A tall ream of papers with the Capitol building on the side
The January 6th report says much about Trump’s “Big Lie” but little about why so many believed it.Illustration by Anson Chan
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Trump is going to do some crazy shit.

—Steve Bannon, October 31, 2020

The Government Publishing Office’s eight-hundred-and-forty-five-page report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol is divided into eight chapters, makes eleven recommendations, attaches four appendices, and includes four thousand two hundred and eight-five endnotes. Its executive summary, which at nearly two hundred pages can hardly be called a summary, provides a numbered list of seventeen key findings, the first eleven of which have, as the subject of the predicate, the forty-fifth President of the United States:

1. Donald Trump purposely disseminated false allegations of fraud. . . .

2. Donald Trump refused to accept the lawful result of the 2020 election. . . .

3. Donald Trump corruptly pressured Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to count electoral votes. . . .

4. Donald Trump sought to corrupt the U.S. Department of Justice. . . .

5. Donald Trump unlawfully pressured State officials and legislators. . . .

6. Donald Trump oversaw an effort to transmit false electoral certificates. . . .

7. Donald Trump pressured Members of Congress to object to valid slates of electors. . . .

8. Donald Trump purposely verified false information filed in Federal court. . . .

9. Donald Trump summoned tens of thousands of supporters to Washington for January 6th. . . .

10. Donald Trump purposely sent a social media message publicly condemning Vice President Pence. . . .

11. Donald Trump refused repeated requests over a multiple hour period that he instruct his violent supporters to disperse and leave the Capitol. . . .

In a foreword to the report, Bennie G. Thompson, the committee’s chairman, stresses the importance of “accountability at all levels,” but although the word “conspiracy” appears both in finding No. 12—“Each of these actions by Donald Trump was taken in support of a multi-part conspiracy to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 Presidential election”—and more than a hundred times elsewhere in the document, the report is less an account of a conspiracy than a very long bill of indictment against a single man.

More on the January 6th Report

Read David Remnick on the House select committee’s devastating findings.

Two years ago, the President of the United States attempted to overturn an election for no reason other than that he had lost. A mere handful of Republican officeholders denounced him; for months, nationally prominent members of the G.O.P. refused to acknowledge that Joseph Biden had won the Presidency. On January 6, 2021, at Trump’s urging, thousands of his supporters staged an armed, lethal, and yet somehow also inane insurrection at the Capitol, aimed at preventing a joint session of Congress from certifying the results of the election. They failed. Unless you count being temporarily banned from Twitter as punishment, the former President has suffered no consequences for his actions; Republicans have refused to hold him to account, not least because many Party leaders have been implicated in the attempted overthrow of the United States government. Days after the insurrection, the House voted to impeach the President, but the Senate then failed to convict him. Months later, the House voted to establish an independent, 9/11-style commission to investigate the insurrection, but the Senate blocked that by way of the filibuster. The House soon voted to hold its own investigation, under the aegis of a select committee composed of seven Democrats and six Republicans. Then Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, refused to seat on the committee two Republicans who had supported the insurrection, whereupon Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Minority Leader, denounced the committee and pulled his members from it, after which the G.O.P., declaring the attack on the Capitol to have been “legitimate political discourse,” censured the two Republicans who did serve on the committee, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both of whom left office this month. (Cheney lost her bid for reëlection, and Kinzinger declined to run.)

Congress established the January 6th Committee on June 30, 2021. The committee’s report is the fullest record yet of the conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election, much of it deriving from the dauntless work of earlier reporters, much of it newly gathered by the committee itself. In the course of eighteen months, the committee reviewed thousands of pages of evidence and presented testimony from more than seventy witnesses during ten televised hearingsproduced with the aid of the former president of ABC News and illustrated with taped video interviews, Facebook posts, text messages, YouTube clips, and surveillance footage, all of it easily snipped and posted on social media. The hearings made for great television and, probably more important, great memes, the TikTokification of testimony. “Like our hearings, this report is designed to deliver our findings in detail in a format that is accessible for all Americans,” Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice-chair, writes in a foreword to the written report. But the report, unlike the hearings, is dreary, repetitive, and exhausting. In that sense, it’s like Trump himself. It’s also surprisingly scanty in the key elements of storytelling—setting, character, and plot. It’s as if the committee found itself unable to surmount Trump’s madness and senselessness, trapped in his very plotlessness.'

The report doesn’t lack for details, which consist mainly of running down and debunking bogus claims about dead voters, shredded ballots, dumped votes, voting machines linked to Hugo Chávez, a faked water-main rupture, suitcases full of ballots, U.S.B. drives, truckloads of ballots in garbage bins, unmarked vans, a Dominion voting machine connected to China by way of a smart thermostat, and some guy meddling with the election from inside a prison in Italy. There are inconsequential but “Veep”-worthy revelations: an Oath Keeper calling followers of QAnon “Q-tards,” and Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, at the rally at the Ellipse on January 6th, asked whether he would march to the Capitol, answering, “Hell, no. It’s freezing.” Antics abound: Rudy Giuliani (who is now facing disbarment) holding a press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping; Ivanka and Jared fretting, uselessly; a Proud Boys subcommittee calling itself the Ministry of Self-Defense entertaining a proposal from South Florida cryptocurrency investors that refers to the planned attack on the Capitol as operation Storm the Winter Palace, a reference to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (leading the report’s authors to huff, “No historical event has been less American”). At one point, Trump supporters in Michigan plan to hide out in the state’s capitol overnight, so that, in the morning, they can sign an elector certificate that, by law, has to be signed in that building. Not for nothing did William Barr, the Attorney General at the time, refer to Trump’s legal team as the “clown car.” It’s all so madcap and vaudevillian that, if the stakes weren’t so high, and the matter at hand not so grave, it would be the Marx Brothers in “Night at the White House.”

But the stakes are high; they tower. Trump might get reëlected. Or he might get indicted. Both could happen. Even if he were to die tomorrow, the attempt to overturn the election would require an accounting of its deeper roots in American political behavior and discourse, of the anti-government takeover of the G.O.P., and of the role played by the hundred and forty-seven Republicans who, in the early morning of January 7, 2021, only hours after the Capitol had been cleared of rioters, voted against certifying the results of the election. The siege of the building is, in the end, the least of it. The Department of Justice has so far filed criminal charges against more than nine hundred people who participated in the insurrection, of whom nearly five hundred have either pleaded guilty or been convicted. The January 6th Report makes eight criminal referrals, recommending that the Department of Justice prosecute the former President (and in some cases other people) for crimes that include obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and incitement or assistance of insurrection, the charge for which Trump was impeached in January, 2021. Much turns on the reception of this report. 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.

Investigatory committees and commissions began to multiply about a century ago, with the rise of the administrative state and the extension of executive power. Their purpose is chiefly to hold bureaucrats and elected officials and, especially, the executive branch accountable for wrongdoing. It wasn’t clear, at first, whether these commissions were constitutional. That question was resolved in 1927, when, in McGrain v. Daugherty, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a conviction for contempt of the brother of the Attorney General, who had refused to appear before a Senate committee investigating the Teapot Dome scandal. The investigatory commission proliferated during the Progressive Era, and has origins in “race riot” commissions like the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, established in 1919 by the governor of Illinois “to get the facts and interpret them and to find a way out,” or, as Lyndon B. Johnson put it, when charging the Kerner Commission with investigating “civil disorders” half a century later, “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

These same questions animate the January 6th investigation, and a case can be made that the insurrection was, among other things, a race riot—a white race riot. But the committee has not taken as its model the race-riot report. Instead, the report is indebted to earlier investigations into attacks on the United States, a kinship suggested by the committee’s preference for the word “attack” over the word “insurrection,” as if it came from without. “I don’t know if you want to use the word ‘insurrection,’ ‘coup,’ whatever,” a White House staffer told the committee. The committee knew which word it wanted to use.

Congress ordered the select committee to “investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances, and causes” of the attack on the Capitol. The charge borrows its language from investigations into earlier attacks on the United States. On December 18, 1941, eleven days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, F.D.R. appointed a commission “to ascertain and report the facts relating to the attack.” In 1963, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson directed the Warren Commission “to evaluate all the facts and circumstances surrounding the assassination,” which, at the time, many suspected to have been a covert operation coördinated by the K.G.B., given that Lee Harvey Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. In 2002, Congress charged the 9/11 Commission with determining the “facts and circumstances relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” Each investigated failures within the federal government, especially failures of intelligence, but each looked, too, to foreign actors.

If you’re going to report on the facts, circumstances, and causes of an event, the natural way to do it is to write a story that is both painstakingly researched and kept kissing-close to the evidence—a story, in other words, that is also a history. A history has to be true, to the best of your knowledge at the time of the writing, and it ought to be riveting. The Warren Commission Report (1964) reads like a mystery novel: “In the corner house itself, Mrs. Barbara Jeanette Davis and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Virginia Davis, heard the shots and rushed to the door in time to see the man walk rapidly across the lawn shaking a revolver as if he were emptying it of cartridge cases.” The Starr Report (1998), an investigation of a real-estate deal that ended up exposing Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, often reads like porn: “In the course of flirting with him, she raised her jacket in the back and showed him the straps of her thong underwear, which extended above her pants.” The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) reads like an international thriller: “Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. . . . In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run. For those heading to an airport, weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey. Among the travelers were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari, who arrived at the airport in Portland, Maine.” The January 6th Report reads like a prosecuting attorney’s statement to a jury: “President Trump’s decision to declare victory falsely on election night and, unlawfully, to call for the vote counting to stop, was not a spontaneous decision. It was premeditated.” A page-turner it is not.

The reports of earlier investigatory commissions have been mixed successes. The Warren Report, which concluded that Oswald acted alone, is notorious, since it did little to halt the flowering of conspiracy theories involving everything from the Mafia to Martians. “We are looking to you, not to approve our own notions, but to guide us and to guide the country through a thicket of tension, conflicting evidence, and extreme opinion,” L.B.J. told the Kerner Commission. But, when the report came in, the President refused even to accept a copy. The Starr Report is just plain embarrassing.

Reports of investigatory commissions don’t age well: as is the case with all historical analysis, more evidence always comes out later. Still, some reports are better than others. The 9/11 Commission Report was a finalist for the National Book Award. In an “authorized” edition published by W. W. Norton, the report was also an unexpected best-seller. As with the January 6th Report, which is available from several different publishers as a book—including an edition co-published by this magazine—you could get the 9/11 report free online, but people bought it anyway. Time described it as “one of the most riveting, disturbing and revealing accounts of crime, espionage and the inner workings of government ever written.” The Times Book Review called it “an improbable literary triumph.”

Families of the victims, not members of Congress, had demanded the formation of the 9/11 Commission, which consisted of five Democrats and five Republicans (none of whom were current members of Congress). The architects of the report were two professors of history—the commission’s executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, and a senior adviser, Ernest R. May—who had taught courses together and had also collaborated on a book, “The Kennedy Tapes.” May, a Harvard professor (and a colleague of mine until his death, in 2009), wanted to reinvent the genre. “Typically, government reports focus on ‘findings’ and array the evidence accordingly,” he explained. “None, to our knowledge, had ever attempted simply to produce professional-quality narrative history.” This is what May set out to do—he wanted to create “enduringly readable history”—and it’s not only the report’s narrative structure but also its sense of historical time that endows it with both immediacy and lastingness.

The historical narrative is the first eleven chapters of a thirteen-chapter report. There is no two-hundred-page executive summary. There is no executive summary at all, or any list of findings. There is, instead, a taut, three-page preface, and then the story begins, the “story of eccentric and violent ideas sprouting in the fertile ground of political and social turmoil.”

The 9/11 report has plenty of flaws, as May was the first to admit. “For one thing, the report skirts the question of whether American policies and actions fed the anger that manifested itself on September 11,” he wrote in The New Republic in 2005. For another, because some members of the commission and its staff had worked at national-security agencies, “collective drafting led to the introduction of passages that offset criticism of an agency with words of praise. Not all these words were deserved.” Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush got off even easier than the C.I.A., the F.B.I., and the N.S.A. What May was hinting at is illustrated in a thirty-one-page document declassified only this fall, a “memorandum for the record” of a meeting between Bush and the commissioners in which the commissioners repeatedly pressed Bush on whether he knew, in the summer of 2001, about the threat posed by Al Qaeda. Bush said he’d been briefed only about “threats overseas.” This was a lie. He’d been warned about specific threats to the United States. Nowhere in the commission’s final report—released in July, 2004, less than four months before a Presidential election—is the President implicated. If he had been, he might not have been reëlected. “Our aim has not been to assign individual blame,” reads the preface, written by the bipartisan commission’s co-chairs. Instead, they hoped to provide an explanation.

May wanted the 9/11 report to “transcend the passions of the moment,” and it did. He hoped it might serve as a model for future reports. “In these perilous times, there will surely be other events that will require the principles of historiography allied to the resources of government, so that urgency will sometimes become the friend of truth.” This is the bar that was set for members of the January 6th Committee. Their report does not clear that bar. Not because the report isn’t accurate but because it hasn’t achieved escape velocity from the leaden passions of the present.

Here, radically reduced—forty gallons of sap to one gallon of maple syrup—is a very un-executive summary of the report. Donald Trump never said he’d abide by the outcome of the election. In May of 2020, fearing that Biden might win in November, he tweeted, “It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history!” He understood that he would likely lose but that, owing to an effect known as the Red Mirage, it would look, for a while, as if he had won: more Democrats than Republicans would vote by mail and, since mail-in ballots are often the last to be counted, early counting would favor Republicans. “When that happens,” Roger Stone advised him, “the key thing to do is to claim victory. . . . No, we won. Fuck you, Sorry. Over.”

That was Plan A. In September, The Atlantic published a bombshell article by Barton Gellman reporting that the Trump campaign had a scheme “to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority.” That was Plan B. Plan A (“Fuck you”) was more Trump’s style. “He’s gonna declare victory,” Steve Bannon said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s the winner. He’s just gonna say he’s a winner.” On Election Night, November 3rd, Trump wanted to do just that, but his campaign team persuaded him not to. His patience didn’t last long. “This is a fraud on the American public,” Trump said on November 4th. “We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.” The next day, he tweeted, “stop the count!” On November 7th, CNN, NBC, MSNBC, ABC, the Associated Press, and Fox News all declared that Joseph Biden had won. The election was not close. Counting the votes just took a while.

After Biden won, Trump continued to insist that widespread fraud had been committed. Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, told the January 6th Committee that the campaign became a “truth telling squad,” chasing allegations, discovering them to be unfounded, and telling the President, “Yeah, that wasn’t true.” The Department of Homeland Security looked into allegations, most of which popped up online, and announced, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” The Justice Department, too, investigated charges of fraud, but, as Barr informed the committee, he was left telling the President, repeatedly, “They’re not panning out.”

For Plan C, the President turned to Rudy Giuliani and a group of lawyers that included Sidney Powell. They filed sixty-two lawsuits challenging election results, and lost all but one of these suits (and that one involved neither allegations of fraud nor any significant number of votes). Twenty-two of the judges who decided these cases had been appointed by Republicans, and ten had been appointed by Trump.

On December 11th, the Supreme Court rejected a suit that had challenged the results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Trump had had every right to challenge the results of state elections, but at this point he had exhausted his legal options. He decided to fall back on Plan B, the fake-electors plan, which required hundreds of legislators across the country to set aside the popular vote in states won by Biden, claiming that the results were fraudulent, and appointing their own slate of electors, who would cast their Electoral College votes for Trump on December 14th. According to Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, the White House counsel determined that, since none of the fraud allegations had been upheld by any court, the fake-electors plan was illegal. But one deputy assistant to the President told Trump that it didn’t matter whether there had been fraud or not, because “state legislators ‘have the constitutional right to substitute their judgment for a certified majority of their constituents’ if that prevents socialism.”

Plan B required Trump to put pressure on a lot of people. The committee counted at least two hundred attempts he made to influence state or local officials by phone, text, posts, or public remarks. Instructing Trump supporters to join in, Giuliani said, “Sometimes it even requires being threatened.” A Trump-campaign spreadsheet documents efforts to contact more than a hundred and ninety Republican state legislators in Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan alone.

Barr resigned. “I didn’t want to be part of it,” he told the committee. Plenty of other people were happy to be part of it, though. Ronna McDaniel, the R.N.C. chair, participated and provided Trump with the assistance of R.N.C. staffers. On December 14th, certified electors met in every state. In seven states that Biden had won—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—fake electors also met and produced counterfeit Electoral College certificates for Trump. Five of these certificates were sent to Washington but were rejected because they lacked the required state seal; two arrived after the deadline. None were accepted.

Trump then launched Plan D, which was not so much a plan as a pig’s breakfast of a conspiracy, a coup, and a putsch. Everything turned on January 6th, the day a joint session of Congress was to certify the results of the Electoral College vote. To stop that from happening, Trump recruited members of Congress into a conspiracy to overturn the election by rejecting the certified votes and accepting the counterfeits; he asked the Vice-President to participate in a coup by simply declaring him the winner; and he incited his supporters to take over the Capitol by force, in a poorly planned putsch, which he intended to lead. On December 17th, Kayleigh McEnany said on Fox News, “There has been an alternate slate of electors voted upon that Congress will decide in January.” Two days later, Trump tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. On January 6th. Be there, will be wild.” The legal architect of the Pence part of the pig’s breakfast—“a coup in search of a legal theory,” as one federal judge called it—was a lawyer named John Eastman. The Trump lawyer Eric Herschmann recalled a conversation he had with Eastman:

You’re saying you believe the Vice President, acting as President of the Senate, can be the sole decisionmaker as to, under your theory, who becomes the next President of the United States? And he said, yes. And I said, are you out of your Fing mind?

Trump pressed the acting Attorney General, Jeffrey Rosen, and other members of the Department of Justice to aid the conspiracy by declaring some of the voting to have been fraudulent. Rosen refused. “The D.O.J. can’t and won’t snap its fingers and change the outcome of the election,” he told Trump. Trump replied, “I don’t expect you to do that. Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican Congressmen.” Trump tried to replace Rosen with a lackey named Jeffrey Clark, but, in a tense meeting at the White House on January 3rd, Rosen and others made clear to him that, if he did so, much of the department would resign. Trump and Eastman met repeatedly with Pence in the Oval Office and tried to recruit him into the conspiracy. Pence refused. At 11:20 a.m. on January 6th, Trump called Pence and again asked him, and again Pence refused, after which, according to Ivanka, the President called the Vice-President a pussy.

Trump was slated to speak at his be-wild rally at the Ellipse at noon, but when he arrived he was unhappy about the size of the crowd. The Secret Service had set up magnetometers, known as mags, to screen for weapons. Twenty-eight thousand people went through the mags, from whom the Secret Service collected, among other banned items, “269 knives or blades, 242 cannisters of pepper spray, 18 brass knuckles, 18 tasers, 6 pieces of body armor, 3 gas masks, 30 batons or blunt instruments.” Some people had ditched their bags, and presumably their weapons, in trees or cars. In a crowd that included members of white-supremacist and far-right, anti-government extremist groups—including the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, America First, and QAnon—another twenty-five thousand people simply refused to go through the mags. “I don’t fucking care that they have weapons,” Trump shouted. “They’re not here to hurt me. Take the fucking mags away.” The mags stayed. Trump took to the podium and fired up his followers for the march to the Capitol until 1:10 p.m., and then he walked to his motorcade, climbed into the Presidential S.U.V., which is known as the Beast, and demanded to be driven to the Capitol. Secret Service agents persuaded him to return to the White House.

Just before the Joint Session was to begin, at one o’clock, Pence released a written statement: “I do not believe that the Founders of our country intended to invest the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted during the Joint Session of Congress.” The voting began. By 1:21, Trump had been informed that the Capitol was under attack. He spent the rest of the day watching it on television. For hours, his staff and his advisers begged him to order the mob to disperse or to call for military assistance; he refused. At 1:46, Representative Paul Gosar objected to the count from Arizona, after which Senator Ted Cruz endorsed that objection. Pence was evacuated at 2:12. Seconds later, Proud Boys achieved the first breach of the Capitol, smashing a window in the Senate wing. Eleven minutes later, the mob broke through the doors to the East Rotunda, and Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” The mob chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.” Meadows told a colleague, “He thinks Mike deserves it.” Kevin McCarthy called the President. “They literally just came through my office windows,” he said. “You need to call them off.” Trump said, “Well, Kevin, I guess they’re just more upset about the election theft than you are.” At 4:17 p.m., the President released a video message in which he asked the insurrectionists to go home, and told them that he loved them.

And that, in brief, is the report, which concludes that “the central cause of January 6th was one man, former President Donald Trump.” And that, in brief, is the problem: chasing Trump, never quite untethering itself from him, fluttering in the biting wind of his violent derangement, like a ribbon pinned to the tail of a kite during a tornado, and failing, entirely, to see the tornado.

In the January 6th 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. No one dies of covid, no one loses a job, no one sinks to her knees in grief upon hearing on the radio the news that Americans—Americans—are staging an armed invasion of the Capitol. Among the many reasons this investigation ought to have been conducted by a body independent from the federal government is that there is very little suffering in Congress’s January 6th Report, except that of members of Congress running for their lives that day.

The report is organized around the idea of the “Big Lie,” which is the title of the report’s first chapter. “The Big Lie” is what Democratic politicians and many journalists call Trump’s claim that he had won the election. (It is also an expression first notably used by Adolf Hitler.) It is an inept phrase: it turns an attempted coup d’état into something that sounds like a children’s book written by Margaret Wise Brown. “The Big Lie” is so ham-handed that, unsurprisingly, it’s an expression that Trump adores. “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as the big lie!” he announced at one point. Playing “You lie!” “No, you lie!” with Donald Trump is a fool’s game.

“The Big Lie” is not a big lie. 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. In 2020, it gained so much speed so fast that it acted something like a stampede. Unfortunately, reading the report is like being in the stampede. “The stolen election narrative has proven to be remarkably durable precisely because it is a matter of belief—not evidence, or reason,” the report states. It does not ask why this should be. Why believe? Two in five Americans and three in five Republicans still believe. Republicans who most fiercely believe hold the Party by the throat. The 9/11 Commission Report asked, “How did Bin Ladin—with his call for indiscriminate killing of Americans—win thousands of followers and some degree of approval from millions more?” The January 6th Committee Report, for all its weight and consequence, never asks why anyone believed Donald Trump, which is why it is unlikely to persuade anyone not to.

Why believe? Answering that question would have required 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. In 1992, Newt Gingrich told Republican candidates to get the message out that the Democrats were going to rig the Presidential election. It didn’t matter to Gingrich that this wasn’t true. “They’re going to buy registrations, they’re going to buy votes,” he warned. “They’re going to turn out votes, they’re going to steal votes, they’re going to do anything they can.” After the contested Bush v. Gore election, of 2000, sowing doubt about elections became common practice for outsiders in both parties. “The system is rigged” was the watchword of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign: 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.

Why believe? In the past two decades, public approval of Congress has fallen from eighty per cent to twenty per cent. Might it be that Congress has lost any real grip on the American experience, and no longer speaks for a nation and a people that Richard Hofstadter once called a “huge, inarticulate beast”? The report lacks not only a sense of the past but also a meaningful sense of the present. A chronicle that runs from April, 2020, to January, 2021, it is a story told out of time. The “facts, circumstances, and causes” relating to the insurrection that it fails to investigate and, in most cases, even to note, include covid-19 deaths, masks, lockdowns, joblessness, farm closures, guns and mass shootings, a national mental-health crisis, daily reports of devastating storms and fires, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and partisan, and especially congressional, eye-gouging over each and every one of the items in this list. Why believe? Was the election stolen? No. But was 2020 painful? Yes.

Why believe? Nowhere acknowledged in the report is the fact that November 3, 2020, really was a weird Election Day. In the middle of a pandemic, unprecedented numbers of people voted by mail and by absentee ballot, and, even if you trudged out to the polls, you were met with the general misery of masks and loneliness and loss and, for many people, a sense of impending doom. For the entire stretch of time chronicled in this report, it felt to many Americans, not always for the same reasons, as though a great deal was being stolen from them: their jobs, their co-workers, a sense of justice and fairness in the world, predictable weather, the idea of America, the people they love, human touch. The January 6th Report offers no shuddering sense, not even a little shiver, of the national mood of vulnerability, fear, and sorrow. “The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a cruel and shocking act of violence directed against a man, a family, a nation, and against all mankind,” the Warren Commission Report opens. Nothing in the January 6th report is stated so squarely.

Why believe? During the pandemic, more people spent more time online than ever before. The report fails to examine the way in which Facebook and Twitter profited by spreading misinformation about the election, providing the organizational architecture for the insurrection, and making possible the doxing and harassment of courageous and dedicated public servants who refused to participate in the conspiracy. When Trump staffers tell him that allegations of fraud are unfounded, he replies, “You guys may not be following the internet the way I do.” Nor did the committee.

Why believe? Every single television and news outlet that reported live on Election Day, 2020, knew about the Red Mirage, and although some news anchors regularly pointed out that the outcome would not be known for days, they were nevertheless complicit in promoting the fiction of a Trump victory: simply by reporting, second by second, on November 3, 2020, they endorsed the idea that the outcome could be known that night even though they knew it to be untrue. The committee does not remark on this. Nor does it indict the media-run polls and horse-race coverage—vastly greater in number, speed, and influence than ever before, or the growing partisanship of the press. Nor does it inquire into the consequences of an educated national élite of politicians, journalists, and academics increasingly living their lives in a Met Gala to Davos to White House Correspondents’ Dinner world, or the degree to which so many of them appear to have so wholly given themselves over to Twitter—knowing the world through it, reporting from it, being ruled by it.

Why believe? The answer to that question—the knowledge of what has happened to America—will have to wait for another day. From beneath the Capitol dome, the January 6th Committee has issued its report. It blames Trump. It explains very little. Outside, the whirling wind heaves and twists and roars. ♦