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The historic House Select Committee’s hearings on the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, are a necessary undertaking for the health of our democracy. The fact that most of the witnesses are Republican—and many are former members of Donald Trump’s own inner circle—greatly bolsters the committee’s credibility. In our hyper-partisan reality, this fact can also lead to a temptation to hail the witnesses as courageous, honorable figures putting their consciences above ideology. But the truth is, these same people not only witnessed, but actively enabled, the Trump presidency, and all the harm that came with it. Ignoring this critical fact risks leaving the nation vulnerable to future demagogues.
Take Cassidy Hutchinson, the top aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who testified on June 28. The Select Committee held an unscheduled, special hearing, featuring live and recorded testimony from Hutchinson.
During her testimony, Hutchinson painted a picture of the former president as a belligerent man-child with a propensity for violence, who didn’t care that the insurrectionists on Jan. 6 were dangerously armed, and who wanted so desperately to march into the Capitol with them that he tackled his Secret Service driver.
Select Committee Chair Bennie Thompson lauded Hutchinson’s willingness to testify, saying, “Thanks to the courage of certain individuals, the truth won’t be buried. The American people won’t be left in the dark. Our witness today, Ms. Cassidy Hutchinson, has embodied that courage.”
Trump made clear from the moment he ran for president what sort of leader he would be.
But Hutchinson, who joined Trump’s staff in March 2020, let slip one crucial sentence during her testimony that jolted me from the admiration I, too, had started to feel while watching the hearing. When asked how she felt about one of Trump’s particularly damning tweets about former Vice President Mike Pence, Hutchinson said, “As a staffer that worked to always represent the administration to the best of my ability, and to showcase the good things that he had done for the country, I remember feeling frustrated and disappointed. …”
What good things was she referring to?
Did she mean Trump’s deliberate policy of separating thousands of immigrant children from their parents? Or his embrace of White supremacists? Or perhaps installing three Supreme Court justices who are so extreme that Hutchinson, like all Americans capable of pregnancy, no longer had a guaranteed constitutional right to an abortion? Or maybe she was referring to his criminal negligence on the COVID-19 pandemic. Or perhaps the tens of thousands of lies he incessantly told, or the thousands of conflicts of interest and ethics violations he engaged in? The list is endless, and whole books have been written about Trump’s jaw-dropping violations of morality, ethics, laws, and propriety. Hutchinson was apparently comfortable representing and showcasing this fascistic smorgasbord of evil deeds—until the days before Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump made clear from the moment he ran for president what sort of leader he would be when he railed against Mexicans as drug traffickers, criminals, and rapists coming into the U.S. during his very first campaign speech in 2015.
Trump then spent his career in the White House relentlessly expressing his authoritarian tendencies as overtly as possible—all of which predictably led to his refusal to accept the election results in 2020. Every moment of Trump’s presidency was a warning that he was a despot who would not respect the law or the Constitution if either stood in his way. None of Trump’s actions leading up to and during the insurrection ought to have been surprising, least of all to those who surrounded him intimately.
It’s not just Hutchinson, who might be forgiven her ignorance on account of her political inexperience—she is only 25. Vice President Mike Pence is being hailed by media pundits and even Democrats for boldly standing up for the rule of law when he refused Trump’s orders to undermine the electoral college votes. That’s where Pence drew the line—after four years of enabling an authoritarian who cared nothing about the rule of law.
Before and after his time in the White House, Pence has never tried to hide who he is. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling revoking a constitutional right, Pence promptly called for a national abortion ban, and he continues to boast about his pride in being part of a movement that undermines the bodily autonomy of millions of Americans. “[W]e must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land,” Pence wrote on Twitter moments after the Supreme Court ruled. That ruling—which not only revokes a fundamental right of millions, but runs directly counter to overwhelming public opinion in support of legal abortion—would not have been possible without Trump’s appointees to the Court.
In elevating these servants of fascism as courageous people with integrity, the committee risks casting them as ordinary Americans.
Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, has also emerged as a “hero” for standing up to Trump and most members of her own party for co-chairing the House Select Committee. But Cheney was one of the most loyal House Republicans backing Trump’s agenda, voting with him nearly 93% of the time. Like Pence, she hailed the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights, saying on Twitter, “I have always been strongly pro-life.”
Or, consider former Attorney General William Barr, whose testimony, like Hutchinson’s, has been a significant part of the Select Committee’s evidence. Barr said in a taped interview that he clearly thought Trump lost the election, and that he said as much to the president. Barr told committee members that Trump’s claims about a stolen election were “completely bullshit,” “absolute rubbish,” “idiotic,” “bogus,” “stupid,” “crazy stuff,” “complete nonsense,” and “a great, great disservice to the country.” He added that he thought Trump had become “detached from reality.”
And yet, Barr says he would vote again for Trump were he to run.
Think about that. Barr was so solidly attached to Trump before Jan. 6 that Salon’s Heather Digby Parton called him “Trump’s biggest enabler and top servant.” He then completely turned against Trump in his committee testimony. And then he said he would support him again.
The Jan. 6 committee is indeed an important undertaking. The alternative to investigating the near-coup in 2021 is doing nothing, which is unacceptable. In basing the evidence largely on Republican testimony from people who paved the way for Trump, the committee is perhaps hoping to convince Trump’s current supporters just how close we came to losing our democracy. But in elevating these servants of fascism as courageous people with integrity, the committee risks casting them as ordinary Americans whose views merely lie on the opposite end of the political spectrum as Democrats.
That is not who they are.
They are the enablers of a fascist leader, who realized far too much of their sordid agenda via Trump. From the Supreme Court to the White House to federal agencies, they succeeded in undermining our freedoms and rights—ensuring that firearms were deregulated while uteruses were overregulated, immigrants were traumatized while billionaires became wealthier, health regulations were undermined while more than a million died from a deadly coronavirus.
As we watch the Jan. 6 hearings—and we really ought to watch them and understand just how close we came to a violent coup—we need to do it with the understanding that the insurrection was the predictable outcome of allowing people with fascist tendencies into the halls of power. Many of the witnesses now condemning Trump were on his team for most of his White House tenure. It seems as though the former president’s sycophants are horrified not at what Trump did, but rather that he did it so clumsily and in full view of the public. And perhaps that he ultimately failed.
If the committee, media, and public observers normalize Pence, Barr, and even the seemingly innocent Hutchinson, they are paving the way for future authoritarian fascists—who will undoubtedly be far more disciplined, cunning, and effective than Trump was.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com