What Surprised Me in the January 6th Report
Plus: Bono and a Half-Dozen Great #GMGReads on Politics & Democracy
Today’s January 6th, the second anniversary of an uprising and insurrection that we’re still processing as a country and learning shocking new details about thanks to court filings and the new 841-page final report of the January 6th Committee, and today’s newsletter is about where we stand as a country and what we’ve learned about our democracy.
Which is why I want to start by talking about the band U2.
I’m having one of the most amazing reading experiences of my life right now; I had drinks last week with Scott Sherratt, a name you probably don’t know but have probably heard. He’s the genius producer behind the audiobook of “The Only Plane in the Sky,” which won the 2020 audiobook of the year, and the force behind many of the best and most alluring audiobooks of our time, from Dave Grohl to Rachel Maddow. I asked Scott what he’d been working on lately that was worth listening to and he said he just finished doing Bono’s “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” and that it was incredible, filled with the music and sound design that most publishers aren’t willing to license.
So I—someone who never listens to audiobooks—started listening over the weekend and reader, let me tell you, it’s a transformative experience. Bono, perhaps not surprisingly, is stunningly lyrical in his writing and words that might seem flat on the page come to life in your ears—and the music alone is breathtaking. It’s so good that I went out Tuesday and bought the hardcover too, just so I could follow along in places and reread portions.
Bono has a passage early in his book about how what a band is really selling in a concert isn’t the band, the songs, or the music, but the chemistry with the audience—that’s what people come for and what they pay for. It’s the experience of the concert, how the music and the band is transformed by being in front of an audience and how, in turn, the audience members are transformed by being in the presence of the music. It’s emotional alchemy.
That’s often how I think about reading and book writing—books are incomplete until they’re transformed by the act of reading. Every book is effectively a three-way conversation between an author, history, and the reader—the writing is a reaction and reflection of everything the writer has ever read or experienced, written with the consciousness that they’re stepping into a long-running human and historical conversation, and then each reader brings to the table all of their experience too to process and react to the book.
Beyond the 16 “Best Books of 2022” that I wrote about earlier this week, there were seven particularly standout books that I read this past year that all helped me understand and think about this moment in our politics and democracy; all but two of them were published in the last six months of 2022, and so reading them over the course of the summer and fall felt like a rolling conversation about the state of the country.
Each of these books is interesting and insightful in their own way, yes, but, in Bono’s phrase, the chemistry of reading several or many of them together in concert is remarkable.
Here they are in rough chronological order of what they cover:
1) THE RICHES OF THIS LAND, by Jim Tankersley :: This is the history of the American middle class that you didn’t know you needed, a fascinating excavation of the economic trends of the last 75 years that created “the most American of aspirations” and the most powerful class of consumers the world has ever seen—and one that brought our country together through, and here’s where Tankersley’s work is really revelatory, reducing sexual and racial discrimination in the workplace. He argues that the current populist trend, which “have convinced one group of distressed workers to blame their troubles on another group of distressed workers,” is not only historically wrong but also skewing our ability to fix and restabilize the middle class, a “threat to the economic, social, and moral health of our nation.”
2) FAULT LINES, by Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer :: This high-level history of the US since 1974 is based on the class the two authors teach at Princeton, and it’s a very easy-to-follow story of America’s four major “fault lines” — economic, racial, political, and gender and sexuality — as they’ve unfolded in American life and culture during a fifty-year period where, as they agree with Tankersley, the system that kept America broadly united through the 20th Century fell apart.
One of the (many) fascinating nuggets to come out of this for me was how the red-blue state divide was a result of the prolonged and frozen Bush v. Gore 2000 election. Until then the networks had switched back and forth; TIME actually used blue for the GOP and red for Dems from 1988 to 2000. But as Kruse and Zelizer write, in 2000 it happened the networks were using red for Republican and blue for Democrats, and “as Americans stared endlessly at the electoral maps, and talked about them, the color scheme became cemented in our minds. With it came a new sense of the nation as one divided into separate camps: one set of red states and another set of blue states, rather than a United States.”
3) MEME WARS, by Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, and Brian Friedberg :: I live much of my life on the internet, follow internet culture closely, and have written entire tech histories myself, and this book about “the untold story of the online battles upending democracy in America” blew me away. The authors trace how the left-wing Occupy Movement of the financial crisis morphed into the Alt-Right that helped power Trump’s rise, and the spread of online hate, from GamerGate to white power groups, enabled an era of offline, real-world violence. There was so much I didn’t know about these events, and I learned an incredible amount. It’s the story, really, of how American politics got “red-pilled,” and how Trump built an online (and offline) army of “groups as the alt-right, white nationalists, facists, incels, men in the manosphere, trolls, red-pilled gamers, New World Order conspiracists, and militias.”
4) THE DIVIDER, by Susan Glasser and Peter Baker :: Of the vast number of “Trump bios” to come out in recent years, this magisterial book by two really good Washington reporters is the first to treat Trump as a history book, weaving together the full story of his presidency and looking at the themes and different chapters of his presidency. It’s a tremendous work, particularly given how much reporting and research they crammed into such a brief period of time, and is probably the first “second draft of history” we’ve seen of Trump.
5) THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVITUDE, by Mark Leibovich :: There are few political writers more observant and acerbic than Leibovich, the writer who popularized “this town” as a knowing DC put-down with his last political book. This portrait of the Trump years features Trump as a minor character in the background of those who debased themselves to serve him—ungratefully and usually destroying their own reputations in the process. It’s an incredibly sad book in the tragicomic sense, not “boo-boo” crying sad, but “oh my god, these people are so groveling and pathetic.” And yet for four years they enabled Donald Trump right through the worst and most vile moments of his presidency.
6) THE STORM IS HERE, by Luke Mogelson :: Luke is one of the country’s most daring and bravest journalists, usually working overseas in war zones and amid humanitarian crises, but on January 6th, he was in Washington, D.C., covering the war at home. His book, based on his award-winning New Yorker reporting, traces the street battles of 2020 leading up to 1/6 and how the Covid crisis, the George Floyd reckoning, the Kenosha shooting, and other events almost seemed to almost inevitably inspire and enable the violence that took place after the election.
7) WEAPONS OF MASS DELUSION, by Robert Draper :: Robert, a longtime DC writer and keen study of Capitol Hill—including his NYT Magazine article two weeks ago that stands as the definitive portrait thus far of the 1/6 committee itself—spent January 6th itself on the Hill reporting and then uses his book to tell the story of what came next, tracing how the GOP, rather than seeing that day as a reckoning and turning point, “what occurred instead is that the Republican Party plunged deeper into a Trumpian cult of compulsive dissembling and conspiracy mongering. It fell hostage to the party to the party’s most fevered extremists, self-described ‘patriots’ who habitually characterized their ideological opponents on the other side of the aisle as communists, traitors, and terrorists.” Although it came out in the fall, it’s actually a really useful guide to this week’s remarkable dysfunction on Capitol Hill, as it explains why Marjorie Taylor Greene is ideologically and politically distinct than Lauren Boebert. (As Alexandra Petri wrote this week, “Actually, in this particular speaker scenario, Greene is the middle-of-the-road institutionalist, a sentence that is as surprising to us as it is to you!”)
And then we come to an eighth, book-length entry: The January 6th report. It’s worth remembering that the expectations for the committee were relatively low when it started work, but it’s fair to say that they made an enormous—even staggering, in certain revelations—contribution to our understanding of the period between the November 2020 election and noon on January 20th, when Trump finally left office.
I’d encourage you to read the whole report—in its own way, it’s as important a document for our country as the 9/11 Commission Report—but at the very least you should try to find time for the Executive Summary, which is about 130 pages (of large font) and outlines the top-line 17 findings and key evidence.
I wrote in WIRED this morning about the 11 things that struck me as I read the 1/6 Committee Report:
Read the whole piece for more context, nuance, and detail, but the main points are:
Trump’s staff was more definitive that he lost than we understood.
The plot to overturn the election was so much bigger than we knew.
The violence could have been much worse.
Big unknowns remain.
Trump’s legal and criminal exposure is real.
Parts of the plot targeted every level of local, state, and federal officials involved in counting and certifying elections.
The Justice Department came close to a meltdown.
The US government had reliable, solid intelligence that bad stuff might happen on January 6th—and it failed to take action, both at the agency level and at the White House level.
Something happened in the presidential limo on 1/6.
Trump’s silence during the so-called 187 minutes of the attack seems pretty calculated.
Trump did lasting damage to our democracy.
Taken all together these eight books tell a remarkable—and troubling—story more complex and more nuanced than we normally understand about how America went off the rails (beginning long before Donald Trump), what Trump—working alongside a potent and volatile mix of conservative media and social media—did to supercharge our political and cultural divisions in the United States, and our where our country and our politics stand today (semi-but-perhaps-not-entirely-post-Trump).
So if you put those pieces, what happened?
Tankersley sums up the challenge like this: Donald Trump won the presidency on the votes and frustration of white workers without a college degree through a “cynical, time-honored, and deeply effective” message that “distract[ed] hard-working voters from the real villains.” It’s a frustration of people who worked hard, think they played by the rules, and were sold or given a bill of goods in return—by politicians, corporate titans, and more who pulled up the ladder of American prosperity.
Trump, as has been said, is the symptom not the disease in the American system right now—and January 6th was, again, a particularly vicious flare-up of the disease that’s been ailing the country for forty years, as Tankersley, Kruse, and Zelizer all show. Fixing our country won’t be easy, in part because there are some tactical changes we need to strengthen our democracy and improve our representative politics (congressional districts/primaries, Supreme Court, etc.), all of which would help limit the ability of the worst corners of the GOP to capture our government with minority rule, and then a much more complex systemic push we need to make around getting the economy working again, which will not only strengthen American households and workers, but also—counterintuitively—evidently make everyone better citizens.
At a basic level, Tankersley says, we still don’t understand what went wrong correctly: “The United States economy thrived after World War II in large part because America made it easier for people who had been previously shut out of economic opportunity—women, minorities, immigrants—to enter the workforce and climb the economic ladder, to make better use of their talents and potentials. They were the unsung engine of what most American now think of as the time when the economy worked best for an expanding middle class. But today new barriers have risen up to block those workers from advancement, from inadequate parental leave policies to federal limits on imported brainpower. Overt racial discrimination persist. Those barriers don’t just hurt women and men of color. They also hurt working-class white people. In order to get its middle class back on track—and to help the country build a better and stronger economy from recession—America needs to restore its upward flow of talent, which was broken over the last forty years.”
People are better participants in a democracy—more trusting and more caring, less hateful, less racist, less sexist—when they feel more financially secure.
As Zelizer and Kruse point out, this is actually the message that Obama left us with in his farewell address: “Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class. That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal. While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and in rural counties, have been left behind – the laid-off factory worker; the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills – convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful – that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”
Right now, we have a culture in politics on the right that’s villainizing the wrong people—and that culture of hatred is what’s powering and allowing the dysfunction on Capitol Hill today, two years after the January 6th attack.
Anyway, that’s my report for this week. What good books on our politics and democracy have you read recently?
PS: This is totally unrelated to anything here, but I’d encourage you to read this Atlantic article about how America is getting EVs all wrong—using them to supercharge trends that are actually killing people rather than using them to reimagine the habits of transportation.
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