Not every piece of political theater openly presents itself as political theater. But these aren’t ordinary times, heaven knows – and the show trial that goes under the popular name “the January 6 Committee” has been nothing if not consistently over the top.
So it was appalling, but not really a shock, to note that when the committee’s ringmasters got down to serious public business on June 9, the first thing they did was to premiere their own movie.
And what a movie!
Perfectly timed to monopolize mainstream media for the evening, the committee’s production turned out to be…
an expertly curated multimedia experience unlike any Congressional hearing in history. With revelatory clips from the committee’s interviews with Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Bill Barr; never-before-seen and brilliantly edited footage of the rioters; and a wrenching live interview with a Capitol police officer injured in the melee.”
I’m quoting, word for word, from Jodi Rudoren, who used to recycle Israeli propaganda for the New York Times and is now (poetic justice?) reduced to gushing about a “multimedia experience” that – if offered at a genuine inquest, not a show trial aimed at stifling political dissent – could only have been reported as the national disgrace it actually was.
But grab your popcorn, folks! A movie is a movie; when has Trump-baiting ever been hampered by rules of evidence? Who needs facts when you can watch doctored testimony on a big screen?
Why ask about the legal definition of “insurrection” (a question that makes nonsense out of the committee’s putative mission) when you can sit back and enjoy “brilliantly edited footage” of the first “coup” that had to be synthesized in a cutting room?
And why even think about the only violent death that occurred during all the trouble – that of Ashli Babbitt, a slight, unarmed protester shot dead by a cop for no apparent reason – when you can hang on every word of that “wrenching interview” with a different police officer who was prepared to say exactly what the committee (and Rudoren) wanted to hear?
So much for the June 9 teleplay.
And yet, the worst part – for me, anyway – was that none of it was really a surprise. If anything had remained of the committee’s bona fides after it wasted ten months on procedural ballyhoo (who’s getting the next subpoena?…will he appear?…let’s make some headlines!), the last vestige of its credibility was trashed by the committee members themselves as they stormed TV political talk shows three days after airing their feature film to deliver their prearranged verdict against the former President.
According to Rep. Jamie Raskin, Trump was guilty because he said he had won the election when he should have known he hadn’t. “He had to have known he was spreading a ‘Big Lie,’” Raskin solemnly informed CNN’s “State of the Union” on June 12.
By that standard, I guess, you’d also have to bracket Al Gore with Hitler if it turned out that some campaign-trail bigwig whispered in his ear (Gore’s, not Hitler’s) that he probably didn’t get enough votes to carry Florida in 2000.
And Rutherford B. Hayes, who actually managed to reverse the results of the presidential election of 1876 on the basis of claims every bit as dubious as Trump’s – was he a traitor, too?
Or have I missed something?
But why quibble about logic? While Raskin was declaring bad political sportsmanship a federal crime, Rep. Adam Schiff was concocting an even bolder guilt-by-association theory on ABC, where he claimed that the committee’s hearings would demonstrate “connections” between “people in Trump’s orbit and white nationalist groups that participated in the attacks [sic].”
Asked how he could prove this, the Congressman sniffed, “You’ll just have to wait until we get to that point of our hearings.”
Schiff’s committee is supposed to have interviewed more than 1,000 people since last July, but of course it’s way too early to have any evidence to back up inflammatory accusations – though not too early to air them on national television.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Almost a year ago, I underlined how popular media had already fabricated the myth of the January 6 “coup attempt.” Within days of the protest at the Capitol, its participants had been demonized as – take your pick – “fascists” (PBS), “white supremacists” (CNN), or a violent “mob” bent on paralyzing the United States government (USA Today).
Indeed, typical of the early propaganda was New York Magazine’s accusation that the “goal” of the “mob” was “threatening or killing officials” of the U.S. government; The New Republic went so far as to insist that the protesters sought “the mass execution of Democratic politicians and prominent liberals” – although, of course, not a single politician was attacked on January 6, let alone “executed.”
For anyone who remembers what really happened, that distinction belongs to Ashli Babbitt – whose name is never mentioned by the January 6 committee or by the popular media breathlessly reporting its every pronouncement.
Judging from its opening night, the committee still expects us to believe that the protesters who entered the Capitol on January 6 fully intended to make corpses and to extinguish American democracy. It doesn’t seem to matter that only a handful of them have been accused of possessing “weapons” of any kind (most of which seem to have been flagpoles).
In fact, a grand total of one of those “terrorists” even thought to bring a gun to the “coup.” (And never drew it, according to police.)
Not to mention that if one riot at the Capitol amounted to an attempted overthrow of the government, you’d probably have to say the same thing about the violent protests that erupted after Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016.
And what about the Democratic members of Congress who tried to prevent the certification of that election by the Electoral College the following January? Needless to say, such questions aren’t being posed by the committee or in the liberal press.
But after all, the ringmasters have never relied much on facts; they prefer to ply their audience with emotional images and wait for it to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs.
Thus, nobody on opening night mentioned the old lie about Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick being clubbed over the head with a fire extinguisher by one of the “insurrectionists.”
Instead, the committee flashed onto a viewing screen a momentary freeze-frame of a policeman, supposedly Sicknick, holding a hand over his face while a “witness” gave a description of events that didn’t match the picture but insisted on Sicknick being “as white as this sheet of paper” as he held “his face in his hands.”
Did the poignant image we saw match the story the committee wanted us to believe?
It was awfully hard to tell from the ringmasters’ own video. And the whole thing was irrelevant in any case: there’s no evidence connecting Sicknick’s death the next day (from natural causes) with anything that happened at the protest. But who cared? The concatenation of images – Sicknick’s name, a covered face, the words “white as paper” – rendered truth irrelevant; it worked directly on the emotions of the estimated 19 million viewers for whom the histrionics were designed in the first place.
And that was just the beginning. The high point of Thursday night’s emotional blitz was that “wrenching live interview” with Caroline Edwards – the police “witness” whose testimony so moved Jodi Rudoren. And who, we may ask, is Caroline Edwards?
According to the committee’s program notes, Edwards – a Capitol Police officer who looks like an actress and whose background just happens to be “a career in public relations” – was “the first law enforcement officer injured by rioters” on January 6.
She also claims to have been an eyewitness to a gruesome “war scene” as the protest intensified outside the Capitol.
Which certainly made for some popcorn-munching theater on June 9. But one might have expected a former New York Times bureau chief (which Rudoren is) to notice at least a few gaps in Edwards’ performance.
For one thing, why did the committee choose a witness who admittedly saw nothing that happened inside the Capitol – where any actual “coup attempt” would necessarily have taken place? Why wasn’t Edwards mentioned by any of the four law enforcement officers trotted out by that same committee as its star witnesses to anti-police violence during the protest at its first hearing back in July 2021?
(At the time, one of those cops insisted he had been “tortured” by a crowd that tried to “kill him with his own gun” – claims the committee has not even attempted to substantiate since then.)
And why didn’t the committee’s video document the “carnage” and “chaos” in which Edwards said she was “catching people as they fell” and “slipping in people’s blood”?
But given the priorities of Hollywood – the ones that counted, apparently – that blurry apocalypse was more than enough to make the committee’s point. In fact, according to Rudoren, another set of images at the hearing upstaged even pretty Ms. Edwards. And since you probably can’t guess what they were, I’ll quote Rudoren once again:
[I]n some ways the most powerful images of the night were the expressions on [Rep. Liz] Cheney’s face…. Cheney wore a look of profound disappointment and deep distaste.”
The emphasis is mine; otherwise I have quoted Ms. Rudoren verbatim. And her message could hardly have been clearer. Forget the truth, folks. Forget about what really happened to whom. Forget even about that “multimedia presentation” the committee spent so much time fabricating. Just look at Liz Cheney’s face while the Wyoming congresswoman does all the looking for you.
After all, it’s entirely too passé to think for yourselves. Today we keep our mouths shut and take our cues from a politician’s facial expressions. Goodbye, democratic government; hello, Liz Cheney’s dyspeptic grimaces!
Which brings me to the real point of the January 6 committee proceedings. The partisan aspect of this show trial is too obvious to need emphasis here. But there’s a lot more to the theater than an attempt to disqualify Donald Trump from seeking political office – though, of course, that’s part of the mix.
At bottom, these hearings are a kind of morality play – a public ritual that both invokes Divine Justice and adumbrates where its verdict will fall. The show-trial-cum-exorcism that commenced on June 9, laden with symbols of threatened virtue and guilt by association, is designed to dramatize in miniature a totalitarian religion that divides Absolute Good (center-liberal government) from Absolute Evil (grassroots dissent).
The Biden administration has already made a point of defining its critics as nonpersons: white supremacists, enemies of democracy, the awful “unvaccinated.” Now hoi polloi are to be purged altogether of any temptation to challenge the machinations of the ruling class. The ultimate crime of the January 6 protesters was not, in the end, that some of them trespassed on government property, or that an even smaller number scuffled with police.
No, the protesters’ unpardonable offense was to cry, “This is our house!” as they surrounded the Capitol. And that’s why they have to be demonized: because, right or wrong in their protest’s specific objective, they believed all too sincerely in what Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg about “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” They were traitors – because they declared their faith in democracy.
That’s why the committee’s ringmasters are scapegoating every single man and woman who disputed the outcome of the 2020 presidential election as a racist or a proto-Nazi, even though only a small fraction of the January 6 protesters had any connection to the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Aryan Nations or Three Percenters.
That’s why the committee is pinning all the blame for the fracas on the few hundred protesters who entered the Capitol, while not even trying to challenge federal officials who allowed a disorganized bunch of unarmed demonstrators inside what is supposed to be one of the most zealously guarded buildings in the United States.
And this, mind you, despite the fact that General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – whose consent would have been required for the deployment of National Guard or military personnel to the Capitol on January 6 – told his aides (according to a newly-published book) that Trump reminded him of Hitler and that he was determined to see Joe Biden installed as President “come hell or high water.”
Bear in mind that Time Magazine (yes, Time Magazine), less than a month after the protest, could already report that a “conspiracy” between “left-wing activists and business titans” had managed to ensure that the Trump supporters who converged on the Capitol on January 6 “were met by virtually no counterdemonstrators” who might otherwise have had to share the blame for “any mayhem.”
Is it too much to ask of a committee supposedly dedicated to investigating the events of January 6 to hope it might inquire into whether General Milley, and some of colleagues, had anything to do with that “conspiracy” and whether they deliberately let the protest get just far enough out of hand to publicly discredit Trump and establish a pretext for demonizing all such protests in the future? The committee’s refusal to ask such questions only underscores its anti-democratic objectives.
And please don’t be fooled by the absence of any reference to COVID19 during the committee’s opening act. The COVID coup may not be in the foreground now, but it lurks just behind every surface.
The show trial we’re watching now was, and is, the culmination of a process that began in March 2020 when we were told the First Amendment’s right to assemble was a suicide pact.
It gathered strength when the governors of some forty states turned themselves into quasi-dictators, and neither the courts, the press, nor the political opposition did anything to stop them.
It took its inspiration from a series of high-profile frauds, from public muzzling to arbitrary confinements to “vaccine passports,” that for over two years have swindled citizens of basic freedoms under the false flag of “safety.”
Its systematic unscrupulousness mirrors the rights-busting propaganda blitz that has made social media off limits to unwelcome truth-telling and continues to demand that we dose ourselves, and our children, with untested drugs whose safety our government specifically refuses to ensure.
And once the January 6 protest is officially pronounced the work of Satan – as it will be when the committee’s work is done – the next steps will almost certainly take aim at the future of dissent.
Justin Trudeau has already given us a taste of that future with the police-state tactics he deployed to crush the truckers’ protest in Ottowa: scrapping civil rights protections by declaring an “emergency,” imposing outlandish fines on peaceful protesters, and “freezing” the bank accounts of anyone who contributed to the demonstrations or who even attended a protest.
That’s what you need to remember whenever you happen to watch a rerun of the January 6 committee’s “multimedia experience”: this process isn’t over. It has only begun. And it isn’t just about some unruly Trump supporters.
It’s about you.
This time, people who milled around in the Capitol lobby on January 6 got locked up without bail and slapped with federal felony charges. Tomorrow – who knows? Once Big Brother finds out that you once sent $25 to the wrong political cause, you might be the one behind the eight ball, condemned without a trial, unable to buy food or pay the rent.
And Washington’s next movie might end up featuring you among the enemies of the State.
Political theater, meet Theater of the Absurd.
No – ritual virtue-signaling, meet the short road to dictatorship.
Michael Lesher is an author, poet and lawyer whose legal work is mostly dedicated to issues connected with domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. His latest nonfiction book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014); his first collection of poetry, Surfaces, was published by The High Window in 2019. A memoir of his discovery of Orthodox Judaism as an adult – Turning Back: The Personal Journey of a “Born-Again” Jew – was published in September 2020 by Lincoln Square Books.
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