Thoughts about the release of Jan 6 videos


Last Friday afternoon, House speaker Mike Johnson released a ton of boring surveillance footage of the Capitol complex taken on January 6, 2021. Indeed, to hear some Republican lawmakers tell it, the fact that so much of roughly 40,000 hours of video is boring serves as an indictment of the congressional committee that investigated the events of January 6. By dwelling so extensively on the violence and vandalism, they say, this congressional inquiry somehow failed the American people, whose attention should have been directed to the inconsequential banalities that also occurred on that day.

On its face, that might sound like a profoundly foolish argument. The fact that millions of Americans brushed their teeth and walked their dogs on December 7, 1941, doesn’t undermine the horror of Pearl Harbor. Footage of the 9/11 hijackers uneventfully navigating though airport security doesn’t dilute the terrorism they would later commit. A “mostly peaceful” riot is a riot, nonetheless.

Still, that seems to be the argument being advanced by some on the right who are committed to popularizing a version of the day’s events that absolves the January 6 rioters of responsibility for their actions.

In a response to former representative Liz Cheney, who posted a video montage of some of the most sickening violence from the attack on the Capitol, Senator Mike Lee castigated her for failing to focus her attention on the day’s non-events. “Liz, we’ve seen footage like that a million times,” he said of the mob’s vicious attacks on police officers. “It’s the other stuff—what you deliberately hid from us—that we find so upsetting.”

In just-asking-questions fashion, Lee speculated that some of the rioters beating police officers with sticks and spraying them with chemical irritants were probably “feds” themselves. In addition, he proposed a conspiracy theory in which the January 6 committee colluded with federal investigators to deliberately destroy evidence in a criminal investigation. “We need to investigate the J6 committee,” Lee concluded.

Americans who would benefit enormously from just logging off latched onto the footage as evidence that the January 6 attacks were a false flag. “I’ve said it all along,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene insisted. “MAGA did not do this.” The evidence for this claim is derived from a grainy screen grab of a rioter holding up a vape pen that fevered Internet sleuths mistook for a badge. That supposedly blameless victim of forces beyond his understanding was convicted of six federal charges after he filmed himself ransacking and looting then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office.

The assumption among those retailing the notion that January 6 was a “fedsurrection” without a hint of pretense seems to be that the “Stop the Steal” rallygoers who were seen calmly giving themselves an uninvited walking tour of the Capitol were MAGA’s True Scotsmen. Anyone else who engaged in illegality beyond trespassing was a plant — part of a sprawling plot orchestrated by federal law enforcement to tarnish the MAGA brand. Those who peddle this line appear to be so deeply embedded in their information silos that they honestly believe their irrationality reflects well on themselves and their movement.

The omnidirectional revisionism in which some of the GOP’s more irresponsible lawmakers and right-wing broadcasters are invested is designed to complicate an otherwise understandable narrative. It couldn’t be that Donald Trump spent weeks teeing up the notion that a great historical crime was afoot. It’s simply naïve to believe that he whipped his most committed supporters into a frenzy and set them on the Capitol, at which point lizard-brained mob dynamics kicked in. Instead, it must be that the partisan January 6 committee — which was formed only after Republicans rejected the creation of an independent, bipartisan commission — has papered over a labyrinthine scheme involving hundreds of moving parts that implicates an untold number of courts, state and federal law-enforcement agencies, appointed officials, and lawmakers.

This revisionist project has taken on new urgency as the trial of Donald Trump for his role in the events that culminated in violence on January 6 approaches. It is illustrative of the rational but unspoken conclusion among his supporters that the day’s events are a major political liability for the former president. The waters the January 6 committee clarified must be muddied up lest voters conclude that, regardless of their misgivings about Joe Biden’s record in office, the risk of inviting Trump’s chaos back into the White House isn’t worth taking.

In the process, however, Trump’s partisans are doing the Democrats’ work for them. They are resurfacing the footage from that day and, with it, the public’s distaste for the rioters and the conspiracy theory around which they rallied. They are reminding voters of that day’s painful emotional experience. They are demonstrating the degree to which their paranoid persecution complex clouds their judgment.

At root, the effort to convince voters that they cannot trust their own eyes exposes MAGA supporters’ troubled consciences. Somewhere deep down, they understand that January 6 is a political weakness for which they must compensate. The fact that they’re going about that imperative in the dumbest ways imaginable is illustrative of the scale of that challenge.

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