The One Witness at the January 6 Hearing Who Matters Most

It’s you.

Image of the opening hearing of the House panel on January 6
Andrew Harnik / AP

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The congressional hearing into the events of January 6 on Thursday night focused attention on a single decisive person. Not the hearing’s powerful chair or the meticulous vice chair. Not the former U.S. president who tried to overthrow the government. Not the former vice president whom the former president said deserved hanging. Not the lawless insurrectionists, not the heroic police officers, not the documentarian who caught history on camera. The single decisive person is: you.

Through the Trump years, weary and defeated observers shrugged that nothing mattered, nothing ever moves the needle. America is two tribes, antagonistic; nothing can budge either one any distance.

This fatalism passed as cleverness, even as wisdom. This fatalism also functioned as an excuse. If nothing can be done, then no one can be blamed for not doing it. If nothing can be done, then we’re all off the hook.

The fatalism was always wrong. The important thing to remember about Donald Trump’s presidency is that he was beaten again, and again, and again. His protective congressional majority was stripped away in 2018. He was twice tainted by impeachment. He was defeated for reelection. His conspiracy to overturn that election defeat was thwarted.

Full justice was not served—not yet, anyway. But the country was saved, because enough people summoned up the nerve to do the right thing. Sometimes, that right thing was a terrifyingly close shave. Sometimes, the people doing the right thing had warmed up with a long spell of doing the wrong thing, as Vice President Mike Pence did a lot of wrong things before he did the right thing on January 6, 2021. But if there is one lesson to take from the Trump years, it’s not the cynical Twitter joke “LOL nothing matters.” The lesson is that everything mattered: every act of conscience, every act of honest reporting, every denial of the Big Lie, every ballot.

Understandably, many Americans—including many who had voted for Trump—hoped that all of this upheaval had been banished to history by the outcome of the 2020 election. Trump’s own former chief of staff and Trump’s leading media defenders all pledged that he would abide by the outcome of an election defeat. They got it wrong, because they, too, were surprised by the radicalism of Trump’s rejection of democracy and the Constitution. They thought they knew the worst. But worse was to come.

Now the world will know the full truth.

The January 6 committee has done a magnificent opening job of presenting the evidence that Trump’s own inner circle was aware of the president’s anti-constitutional conspiracy in real time, tried to dissuade him, and begged him to halt what he had started. The committee is proving beyond reasonable doubt that the riot was the culminating action of a premeditated plot, and that the president of the United States was the principal plotter. In the words of Judge J. Michael Luttig, a conservative judicial star appointed to the federal appellate bench by President George H. W. Bush and shortlisted for a Supreme Court appointment by President George W. Bush, “If Dr. [John] Eastman and President Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power.”

That’s not something to shrug off.

So here’s where you come back into the story. The greatest theorists of American government have again and again warned against the delusion that the Constitution is some self-balancing mechanism, “a machine that would go of itself.” People make that machine go: people who make good choices or bad ones, people who are active or who are passive when their country needs them. People like you. You.

So if or when you read somebody saying today, tomorrow, or at any time during these hearings that the hearings failed to accomplish something important, keep in mind: That will only be true if you let it be true.

The recently defeated president of the United States tried to overturn the Constitution rather than accept the outcome of an election. Brave and patriotic people stood up and stopped him at the time. Brave and patriotic people are seeking to hold him to account now.

Be one of them.