The 'Unwelcome Truths' of January 6
Why the lies about the insurrection matter now -- and for 2024.
On January 6, 2021, a mob energized by President Trump's speech on the National Mall to "fight like hell" and animated by his lie that he won the election overcame a poorly defended police line and breached the House and Senate chambers. The rioters succeeded in halting the counting of electoral votes, endangering the lives of Vice President Mike Pence and countless elected officials. For three hours, Trump did not do anything to stop it. Five people died that day, and hundreds of police officers were injured. The certification of the 2020 election finished later that night, confirming the fact that Joe Biden had won.
The events of January 6 were disturbing enough. What is continually troubling is how Trump and his Republican allies have tried to counter the reality of January 6 with outright lies, as if the facts were a matter of opinion. To some Republicans, the insurrection was overblown; the F.B.I. encouraged it; it was antifa dressed as Trump supporters. As one Republican told a focus group, "Trump’s people don’t act like that."
On the anniversary of January 6, most Republicans stayed away from the Capitol itself and the loudest voices in the Republican party voiced the conspiracy narrative. The only scheduled Republican event was hosted by Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Matt Gaetz, who shared many of the same conspiracy theories at a press conference. Rep. Liz Cheney R-Wyo. was the only Republican who joined Democrats in marking the anniversary.
The manipulation of the facts of January 6 is one of the more disturbing trends in American politics. According to a recent Associated Press poll, less than half of Republicans see the insurrection as "very violent" or "extremely violent," and 60 percent think that Trump bears little to no responsibility.
To be sure, these conspiracy views are held by a minority of Americans, with two-thirds of Americans overall saying the insurrection was "very" or "extremely" violent. However, even a significant minority belief in untruths is a distinct departure from the shared memory of past historical traumas. Conspiracies about the 9/11 attacks never went beyond a minuscule fringe, and the basic facts about that day aren't in question.
The transformation of facts into political opinions isn't a new problem. Political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1967 essay "Truth and Politics," that when "unwelcome factual truths" are "consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions," this constitutes "a political problem of the first order." She was talking about uncomfortable truths such as German popular support for the Nazis or France's capitulation to the Nazis. January 6 is another uncomfortable truth -- unlike 9/11, Americans attacked Americans.
Arendt observed that different types of factual truth have much in common. Saying that there are three sides to a triangle or the earth revolves around the sun are not different from political truths, in that they are "beyond agreement, dispute, opinion, or consent." She further differentiated facts from opinion: "Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies."
Beyond January 6, this divide in reality is present elsewhere in current day politics. Take, COVID-19, for example. There are reasonable policy debates over vaccine and mask mandates. However, some of the opposition to these policies stems from lies that COVID-19 does not exist and that vaccines don't work. It would be politically a lot easier to adopt a public health strategy if we agreed on basic facts and disagreed about what measures to take, rather than disagreeing about the reality of COVID itself.
Trump's lies about January 6 are politically relevant because should he decide to run for president in 2024, he is very likely to be his party's nominee for the third time. A lot of Americans believe those lies, and it's a political problem of the first order. Should he lose the election in 2024, he is unlikely to accept the results -- and is better prepared than in 2020 to potentially subvert the election.
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