COMMENTARY

That wrenching Jan. 6 testimony — and why the forces of fascism must deny it

Members of the MAGA cult have surrendered all notions of truth and reality — and they know our outrage will fade

By Chauncey DeVega
Published July 29, 2021 9:46AM (EDT)
U.S. Capitol Police, Michael Fanone, right, looks on as U.S. Capitol Police officer Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, left, testifies before the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on July 27, 2021 at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC. (Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. Capitol Police, Michael Fanone, right, looks on as U.S. Capitol Police officer Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, left, testifies before the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on July 27, 2021 at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC. (Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images)

During Tuesday's House select committee hearing on the events of Jan. 6, four police officers shared what it was like to battle Donald Trump's attack force on that dreadful day.

Here is the big picture. In the most documented crime in human history, thousands of Trump's followers overran the Capitol. They assaulted police officers and other law enforcement agents, beating them with clubs, crushing them with doors (and their own riot shields), broke their bones, electrocuted them and verbally abused them, in some cases with racist epithets. 

One officer who was there described Jan. 6 as akin to a medieval battle with hand-to-hand combat. Trump's attack force was possessed by bloodlust, acting like the ghouls in George Romero's cult classic film "The Crazies." Through the use of stochastic terrorism, as well as open calls for violence Trump and his allies ordered the attack on the Capitol. Believing themselves to be "patriots," Trump's followers enthusiastically obeyed. Some were Christian fascists who convinced themselves that they were doing God's work as members of what some observers have called "Vanilla ISIS."

Capitol Police and other law enforcement officers gave their best full measure to stop Trump's attack force. It was not enough, as the Trumpists eventually overran the Capitol building's defenses. Once inside, they hoped to find Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other leading Democrats deemed to be the "enemy." The apparent goal was to abduct or murder them in order to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election.

If Trump's attack force had come with firearms or explosives, it's conceivable that many members of Congress would have been killed or incapacitated, making a congressional quorum impossible. In the ultimate nightmare scenario, gubernatorial appointments or special elections would would have been necessary for Congress to conduct its business. While that played out, the federal government would have been virtually paralyzed, and Joe Biden could not have been certified or inaugurated as president. Donald Trump could then have invoked the Insurrection Act and declared martial law, in hopes of remaining in power indefinitely.

At the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne Jr. summarized this: "What happened on January 6 was monstrous, the product of a dangerous, anti-democratic sickness haunting parts of the American right. This is the sort of event that a free nation must come to terms with, not ignore; investigate, not sweep under the rug; and understand, not dismiss as a one-off display of violence. That's why this committee's work is so important".

And here is the smaller, more personal pictureAs he fought to defend the Capitol and the people inside, D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone was repeatedly electrocuted with a taser and beaten into unconsciousness. He suffered a heart attack, a traumatic brain injury, a concussion and other lifelong debilitating injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fanone told the committee, "Although I regularly deal with risky situations on the job, nowhere in my wildest imagination did I ever expect to be in that situation, or sitting here before you talking about it. ... What makes the struggle harder and more painful is to know so many of my fellow citizens, including so many of the people I put my life at risk to defend, are downplaying or outright denying what happened. ... I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room. But too many are now telling me that hell doesn't exist or that hell actually wasn't that bad. ... The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful."

Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell testified that he confronted death on Jan. 6 and was thinking, "This is how I'm going to die, defending this entrance." He told the committee, "We fought hand-to-hand and inch-by-inch to prevent an invasion of the Capitol by a violent mob intent on subverting our democratic process." When he returned home, he said, "I had to push away my wife from me because she wanted to hug me. And I told her 'no' because of all the chemicals [on] my uniform. I couldn't sleep because the chemicals reactivated after I took a shower, and my skin was still burning."

D.C. Metro Officer Daniel Hodges told the committee how he was crushed between two doors and could not breathe. He was in such severe respiratory distress that he began to foam at the mouth while insurrectionists beat him in the head with his own weapon. Hodges testified he had "no doubt" that the Trump attack force would kill members of Congress if they had an opportunity to do so. He also said that Trumpists told him and other law enforcement officers, "You will die on your knees".

Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn reported battling Trump attackers inside the building, where he tried to prevent them from breaching the House chamber. Dunn, who is Black, testified that several members of Trump's attack force called him racial slurs: "One woman in a pink MAGA shirt yelled, 'You hear that, guys, this n***er voted for Joe Biden!' Then the crowd, perhaps around 20 people, joined in, screaming 'Boo! Fucking n***er!' No one had ever —ever — called me a 'n***er' while wearing the uniform of a Capitol Police officer." 

Dunn, Fanone, Gonell and Hodges are heroes and role models, both because of the courage and selflessness they showed on Jan. 6 and for the humility and personal bravery they exemplified during Tuesday's committee hearing.

On Twitter, I wrote something like this: "I hope that the people watching the January 6 testimony by these 4 police officers realize that they are witnessing greatness. Poise. Humility. Bravery. Dignity. That is the type of heroism I respect. Please explain this to your children. These men are real role-models."

Predictably, denizens of TrumpWorld and the MAGAverse do not see these men and the other officers who battled the Trumpists on Jan. 6 in the same light. Instead, Trump's propagandists have shamelessly attacked these officers' reputations, sense of duty and heroic sacrifice. The right-wing echo chamber even continues to circulate the blatant lie that Trump's attack force comprised of "tourists," that Jan. 6 was just a "normal day" and that the violent attack against democracy has been exaggerated.

The right-wing disinformation machine also makes contradictory claims — often an effective propaganda strategy — simultaneously arguing that the dreadful events of Jan. 6 did not happen in the manner we all perceived them, and also that the police officers who testified before the House select committee are "crisis actors" who were being overly "dramatic."

Of course, Donald Trump and his mouthpieces want his followers to believe that Jan. 6 was some kind of love-fest, rather than a fascist attack on the country's democracy and the rule of law.

These TrumpWorld and MAGAverse fantasies are utterly predictable and unsurprising. Fascism is a belief system in which social and political deviance is normalized. Truth and reality become functions of the Great Leader's will and his changing needs. A depraved indifference to human life becomes part of the broader embrace of antisocial behavior and other pathologies, including mass violence and other forms of destruction.

Fascist movements also involve the surrender of the self to the collective. The members and leaders swept up in such movements lose the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, reality from delusion. All these attributes are now visible in the Trumpist movement, today's Republican Party and the white right more generally.

Trumpists and other neofascists literally cannot perceive the heroism of Dunn, Fanone, Gonell, Hodges and the other police who defended the Capitol on Jan. 6 because empirical reality and moral clarity have been made secondary to Donald Trump's perceived needs and desires.

But these officers' testimony before Congress is more than an account of what happened on Jan. 6. It is also a type of time machine, a portal to a probable future. Law enforcement and other experts warn that right-wing terrorism remains the country's greatest domestic security threat, up to and including the possibility of a sustained insurgency or perhaps a second American civil war.

When another right-wing coup attempt occurs (along with other acts of domestic terrorism), the police and other members of law enforcement who tried to defend democracy will be interviewed. They will say much the same things as the officers did before Congress on Tuesday. As with the public reaction to mass shootings, our outrage at right-wing terrorism will gradually fade into the background, just another current of discordant noise in American culture. That may be literally how the fascists win.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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