The American government has developed a unique ritual for healing national traumas: the convening of investigatory commissions tasked with assembling thick tomes to explain why bad things happen to good nations. This was the response after the race riots of 1919, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Kennedy’s assassination, the race riots of the 1960s, 9/11, and other collective tragedies.
A new volume has been added to the shelves that house this curious genre: the just-released report on the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Although born of calamity, the thinking behind these reports is curiously optimistic: If you can just convene the right bipartisan team of experts, politicians, and dignitaries, you will arrive at a collective truth that can make sense of seemingly inexplicable events. The coherent narrative offered by these reports will help the nation solve its problems and avoid future catastrophes.
If that’s the theory, then it’s never quite worked out. The Warren Commission famously never answered questions about the Kennedy assassination sufficient to quiet conspiracy theories. To this day the CIA, in defiance of congressional demands, refuses to release thousands of documents on the assassination, including information about what it knew about Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the presidential murder. Many lingering questions remain about the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the terrorism of 9/11 (where, again, much valuable material remains classified). In analyzing the Black urban uprisings of the 1960s, the Kerner Commission Report of 1967 offered a scathing indictment of systematic racism—that proved too radical for Lyndon Johnson. The Starr Report on the alleged corruption of Bill Clinton became the butt of endless lewd jokes on late-night TV thanks to the all-too-vivid details it provided about Oval Office oral sex.
The January 6 report might not escape the same sorry long-term fate. To be sure, the commission that crafted the report has had some successes. The hearings drew a wide audience—and seem to have hardened public opinion against former president Donald Trump’s continuing efforts to subvert American democracy. Republican candidates who denied the 2020 election did poorly in the midterms, especially those in key positions that could derail the 2024 election results. In general, the Democrats outperformed expectations in the 2022 midterms. All of this is surely due in no small part to the January 6 committee.
But the report issued by the committee also has a broader purpose: to establish a convincing account of the coup attempt that can shape public memory. Harvard historian Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, offered a scathing critique of the report, convincingly portraying it as a narrowly focused indictment of Donald Trump that ignores broader political forces that created the coup.
In 2016, Donald Trump ran on the boast “I alone can fix it.” The January 6 report merely flips the script by saying Trump alone can break it. The report concludes that “the central cause of January 6th was one man, former President Donald Trump.” It offers a detailed chronology of Trump’s actions in the months before January 6. They show that as a candidate he was already casting doubt on the election results before the first votes were cast, that after the defeat he used every means available to undermine the determination of the results, and that he finally settled on a desperate constitutional theory that would throw the results to Congress.