The American government has developed a unique ritual for healing national traumas: the convening of investigatory commissions tasked with assembling thick tomes to explain why bad things happen to good nations. This was the response after the race riots of 1919, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Kennedy’s assassination, the race riots of the 1960s, 9/11, and other collective tragedies.
A new volume has been added to the shelves that house this curious genre: the just-released report on the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Although born of calamity, the thinking behind these reports is curiously optimistic: If you can just convene the right bipartisan team of experts, politicians, and dignitaries, you will arrive at a collective truth that can make sense of seemingly inexplicable events. The coherent narrative offered by these reports will help the nation solve its problems and avoid future catastrophes.
If that’s the theory, then it’s never quite worked out. The Warren Commission famously never answered questions about the Kennedy assassination sufficient to quiet conspiracy theories. To this day the CIA, in defiance of congressional demands, refuses to release thousands of documents on the assassination, including information about what it knew about Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the presidential murder. Many lingering questions remain about the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the terrorism of 9/11 (where, again, much valuable material remains classified). In analyzing the Black urban uprisings of the 1960s, the Kerner Commission Report of 1967 offered a scathing indictment of systematic racism—that proved too radical for Lyndon Johnson. The Starr Report on the alleged corruption of Bill Clinton became the butt of endless lewd jokes on late-night TV thanks to the all-too-vivid details it provided about Oval Office oral sex.
The January 6 report might not escape the same sorry long-term fate. To be sure, the commission that crafted the report has had some successes. The hearings drew a wide audience—and seem to have hardened public opinion against former president Donald Trump’s continuing efforts to subvert American democracy. Republican candidates who denied the 2020 election did poorly in the midterms, especially those in key positions that could derail the 2024 election results. In general, the Democrats outperformed expectations in the 2022 midterms. All of this is surely due in no small part to the January 6 committee.
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But the report issued by the committee also has a broader purpose: to establish a convincing account of the coup attempt that can shape public memory. Harvard historian Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, offered a scathing critique of the report, convincingly portraying it as a narrowly focused indictment of Donald Trump that ignores broader political forces that created the coup.
In 2016, Donald Trump ran on the boast “I alone can fix it.” The January 6 report merely flips the script by saying Trump alone can break it. The report concludes that “the central cause of January 6th was one man, former President Donald Trump.” It offers a detailed chronology of Trump’s actions in the months before January 6. They show that as a candidate he was already casting doubt on the election results before the first votes were cast, that after the defeat he used every means available to undermine the determination of the results, and that he finally settled on a desperate constitutional theory that would throw the results to Congress.
Where the Warren Commission blamed Oswald as the lone gunman, the January 6 report casts Trump as the lone coup plotter. As Lepore notes, “In the January 6 report, Donald Trump acted alone and came out of nowhere. He has no past. Neither does the nation. The rest of the country doesn’t even exist.” Evaluating the report, Lepore concludes, “As a brief for the prosecution, it’s a start. As a book, it’s essential if miserable reading. As history, it’s a shambles.”
There is no need to contest the low grade that Lepore bestows upon the report. She has effectively hit on the fatal flaw of the enterprise: the inadequacy of a purely Trump-centric history. The problem is that the failures of the January 6 report are shared by Lepore’s counternarrative, an incoherent litany of centrist complaints that oscillates between a dim awareness of Republican extremism and a more muddled attempt to lay blame on both sides.
Lepore rightly rejects the idea that the “Big Lie” (the claim the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats) was just a Trump concoction. As she notes,
It is an elaborate fiction, an artful story, with heroes and villains, exotic locales, and a sinister plot. The election was stolen by a cabal of Democrats, socialists, immigrants, criminals, Black people, and spies. This story is vicious and idiotic, and none of it is true, but it is not a Big Lie devised by an orange-haired supervillain born rich in 1946: it is the latest chapter in a fictive counter-history of the United States which has been told by the far right for decades and decades and wretched decades.
This is spot-on and echoes the best recent scholarship on the American right done by historians such as Edward H. Miller and Nicole Hemmer—a body of work that emphasizes the deep roots of authoritarianism and conspiracy mongering in the GOP that goes back decades.
But Lepore isn’t comfortable with this focus on the dangers of just the right. She insists, in good centrist fashion, that both sides are to blame. To figure out the roots of January 6, she contends, requires
a historical vantage on the decay of the party system, the celebration of political intolerance by both the right and the left, the contribution of social media to political extremism, and the predicament of American journalism. Calling the system rigged when you’re losing is an old trick. At the end of the Cold War, American zealots turned their most ruthless ideological weapons on one another, Manicheans all.
Lepore blames Newt Gingrich for cynically pushing the message of a stolen presidential election in 1992. Then she quotes Bernie Sanders in 2016 as saying, “The system is rigged.” Lepore offers this gloss on Sanders’s message: “primaries rigged against challengers, the economy rigged against working people. Suspecting that things like elections might be rigged, even when that’s not true, isn’t a crazy conspiracy theory; it is a political product routinely sold to voters in every city and state in the country.”
Lepore draws an absurd equivalence between Gingrich and Trump on one side and Bernie Sanders on the other. But Sanders wasn’t offering a conspiracy theory. He was pointing out real systemic problems in the economy and the political system: the inequality that gives an outsize voice to wealthy donors and drowns out popular discontent. This is undeniably true.
In the 1930s in Germany, both the socialist party and the Nazis (or National Socialists) tried to harness popular anger at the very real grievances of ordinary voters. The socialists offered real solutions; the Nazis offered demagogic racism. What would we think of a historian who claimed that the 1930s showed “the celebration of political intolerance by both the right and the left”?
Typical of centrists, Lepore prefers to focus on issues of style and rhetoric over substance. Thus, she decries harsh political language and the supposedly baneful effect of social media. But these matters of messaging are trivial.
A truer account of the origins of January 6 that tried to move beyond Trump could find genuine bipartisan responsibility if it focused on shared policy failures. The Clintonian embrace of neoliberalism in the 1990s wreaked economic havoc on the working class that made Trump’s demagoguery more persuasive. Bipartisan support for the Global War on Terror after 9/11 helped legitimize the xenophobia that Trump would come to exploit and created a nation fearful of the world. The failure of the Obama administration to push for a strong stimulus in 2009 and 2010 ensured a lost economic decade, again driving desperation.
Lepore doesn’t address any of these salient issues of policy. Her focus is on blaming partisan rhetoric and social media. Like the January 6 report, she offers a thin version of history, one that does nothing to get at the root causes of the current crisis. If we want to avoid another January 6, we need to move beyond the report—and also beyond shallow centrist criticism.