and more forceful than anyone could have reasonably expected – definitely worthy of the nation’s continued prime-time attention. Yet so far the hearings have been narrowly focused on Donald Trump and the past – rather than the continuing assault on the democratic system that the Republican party has fully embraced.

The committee’s core task is to investigate the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and what led to it, of course. But everyone who believes in democracy needs to recognize that, in a very concrete sense, there is a continuing insurrection that far surpasses Trump.

The committee’s strategy of building its case almost entirely on testimony from Trump people, Republicans, and conservatives, not Democrats, is certainly effective if the goal is to prove the nonpartisan nature of the proceedings. But it runs the risk of letting too many people besides Trump off the hook. The narrative is that there was a “Team Normal” in and around the White House that moved away from Trump as he went increasingly off the rails, isolating him and leaving him with only “Team Crazy” and the likes of an allegedly drunk Rudy Giuliani, a rather unhinged Sidney Powell, and a rightwing lawyer, John Eastman, who seemed entirely willing to invent pseudo-legal reasons to justify a coup attempt.

It is important to get insight into these inner dynamics. But the group of people who were deeply complicit in Trump’s machinations is a lot bigger than Team Crazy. A tale that presents not only Mike Pence, but also former attorney general William Barr, Trump’s campaign manager Bill Stepien, and even Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, undoubtedly members of Trump’s innermost circle, as part of Team Good Guys (or at least: Team Normal, Team Reasonable) is problematic. All of them stood with Trump almost to the bitter end and fought long and hard to keep him in charge; Pence undoubtedly played a crucial role in thwarting Trump’s scheme, but none of the others spoke out publicly until, in the case of Barr, they had a revelatory book to promote and were looking for redemption.

Most worrisome, to me, is the fact that the “Team Crazy was isolated” narrative doesn’t really capture the danger of the moment. If that had been the case, we wouldn’t be where we are. If anything, Republicans have actually rallied around Team Trump. So far, the villains in the committee’s tale are Trump, a very small number of unhinged people around him, and fascistic militants like the Proud Boys. Even most of the people who stormed the Capitol are presented as deluded, deceived by Trump’s lies into believing the election was stolen and that it was their patriotic duty to fight back.

These are all important parts of the puzzle. But the immediate danger to American democracy stems from the fact that the Republican party is justifying all this, remains united behind the man responsible, and, worst of all, actually wants to put him back in power. This is about Trump, but not just about Trump. This is what the Republican party is: the very few voices siding against Trumpism are being shunned and ostracized, and most Republicans are united in their quest to install authoritarian rule by a reactionary minority.

And even if conservatives aren’t necessarily on board with all the specifics of Trump’s conspiracy claims, the right in general is united behind the idea that progressives are out to destroy “real” America and must be stopped by whatever means. White conservatives consider themselves the sole proponents of “real America” and therefore entitled to rule, as is the party that focuses almost solely on their interests and sensibilities.

This is the basis on which 147 congressional Republicans voted to overturn the election results even after the assault on the Capitol. This is why the Republican party officially defended the violent attack of January 6 as “legitimate political discourse” and lashed out against the few Republicans who publicly dared to object. This is why Republicans are either explicitly running on the big lie or, at the very least, are lending legitimacy to the idea that there was something wrong with the 2020 election.

This is, most importantly, the ideology that animates Republicans up and down the country to look at January 6 as what one of the witnesses in the third hearing, conservative Judge J Michael Luttig, rightfully called a “blueprint” in his closing statement: a trial run for the next presidential election in 2024. They are working hard at the state level to get themselves in a position to execute that blueprint more effectively. They have escalated their election subversion efforts into an all-out assault on state election systems. Republican-led state legislatures are re-writing the rules so that they will have more influence on future elections. Local officials who defended the democratic process are being harassed, purged from election commissions, and replaced with loyal Trumpists.

And how are the people the hearings present as Team Normal, as standing up to Trump’s coup attempt, dealing with all this? Take Bill Barr: he’s on record saying he would vote for Trump in 2024. In his testimony for the committee as well as in his book, Barr has left no doubt that he believes Trump is either willfully pushing treasonous conspiracy theories or is completely detached from reality – yet Barr is still willing to help put him back in the White House.

Barr’s ability to rationalize this astonishing balancing act is the main reason I am skeptical that the hearings, by focusing narrowly on Trump, could succeed at turning Republicans away from him. When confronted with how he could possibly still support another Trump presidency during his book promotion tour earlier this year, Barr replied: “Because I believe that the greatest threat to the country is the progressive agenda being pushed by the Democratic party.” There it is: after everything we have been through, conservatives still see the Democrats (or progressives, or liberals, or the left – they see them as interchangeable) as the biggest threat.

This is the perfect encapsulation of the permission structure that governs conservative politics: anything is justified in defense against what they constantly play up as a radically “un-American,” extremist “left” that has supposedly taken over the Democratic party. What could the hearings possibly deliver – considering that much of Trump’s involvement in the insurrection happened out in the open, in plain sight – that the right hasn’t either already mythologized as part of a fully justified struggle to protect “real America” against a fundamentally illegitimate “left,” or, at the very least, is willing to endorse as the lesser evil? If someone is still on Team Trump in June 2022 – and that includes all those who would love to present themselves as “Team Normal” but are willing to put Trump back in power – we should assume they have found an effective way of giving themselves permission to stay on Team Trump no matter what, Bill Barr style, and to side with the radicalizing Republican party against democracy.

We need to acknowledge that that’s where Republicans are: they either subscribe to the big lie outright; or they feel queasy about the specifics of the big lie, but consider Democratic governance illegitimate nonetheless; or, at the very least, they think anything is justified to defeat “the left”. The committee needs to communicate this unsettling reality to the American people, because that, in Judge Luttig’s words, is the “clear and present danger to American democracy.” Even if it initially failed, that’s how Trump’s coup attempt might still succeed.

In 2020, the historian Heather Cox Richardson published a book on How the South Won the Civil War. It should be required reading for this particular moment in American politics. Richardson argues that while the Confederacy obviously lost the military confrontation, the broader ideology it was built on, the idea that the world works best when it is dominated by wealthy white men, and that only those wealthy white men are therefore entitled to rule, continued to shape the American project, and is still the leading threat to true democracy in this country today. I worry, to build on the title of Richardson’s book, that future historians might have to write about How the Insurrectionists Won the Presidency.

  • Thomas Zimmer is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, focused on the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States, and a Guardian US contributing opinion writer


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