The acquittal of Donald Trump was a foregone conclusion in his first and second impeachment trials. Now Senators are suggesting that a bipartisan commission study the riot/insurrection of January 6, 2021. Such a commission would produce a report similar to that produced after the 9/11 attacks.
I’m all in favor of such a report, so long as it asks the right questions. If it’s going to simply be a reprise of the partisan hostility that marked the past four years, we should save the money and not create a commission.
I am less interested in a forensic analysis of what took place on January 6, 2021 than I am on what made it possible. As the House impeachment managers made clear in Trump II, what the president said is a matter of record. We don’t need much more evidence on that.
Rather than a 9/11 Commission report, I’d prefer to see a report that resembles the 1968 Kerner Commission report on the summer riots of 1967. Cities across the country erupted in flames. President Lyndon Johnson called for a commission not to find out who lit the Molotov cocktails, but to understand why folks were motivated to throw them.
The critical question: What accounts for the deep divisions in this country, divisions so deep that cities burned in the summer of 2020, and the Capitol was stormed by an angry mob on 2021. My hunch is the questions are related.
Here’s my proposed outline for the commission report, together with a few names of folks to appoint to the commission:
Introduction: Why so much violence in 2020 and 2021? Are the ties that bind Americans one to another fraying? If so, why?
Chapter One: The election of 2016. An improbable president and the divide between Red and Blue. Was the search for Russian influence akin to claims that Barack Obama was not an American citizen? Why the rise of conspiracy theories in American life? Ask Joseph Uscinski, author of American Conspiracy Theories, to be a panel member. Last I knew, he was a professor at the University of Miami.
Chapter Two: Communications in the era of Big Tech. Is social media killing public spirit and/or debate? What is the public marketplace of ideas? Who controls it and why? Should the first amendment apply to private companies with quasi-monopolistic control over the means of communication? Is Big Other the new Big Brother. Ask Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, to be a panel member. She’s emeritus at the Harvard Business School.
Chapter Three: Is hate speech on the rise? Or is there really such a thing as hate speech at all? Isn’t hatred merely an attack on what we fear? Does the rhetoric of race, identity, privilege, fan flames that threaten to erupt into disintegration of a violent sort? Daryl Johnson, author of Hateland: A Long, Hard Look at America’s Extremist Heart, will offer one view. Also ask Anne Case and Angus Deaton, authors of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, to serve. Why have folks lost hope? Is their fear the basis for hatred? Are hatred of others and suicidal thoughts related?
Chapter Four: A crisis of legitimacy has spawned deep suspicion about public institutions. What is legitimacy? Why were Americans susceptible to the Russian narrative in 2016 and the stolen election claim in 2020? I’m not sure whom to invite here. Consider a scholar with expertise on Max Weber, the foremost historical sociologist of the 20th century and the author of the seminal essay, “Politics as a Vocation,” perhaps the best statement ever on what legitimacy is and how it is obtained. Paul Reither and Chad Wellman, recently wrote an excellent piece on Weber for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Track them down. Reither is easy to find; I asked him to submit to an interview for a podcast I am about to begin producing. He said yes.
Chapter Five: What role did the pandemic of 2020 have in accelerating the loosening of the bonds of civic association? Police shootings and violence has declined in recent years, yet this year calls for a “racial reckoning” erupted. Why? What made 2020 different? Pandemics are a constant in the long march of civilization. When they strike, social unrest follows. Let’s take the long view and ask about public health crises and social cohesion. Ask Nicholas Christakis, author of Appollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live,” to participate. He’s an M.D.-Ph.D. at Yale.
Chapter Six: Free speech in an open society. Do a review of the law regarding freedom of expression. What did Trump actually say? Were his words all that extraordinary? Why were the words understood as incitement by some on the right and the left. Law professors aplenty are available: Jonathan Turley comes to mind. Pick your favorite.
Conclusion: The challenge to come. Is there a way to avoid another riot/insurrection at the Capitol? Questions not to ask: How do we lock down the Capitol so this can never happen again? Who should we prosecute for the events – those decisions are actually being made now, by prosecutors? Should we ban violent speech? Or are we overreacting to an isolated event that, in the longer scheme of things, isn't really all that remarkable -- we are a violent people, after all. We always have been.
The tensions that erupted into flames are so much less interesting than what made them possible. The commission needs to ask the critical questions. We saw what skimming the surface of events yielded in the second impeachment trial: sound and fury signifying nothing. An weary and wary nation wants a path forward. Is it too much to expect the Senate to try to provide one?