What we need is another Kerner Commission, and what we’re being offered is a Watergate Committee. The result will be a committee that convicts the canary for dying in the mineshaft. Come the fall of 2022, and, more importantly, the fall of 2024, the toxins in the mineshaft will be that much worse.
I am referring, of course, to last week’s first public hearing by the House Select Committtee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. The eight-member panel unveiled its opening statements in a prime-time presentation choreographed by a retired ABC News producer. The following day’s New York Times banner headline summed up the event: “Panel Says Trump Led ‘Attempted Coup.”
Good luck with that.
If there is proof that Trump orchestrated and led a coup, an organized effort unlawfully to seize power, it is the best kept secret in the county. The committee has interviewed more than 1,000 witnesses and trawled through tens of thousands of documents. The Justice Department has arrested almost 850 people; it has grand juries busily at work looking, searching, probing for a link between the chaos on the ground in Washington, D.C., and the White House. There is none.
So far all we’ve been shown is a handful of indictments for Proud Boys playing at citizen militia. Even as bloodless coups go, this “insurrection” seems uniquely devoid of leadership, purpose, and serious intent. At most, these would-be insurrectionists might have succeeded in delaying the counting of electoral votes for a day or so. The shock troops storming the capitol were armed with zip ties and rage. Scary, yes. The toppling the republic? Not even close.
Just why tens of thousands of Americans appeared at the Capitol is an important question. Some – perhaps most – believed the election of 2020 had been stolen from Donald Trump. Some may believe it still. For all I know, Trump himself believes it.
It seems far more likely to me that most folks in Washington on January 6, 2021 didn’t care whether the election was, in fact, stolen. So far as they were concerned, and are concerned, something is profoundly out of focus in this country. They look at Washington and see a universe separate and alien from the one they inhabit. We’re in the midst of legitimation crisis in this country, and are rapidly becoming a failed state.
What’s legitimacy? It is the ineffable quality of being able to distinguish authority from naked power.
The German sociologist Max Weber wrote a seminal essay a century ago about legitimacy called Politics as a Vocation. He defined the state as the entity have a monopoly on the use of force. In other words, the state can use force with authority, with a sense that its use of force is right, or at least justifiable, in a way that a private individual cannot.
Consider the difference between a police officer and a gang banger. Both can carry a gun. Both can approach you on a street corner and demand your wallet. Odds are you will turn over the wallet to both. To the gangbanger you give out of fear that his show of force – mere power – is sufficient reason to act. The police officer’s request most likely strikes you as different. The officer wears the badges and indicia of authority – he is a public official. His demand produces fear, to be sure, but there is a little something extra, a sense that he is acting in the name of the state.
In a healthy society, the governed can tell the difference between a police officer and a gang member. In a society governed by the rule of law, where power is directed by transparent rules, we say the police officer’s use of force is backed by the authority of law.
But we live in troubled times.
In the summer of 2020, cities across the country erupted in violence. The police, it turns out, are regarded by many as the functional equivalent of a gang. The state’s monopoly on the use of force is not regarded by many as legitimate; it is simply the most powerful gang on the block. It must be met with massive resistance. Hence, the riots, the arson, the looting.
Both the summer of 2020 and January 6 are signs of a fraying consensus on fundamental values, a growing awareness that we are broken. I’d suggest different folks reacted with violence to a society in which they did not feel welcome. Some burned a building; others stormed a public building.
Have you read, or even heard about, Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s 2020 book, Death of Despair and the Future of Capitalism? Odds are you have not. The pandemic swept in.
Case and Deaton wrote of the declining life expectancies of lower middle-class Caucasians without college educations. Tens of thousands of them die each year from suicide, opiate overdoes and the consequences of alcoholism. These are forgotten Americans in flyover country. They’re angry, too. But they’re overlooked. Dead white working-class people aren’t fashionable on the evening news.
I suspect they turned out with a vengeance on January 6. This was their dance of rage directed at institutions that are failing them. It was a condensed version of the summer of 2020.
In 1968, after the riots of 1967 burned through our cities, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed a commission to study what happened and why – the Kerner Commission. It issued a report on the social and economic conditions that ravaged the nation. It didn’t seek to assess blame; it sought to understand why folks reacted with despair.
That is what the January Committee should be asking now. Why are we a nation divided, and why are we armed to the teeth – white and black – and openly talking about civil war?
Instead we get a version of the Watergate Committee, which investigated President Richard M. Nixon’s coverup of the Watergate burglary by presidential operatives of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters. What did Nixon know, and when did he know it? Those were the questions.
There’s a serious difference between the cover-up of a burglary and the disintegration of a society.
We’ve yet to have a serious discussion of why we elected Donald Trump president, and why he continues to have an outside influence on our political life. It’s not because he is a statesman, a moral leader or even a good man. He’s the canary in the mineshaft; he senses the despair of millions of overlooked Americans and he’s learned to direct their rage outward. Rather than suicide, they may be willing to destroy institutions they regard as broken. Make American Great Again is a national call for help; so was the fire and rage of 2020.
When all is said and done, the January 6 Committee will confirm that beliefs of those who have already decided Trump – the canary – is to blame. Trump supporters will vote for him all over again, even if he is proven to have directed the violence. The battlelines will harden, and we will not have learned a damn thing.
We need a Kerner Commission. This isn’t a whodunit. We’re doing it to ourselves.