The Latest Act In An American Tragedy
Making sense of 187 minutes
What act will this end up being in the drama that is Donald Trump?
This is a uniquely American tragedy, with no shortage of farce. It was seven years ago that the Trump circus hit the stage of presidential primary television debates. The con man’s crass bravado was cast as a sideshow by a lot of the “sophisticated” punditry, yet they bestowed upon the carnival barker what he has always craved — a bright media spotlight.
Looking back, we now know without equivocation what many suspected all along — that this man was a force of “unbridled destructive energy,” to use the phrase of the January 6 committee chairman Bennie Thompson.
Tonight’s hearing was focused on the actions, or particularly the inaction — a damning lack of action that was itself a form of action — of Trump as the Capitol was under siege by violent insurrectionists. These were the infamous 187 minutes between when the riot began and when the president finally issued a tepid statement calling for it to end. In the interim, American democracy and the lives of elected officials, particularly Vice President Mike Pence, faced mortal danger.
As Republican congressman and committee member Adam Kinzinger stated today, “President Trump didn’t fail to act...he chose not to act.”
It was so clear what Trump should have done. It was clear to many who were in the White House at the time. But he was unmoved.
What strikes me tonight more than anything is how close it was. How close we came to a level of bloodshed and tragedy that is beyond our ability to fully comprehend. If President Trump had gone to the Capitol, as he wanted...If Vice President Pence had been but a few seconds later in his escape...If the rioters had seen the objects of their ire....
Revisiting those moments, the terror felt visceral, a fierce and dismaying shiver down the spine. Secret Service members saying goodbye to family members. Let that sink in for a moment.
Another truth is also even more stark in light of what we heard: how much has been obscured. The use of the passive voice is intentional. We don't know who the actors were, but we see the results of how much has been covered up. The disappeared text messages from the Secret Service are all the more damning. No calls logged. No pictures allowed of the president. No contemporaneous documentation of the president's actions.
The general contours of January 6 are now well known, and have been for a while. But the details we are hearing are vital, for us witnessing it in real time and for the judgment of history. It is all so unbelievable. And yet it is real. We must never lose the ability to be shocked anew.
Tonight's witnesses, like most of the others before them, were women and men who had worked in the Trump White House. They were his allies, and can be judged accordingly. But it is also clear that what happened on January 6 was far beyond the pale for many. And yet not for Trump. It is all so obvious. And many said so at the time. Yet in the year and a half since that day, most elected Republicans have scurried back in cowardice to seeking Trump's good graces. This hearing tonight, like those that preceded it, emphasizes how cowardly and craven that Faustian bargain is.
Today we learned that there will be more hearings. One of television history’s most gripping serial shows will have another season. And there is ample speculation — driven by desperate hope from many — that the Department of Justice may be working on a sequel. We shall see. This drama is not over. But its denouement remains to be written.