Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Can the hearings overcome American indifference?

By Tom Nichols The Atlantic

As we continue to learn more about the January 6, 2021, attack on our democracy, I explore whether any of it will matter to Republicans or disaffected Democrats. But first, here are three great new stories from The Atlantic.

Stubborn denialism

Man in gas mask at the capital on January 6, 2021, holding an American flag and wearing a Trump hat
(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Before we get started, I’d like to introduce myself: My name is Tom Nichols, and for the next month, I’ll be joining you as the author of The Atlantic Daily, where I’ll be sharing thoughts about the day’s news and other issues. I’m a contributing writer at The Atlantic, where I’m also the author of the weekly newsletter Peacefield. My background is in both American and international politics; I taught national-security affairs in the U.S. Naval War College for 25 years and worked in the Massachusetts House and the U.S. Senate.

These days, I write quite a bit on the precarious state of democracy at home and abroad. I also have some quirky hobbies I hope you’ll find interesting, including Cold War popular culture and the music of the ’70s and ’80s. (More to come on that.)

In the meantime, buckle in for what will likely be a tumultuous week centered on more hearings from the January 6 committee.

The first hearing, last week, began to lay out the case not only that January 6 was an attempted coup against the United States and its Constitution but that senior figures in Washington knew that it was coming. They knew that Donald Trump’s arguments of a falsified election were nonsense—“bullshit,” according to former Attorney General William Barr—and yet they stood by while Trump encouraged a mob to march on the Capitol anyway.

We’ll likely see more such evidence this week, but even over the weekend, the hits kept coming: We learned that Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was deeply involved in the attempt to get the election overturned and that Vice President Mike Pence issued orders to the military while under siege.

These are both problems. And they would be serious scandals if America were still a country capable of being scandalized.

In an earlier time, Ginni Thomas’s behavior might have been enough for a justice to step down. Justice Thomas apparently couldn’t care less; he won’t even bother to recuse himself from election-related Court decisions. Meanwhile, we now know that the vice president of the United States was in hiding, calling for troops to come to his aid, while crowds howled about hanging him—and the commander in chief himself sat in the White House saying, in effect, that maybe Pence deserved to be strung up.

By the way, Dick Cheney did something similar to Pence when Cheney began issuing orders during 9/11. Cheney had no formal authority to do so, either, but he could at least argue that he was acting with the president’s knowledge in order to assist in the defense of the United States against a foreign enemy. Pence was trying to save his own life—and the life of the speaker, the majority leader, and other senior officials—from a crowd sent by the president himself.

This is all infuriating and even terrifying, but the question that worries me most is whether any of it will matter.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad the January 6 committee is pursuing this investigation and naming names. I want the institutions of American democracy to fight back against the seditionists and others who have failed their duty to the Constitution. It’s good at least to see the former Fox News politics editor Chris Stirewalt tell the House on live television, as he did this morning, that the winner of the 2020 presidential election was “Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. of the great state of Delaware.”

But I wonder if the committee is going to overcome the stubborn denialism of millions of my fellow citizens and the stupefying indifference of millions more.

Americans are being faced with the undeniable evidence that senior members of the United States government either plotted or abetted a coup. They have been told that the military chain of command was in chaos for hours. This is far beyond Watergate or Iran-Contra; this is an attack on more than two centuries of constitutional government.

And the news cycle? We’re already over it. Gas is now averaging $5 a gallon. Inflation is at a 40-year high. The stock market, as of this morning, is headed for bear territory. These are big stories, but within the range of “normal” big stories. I’m 61; I have lived through gas rationing and high inflation and market crashes, but I have never lived through wondering if the constitutional order of the United States will still exist in two years.

I fervently hope that I am wrong. I am not usually a pessimist, but I am, if I may put it this way, shocked at our inability to be shocked.

Related:

Read all of The Atlantic’s January 6 coverage here.

Today’s News

  1. Russia forced Ukrainian troops from the center of the key eastern city of Severodonetsk, according to Ukraine.
  2. U.S. stocks officially entered a bear market, falling 20 percent from their peak in January.
  3. Two unidentified bodies were reportedly found in the search for the British journalist and indigenous-affairs expert who went missing in the Amazon.

Dispatches

Evening Read

A collage of a young woman and devastation in Mariupol, Ukraine (The Atlantic; Getty)

In Ukraine, Youth Has Ended

If not for the war, Ira Lyubarskaya told me, she would probably have spent the spring walking the streets of her hometown, her earphones playing music by her favorite band, Imagine Dragons, or sitting on the rooftop of her apartment building, rereading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for the umpteenth time.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

A white and blue Grecian vase with streams of blue and birds coming out of it
(Miki Lowe)

Read. “Ajar,” a poem by A. E. Stallings published in The Atlantic in 2014.

Watch. Only Murders in the Building. Catch up on this comedy about true-crime obsessives before the show’s second season debuts on June 28.

Or try another show from our critic’s list of perfect TV shows for short attention spans.

Listen. The latest episode of our podcast How to Start Over, which explores misconceptions about being single.

Play our daily crossword.

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you tomorrow. In the meantime, I recently found this remastered video of “Two Tribes,” the dance hit by Frankie Goes to Hollywood that was released this month back in 1984. It’s a bit of kitschy nostalgia from the simpler days of the Cold War—and it still has a great beat.

— Tom Nichols

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