COMMENTARY

Jan. 6 hearings: A national civics lesson on the dangers of fascism

What we heard from Jamie Raskin and Jason Van Tatenhove this week was crucial public education. Will it be enough?

Published July 16, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Jason Van Tatenhove, who served as national spokesman for the Oath Keepers and as a close aide to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, testifies during the seventh hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on July 12, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Jason Van Tatenhove, who served as national spokesman for the Oath Keepers and as a close aide to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, testifies during the seventh hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on July 12, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The House Jan. 6 committee hearings are an act of public teaching: a civics lesson on a grand stage.

That was especially true of last Tuesday's hearing, with its truth-telling about race, violence, American history, power, psychology, and the escalating existential threat to the country represented by Donald Trump, the Republican-fascist movement and the larger white right.

In his opening statement that day, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland summoned up the words and wisdom of America's greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, in the context of the country's long struggle to become a multiracial "We the People" democracy. Describing the explosive events of Jan. 6, 2021, Raskin said:

Mr. Chairman, as you know better than any other member of this committee from the wrenching struggle for voting rights in your beloved Mississippi, the problem of politicians whipping up mob violence to destroy fair elections is the oldest domestic enemy of constitutional democracy in America.

Abraham Lincoln knew it too. In 1837, a racist mob in Alton, Illinois, broke into the offices of an abolitionist newspaper and killed its editor, Elijah Lovejoy. Lincoln wrote a speech in which he said that no transatlantic military giant could ever crush us as a nation, even with all of the fortunes in the world.

But if downfall ever comes to America, he said, we ourselves would be its author and finisher. If racist mobs are encouraged by politicians to rampage and terrorize, Lincoln said, they will violate the rights of other citizens and quickly destroy the bonds of social trust necessary for democracy to work.

Mobs and demagogues will put us on a path to political tyranny, Lincoln said. ... [T]his very old problem has returned with new ferocity today, as a president who lost an election deployed a mob, which included dangerous extremists, to attack the constitutional system of election and the peaceful transfer of power.

These connections to America's still unresolved Civil War and other battles over the color line, freedom, justice and democracy manifested themselves in literal fashion on Jan. 6, when Trump's followers attacked the U.S. Capitol, some of them waving Confederate flags and hurling racial slurs. Trump's attack force included neo-Nazis, Kluxers, and members of various other white supremacist organizations. Trump's attack force assembled a working gallows outside of the Capitol, with the obvious intention of executing Mike Pence, leading Democrats, and others judged to be disloyal to the Trump regime.

The lynching rope and lynching tree are both a symbolic and literal act of racial terrorism against Black Americans; thousands of Black men, women and children were lynched during the white terror campaign in the South and other parts of the country that lasted more than 100 years. 

Like their traitorous forefathers and foremothers of the Confederacy, the Trumpists and Republican fascists also believe themselves to be "patriots" and "defenders" of democracy and the Constitution, doing the work of God in a "Christian" struggle as special heirs to the legacy of America's founding.

And like the Confederates and other white Americans throughout the country's history, the Trumpists reject the idea that a Black or brown American's vote and democratic agency should have the same merit as those of white people. Properly understood, Jan. 6 was a white rage tempter tantrum and an exercise in a type of "freedom" exclusive to white Americans: the right to reject elections and other democratic outcomes not to their liking, through violence if need be.

Like the traitors of the Confederacy, Trumpists reject the idea that Black or brown people's democratic agency should have the same agency as those of white people.

As historian Heather Cox Richardson has observed, the Confederacy, and its allegiance and commitment to a white supremacist order, was never fully defeated. Instead, those forces and beliefs morphed into the post-civil rights era "conservative" movement and the modern Republican Party.

Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesman for the Oath Keepers told the House Jan. 6 committee on Tuesday that: "Who knows what that might bring ,if a president that's willing to try to instill and encourage [and] whip up a civil war amongst his followers using lies and deceit and snake oil … what else is he gonna do if he gets elected again? All bets are off at that point."

At the Guardian, David Smith offered a powerful summation of last Tuesday's hearing:

It was a chilling reminder that in a nation that has the genocide of Indigenous Americans, slavery, civil war and relentless gun violence in its cultural DNA, bloodshed is never far from the surface. Since white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have been ascendent.

Tuesday's committee hearing further highlighted, in stark detail, how one powerful person, through the force of his own dark charisma and lies, can corrupt the people around him. Such personalities attract other damaged and dangerous people into their orbit. Sick societies produce sick leaders, who all too often lead mass movements comprising thousands or millions of people.


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It is now a matter of public record that Donald Trump intentionally and willfully incited violence and terrorism on Jan. 6 as part of his plot to end American democracy and make himself into some type of king or other type of tyrant. On Dec. 18, 2020, some of Trump's most dangerous confederates, including former general Michael Flynn and attorney Sidney Powell, gathered at the White House in a now-infamous meeting where they tried to convince him to impose martial law, confiscate voting machines to "prove" nonexistent voter fraud and launch other schemes to steal the 2020 election from the American people. It has been reported that Donald Trump relished the attention and the hours of energy being expended on nefarious plots to keep him in power.

Other officials in the Trump's regime — such as Vice President Pence and Attorney General Bill Barr — opposed his blatantly illegal schemes but never told the American people about the growing danger to their democracy, only offering other information under subpoena or (in Pence's case) through intermediaries. Those former members of Trump's inner circle continue to be agents of American fascism but now have books to sell, money to make on the lecture circuit and reputations to launder and burnish. They decided that self-interest and partisan loyalty were more important than warning the American people about Trump's threats to democracy.

Young men desperate for a place in history — be they white supremacist "crusaders" or Islamic warriors for the Caliphate — are especially attracted to the dark charisma of leaders like Trump.

As shown by the testimony of Van Tatenhove and Stephen Ayres last Tuesday and the evidence provided from right-wing websites and social media, Trump's corrupting power spoke to the white rage and white anger of his most loyal followers and their desire to be part of history and what they believed to be a great and noble struggle. Young men desperate for a place in history and a life of meaning — be it as white supremacist "crusaders" or Muslims who want to be Islamic Knights of the Caliphate — are especially attracted to the dark charisma of leaders like Donald Trump and Osama bin Laden.

Dr. Jerrold Post, who served as the CIA's head psychological profiler during more than 20 years of service with the agency, explained Trump's power over his followers in a December 2019 interview with me for Salon:

A famous Canadian psychoanalyst observed, "The leader is the creation of his followers." This is a very powerful relationship. Indeed, many people have been puzzled, given Donald Trump's extremism, that the support and the dedication of his followers to him has been not hugely diminished. Trump's rallies, in particular, show an almost frightening intensity of the power of Trump's charisma and influence over his followers.

For a core of his base Donald Trump provides them with many things, including permission to hate. It is a striking phenomenon. In his behavior Trump is also demonstrating some of the principles which are codified in his book on leadership style. Of note, some of these themes are derived from an important mentor for him, the late Roy Cohn.

There is another important aspect to Trump's influence over his supporters and that is the model of the "charismatic leader-follower relationship." This is the "mirror-hungry personality," which comes from a wounded self. The other dimension of the wounded self is an "ideal-hungry personality." In practice this means that Trump's core enthusiastic followers feel incomplete without a great inspirational leader to attach themselves to, someone to venerate. The mirror-hungry personality, which is Donald Trump, needs the ego-gratifying applause and roars of approval from crowds. There is a natural psychological fit between Trump and his followers....

Last Tuesday's committee hearing also showed the American people how power in the wrong hands can be used to break or exploit the tacit bargains and understandings that sustain our democracy, the "norms" and "values" and "institutions" obsessively discussed by the country's political class and news media. Donald Trump and the Republican-fascists do not believe, for instance, in the principle of "one person, one vote," or in the peaceful transition of power. For them, democracy is a means to an end — a way to acquire and accrue more power and its personal, material, financial and emotional benefits. That corrupt and unrestrained power is then used to oppress and cause harm to others they deem to be enemies or otherwise "un-American." These are core tenets of fascism.

The Republican fascists have identified those aspects of the Constitution or federal law — the Electoral College, the Senate, the power of state legislatures — most vulnerable to subversion.

To that end, the Republican fascists and their allies have identified those aspects of the Constitution or federal law and governing institutions that are most vulnerable. The Electoral College is one such target. Trump's abuse of executive orders is another. The U.S. Senate amplifies the power and influence of less populous states and regions, and thereby dilutes the legitimate power of the majority in an increasingly diverse democracy. The Supreme Court is now an explicitly partisan and ideological right-wing institution, dedicated to advancing the tyranny of the minority.

The Republican fascists and their agents are now working on a nationwide plan to empower Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors to reject the outcome of an election if the voters have chosen the "wrong candidate," meaning a Democrat. In practice, the goal is a one-party authoritarian state, modeled on Vladimir Putin's Russia or some other fake democracy.

Tuesday's committee hearing also taught other lessons. Social media companies have an outsized power to influence democracy. As seen on and before Jan. 6, such companies are more interested in profit — and amplifying negative emotions and discord to that end — than in serving the public good or playing a positive role in the public sphere.

The mainstream news media continues to pretend that Trump's perfidy on and before Jan. 6 and the Republican-fascists' escalating assaults on democracy are somehow surprising or shocking. In reality, Donald Trump and his confederates orchestrated the coup for months (if not years) before Jan. 6. Nothing that transpired that day can be described as a revelation: A few brave public voices warned that Trump was likely to attempt a coup, and most such people were accused of being "hysterical" or seeking attention by the gatekeepers of public discourse and centrism.

Moreover, instead of making the threats embodied by the Age of Trump and American neofascism more legible for the public, too many voices in the news media would rather be breathless and dramatic. They will never take a personal and public inventory of how they enabled this disaster by normalizing Trump and his movement. 

In his closing statement at Tuesday's hearing, Raskin offered a crucial moment of public teaching, warning about the continuing threat of authoritarianism in America from Donald Trump and the Republicans and the larger neofascist movement.

Unlike Mr. Ayres and Mr. Van Tatenhove, people who have recovered and evolved from their descent into the hell of fanaticism, Donald Trump has only expanded his big lie. To cover Jan. 6 itself, he asserts the insurrection was the real election, and the election was the real insurrection. He says his mob greeted our police officers on Jan. 6 with hugs and kisses.

He threatens to take one of America's two major political parties with him down the road to authoritarianism. And it is Abraham Lincoln's party, no less. The political scientists tell us that authoritarian parties have two essential features in common, in history and around the world. They do not accept the results of democratic elections when they lose, and they embrace political violence as legitimate. ...

But this is not the problem of one party; it is the problem of the whole country now. American democracy, Mr. Chairman, is a precious inheritance, something rare in the history of the world and even on earth today.

Constitutional democracy is the silver frame, as Lincoln put it, upon which the golden apple of freedom rests. We need to defend both our democracy and our freedom with everything we have, and declare that this American carnage ends here and now. In a world of resurgent authoritarianism and racism and antisemitism, let's all hang tough for American democracy. The American people and the leaders of the so-called pro-democracy movement now have a series of choices to make.

Will Raskin's words of warning be an epitaph for America, or instead an inspiration to mobilize, organize, marshal the required resources, and engage in acts of massive resistance at the ballot box and in the streets? Will Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice take these lessons to heart and prosecute Trump and his confederates for their many obvious high crimes?

Will Joe Biden and other the Democratic leaders finally jettison their old habits of dealing with Republicans as though they were responsible partners in governance and instead treat them as the threat to democracy, freedom, the Constitution and the rule of law that they clearly are? Will the American people as a whole fight for their democracy against the rising fascist tide? Or will they instead succumb to learned helplessness and quietly surrender to the "new normal" of a Christian fascist apartheid plutocracy where most Americans will be treated as second- or third-class citizens – if even that?

The American people and their leaders are running out of time to answer these questions.

As the House Jan. 6 committee continues its public hearings, investigations – and teaching – will their lessons be learned or ignored? America's future depends on the answer.


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics 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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