The Story of January 6 Will be Told

tags: political violence, Capitol Riot, January 6 Commission

Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party. Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. 

In the past several years, some of the most perceptive views of American politics have come from the world of pop culture. In "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm," for example, Sacha Baron Cohen provided a blistering take on the universe of Trump supporters (as well as Rudy Giuliani) that stimulated conversation about what was going on in the public arena.

"Judas and the Black Messiah" was a biographical drama about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party that tackled core questions at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. David Simon's adaptation of the alternate history, "The Plot Against America" took up Phillip Roth's novel about the possibility of fascism succeeding in America, coming at a moment when many people thought our institutions had become as vulnerable as possible. "Mrs. America" explored the origins and tensions within feminism through the stories of key icons from the 1970s.

While Democrats and Republicans continue to clash over how to investigate what happened at the Capitol on January 6, it's likely that the lasting narrative will be shaped not only by journalism and historical writing, but also by pop culture. In the end, this cultural approach to politics might be a more effective approach to dealing with 1/6 than the government.

After all, the odds of the nation being able to count on a bipartisan January 6 commission keep getting worse. Senate Republicans were able to stifle the commission that the House of Representatives had voted to create and that would have been charged with investigating what happened on the day of the election certification, when violent mobs stormed Capitol Hill, threatening the lives of legislators and the vice president. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell switched his tune, moving away from the condemnatory speech that he delivered after the Senate voted against removing President Trump following his second impeachment. Protecting his party going into the 2022 midterms became McConnell's priority.

According to reports, Republicans are being told to stop using the term "insurrection."

Congress still has the ability to conduct investigations through hearings. But the Republican strategy won't change, so anything done through the Democratic majority will quickly be attacked as yet another partisan ploy. The hearings will quickly turn into another political spectacle, diminishing the ability of legislators to better understand how the insurrection came together, which politicians had connections to the insurrectionists, and why security failed so poorly.

In other words, left to Congress, at least for now, the public won't learn much more. As time passes, the nation will move on.

For now, some of the responsibility will have to fall on the shoulders of other sectors in American society.

There is some evidence that these efforts are underway. Showtime is developing a limited series about the riot. CNN has a special report, "Assault on Democracy: The Roots of Trump's Insurrection" premiering Sunday at 9 pm ET, while "Frontline" has aired a documentary called "American Insurrection."

This won't be the first time that we have called on the world outside of Washington to shoulder the responsibility of providing deeper insights into some of the tragic moments that the nation experienced when our political institutions were failing.

In 1964, at the height of the Cold War, some of the strongest warnings about the threat of nuclear war came from Hollywood. In "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," Stanley Kubrick directed and produced a classic comedy starring Peter Sellers that warned viewers of how easily a nuclear war could unfold if the wrong people were in charge. Although many critics disparaged the movie for suggesting that a mentally unstable general could trigger a nuclear war, the film was more spot on than many realized about the ways in which presidents didn't have total control of the situation.


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