Will there ever be accountability for the Jan. 6 insurrection? The answer is, probably, yes. The problem is that it may be easy to miss.
This last week alone has brought a steady flow of headlines about congressional subpoenas issued to those in former President Trump’s inner orbit, attempts by Trump to keep records about his actions and conversations leading up to the insurrection secret, and plea deals by those charged with storming the US Capitol on Jan. 6.
This makes it seem like a reckoning could be on the horizon. Perhaps we’ll finally see what has proved so frustratingly elusive in the 10 months since the deadly siege of the seat of our nation’s government by a violent mob intent on subverting democracy: yes, accountability.
The problem with all the focus on criminal charges and subpoenas is that it creates the impression that justice will come in the form of handcuffed folks being led into prison cells. At the very least, the huge amount of time and resources congressional committees, the Justice Department, and the courts have spent lends itself to the notion that justice will be handed down from some authority like a thunderclap.
But what we have already seen play out dispels that idea. Hundreds who stormed the Capitol have been arrested and collectively face thousands of charges, but most of them are misdemeanors, and only a fraction of the accused face jail time. Some of the judges presiding over the cases have grown increasingly vocally frustrated that the punishments in these cases don’t come close to fitting the collective crime committed against the nation.
The congressional investigation into the attacks is barely bipartisan, and has been met with obstruction and stonewalling not only from Trumpworld but also GOP lawmakers.
The Justice Department seems to lack a sense of urgency, not only in its prosecution of insurrectionists but also in its slow-walking the criminal contempt referral against Steve Bannon for flouting a congressional subpoena.
And don’t forget the impeachment acquittal of the president who, with a directive to “fight like hell,” sicced his supporters on the Capitol as the results of the election he lost were set to be certified.
At this point, the only real accountability is in truth.
“The biggest thing that Congress can do is get to the truth and put it out there effectively to the public,” said Noah Bookbinder, president of the nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
That may feel anticlimactic and unsatisfying. But factual information is powerful. That is why disinformation has become the stock-in-trade of insurrectionists and their defenders. The Big Lie about nonexistent election fraud costing Trump the election didn’t end when he left office. It only expanded, fueling distrust of election results, spurring continued attacks on democratic systems, and causing an upsurge in threats against election officials, judges, and members of Congress. And much of this dangerous counternarrative about the insurrection at the Capitol is coming from the Republican members inside the House.
These events are the raw material for another coup attempt. The truth is needed more than ever, and quickly — before next fall’s elections.
“I still think that a meaningful investigation in Congress which gets the facts out there, which has findings and hearings and puts people in uncomfortable situations because it exposes what they did, can have its own form of power and accountability,” Bookbinder said.
The power of truth, of course, is only as great as the way it is used. Facts alone won’t save democracy, but using the facts can underscore the urgency of, for example, shoring up the voting rights of all Americans, protecting election officials, and installing democratic guardrails that prevent future election results from coming under attack.
But the assertion of truth is also an important tool for understanding how fragile American democracy is, and how important it is to hold those in power accountable if they fail to protect it.
The insurrection is already being turned into the new Lost Cause. The last century and a half of American history is replete with examples of how lies about a traitorous attack on the nation became lore. That lore became the foundation of laws and practices that formed the basis of the systemic inequality, racism, and white nationalism that still cleaves our nation today. The Confederate flags unfurled inside the Capitol by some of the Jan. 6 rioters brought that effect full circle.
The truth is a crucial tool in combating that lie. The fragility of the truth is shown in how easily it gets lost. Americans must ensure that it never does.