CONTRIBUTORS

Jan. 6 committee points up fragility of our democracy

Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register (TNS)

Whatever political side you’re on, and however you feel about Donald Trump’s policies, personality or problems with the truth, the latest testimonies to the U.S. House committee investigating Jan. 6, 2021, make a couple of things chillingly clear.

The line between democratic governance and authoritarian rule is fragile. And it came perilously close to being upended after Trump lost the 2020 election but kept insisting he didn’t.

Key elements were in place, as we heard in last week's testimonies: an enigmatic president unwilling to acknowledge the truth, and intent on propelling his way to a second term by concocting a myth of election fraud. Without evidence, he alleged faulty ballot-counting machines, discarded ballots in his favor, and election interference by Venezuela or China. He ignored court rulings proving him wrong.

A loyal base of almost cultish supporters, including armed right-wing militia groups, some fed by social media sites spinning conspiracy theories, stood ready to go to any lengths for him. And so did a few key allies in his inner political circle, willing to march into the sea like lemmings rather than face the president's wrath by setting him straight.

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"His legal team led by (Rudy) Giuliani knew they lacked evidence of fraud, of a stolen election but they went ahead and tried to persuade millions of Americans of what they knew was untrue," as Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida put it at the July 12 hearing.

Standing in the way of a possible coup or other takeover were some brave state election officials, even of his own Republican Party, unwilling to “find” Trump the votes he never earned, including his vice president, Mike Pence, who refused to hold off certifying the election results.

But the fact that it could so easily have gone the other way in spite of our Constitution, separation of powers and system of representative government should send alarm signals about other institutions — many of them local — that need protection. Those include our schools, news media and courts.

Timeline connects the dots: The committee heard from two men, Jason Van Tatenhove and Stephen Ayres. Ayres said he stormed the Capitol in answer to Trump’s call to action, believing his claims of a stolen election.

That call came in a tweet following a contentious and profane meeting at the White House on Dec. 18, 2020. Issued at 1:42 a.m. Dec. 19, Trump's tweet promised a “big protest” at the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 that was to certify Biden’s electoral victory. “Be there, will be wild!” Trump wrote.

Claiming that Pence, who was to preside over the certification, might lack the "courage" to block it, he called for “backup,” explained Murphy. Among those who responded were extremists associated with the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and Florida 3%ers, home to far-right and white supremacist conspiracy theorists, some now facing federal charges of conspiring to overthrow the government.

Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, is sworn in by Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. (Sean Thew/Pool via AP)

The day after the tweet, a website, wildprotest.com, said to be orchestrated by such groups, popped up. It announced that, if necessary, the U.S. Capitol would be stormed Jan. 6. Terms like “red wedding,” which a committee member translated as a call to mass slaughter, were turning up. Trump was tweeting that the election was “the biggest scam in U.S. history.”

Van Tatenhove told the committee he had started out covering the Oath Keepers as a journalist, and was drawn to it enough to become its spokesman for years. Now he calls it a violent and dangerous militia group that is largely synonymous with its founder, Stewart Rhodes, for whom he had served as a senior aide. He said that under Rhodes it grew militarized and further into "alt-right, white nationalists and straight-up racists."

Rhodes in a speech called on Trump to invoke the "Insurrection Act" to stay in power, or watch a “much more desperate (and) much more bloody war’" by the Oath Keepers.

According to Van Tatenhove, Rhodes had visions of being a paramilitary leader and was planning an armed revolution. "Officers died that day," he rued. Another 150 police officers were wounded.

"Lies, deceit, perpetration of violence, rhetoric and propaganda for people who may not know better" were among the tools Van Tatenhove described, saying Rhodes was "always looking for ways to rationalize what he was doing."

The same could be said of Trump.

Ayres, who has pleaded guilty to illegally entering the U.S. Capitol during the riots, depicted himself as a family man, a supervisor for a cabinet company in Ohio. "I was pretty hardcore into social media," he explained. He said he followed Trump’s accounts and bought into his claims of a stolen election: "I was very upset as were most of his supporters."

Ayres said many Trump supporters like him who showed up Jan. 6 weren't planning to go into the Capitol, just to Trump’s rally. "But the president riled everybody up," he said. They believed Trump would be going in with them and that the election would be overturned. They stayed until hours later, when Trump tweeted for them to leave: "If he'd done that earlier, I would have" left sooner.

The Columbus Dispatch, citing court records in his criminal case, reported that Ayres had posted a warning on social media several days before Jan. 6 that there'd be civil war if Trump wasn’t kept in office.

Willful blindness is not an excuse: Through interviews with former Trump attorneys, former Attorney General Bill Barr, spokespeople, and even his family members, the Jan. 6 committee is building evidence that everyone around the president understood his claims of election fraud to be false. Yet a team led by Giuliani “tried to persuade millions of Americans of what they knew was untrue,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

She had little patience for a line of defense from Trump supporters that the former president was manipulated by others into believing the election was stolen. “President Trump is a 76-year-old man," Cheney declared. "He is not an impressionable child. … He can’t escape responsibility by being willfully blind.”

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who serves on the committee, referred Tuesday to past testimony that, on Dec. 16, a proposed executive order by Trump would have had the defense secretary seize voting machines. Witnesses have testified that at the heated Oval Office meeting on the evening of Dec. 18, 2020, Trump and some of his supporters and opponents clashed fiercely. Attorney Sidney Powell represented Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was reportedly looking for avenues for Trump to stay president. So was Giuliani. Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide, has testified about efforts by Trump's last chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to the same end.

“Authoritarian parties don’t accept results of democratic elections,” said Raskin. “They embrace political violence.”

The combination of Trump's willingness to lie about the election outcome, and the group-think that allowed those claims to pass as fact, shows the danger of having a citizenry that doesn't even share a common factual grounding on what's true. Asked if he still believes that the election was stolen, Ayres said: "Not so much now. I started doing my own research."

But the unchecked rise of social media sites passing false, politically motivated claims off as news presents a growing challenge to democracy that their owners must intervene to stop. Trump's followers' failure to seek out legitimate news about the election, and other claims he made, are part of the toxic brew that enabled the Jan. 6 insurrection. And the war on news media waged by Trump and others on the right has taken a toll on the truth.

You might also look at local efforts to dumb down and indoctrinate the electorate by pulling books off library shelves or outlawing the teaching of “divisive concepts.” Such efforts prevent people from learning to think critically. The role of independent, non-political courts is also essential if democracy is to be protected. These are just some of the things that need to be safeguarded to prevent another Jan. 6. As Raskin hauntingly reminded, Trump "knowingly sent an armed mob to usurp the will of the people." Call that what you want — a coup attempt seems apt — but once was enough.

— Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.