I spent 12 months holed up in a windowless cubical den or locked in my home office investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol and working on a report that my fellow investigators and I thought would blow open the story. When it was released, the press described it as “monumental.” This paper called it “damning.” And it was — for former President Donald Trump, since he bears primary responsibility for the attempted insurrection. But the report could only tell part of the story.
Other political, social, economic and technological forces beyond the former president had a hand, whether intentionally or not, in radicalizing thousands of people into thinking they needed to attack the seat of American democracy. Only by understanding how those people lost faith in our governing institutions can we as a country figure out how to protect our democracy from threats like the attack on the Capitol.
As an investigative counsel for the Jan. 6 Committee’s “Red” Team, which investigated the people who planned and attended the riot, as well as the domestic extremist groups responsible for much of the violence, I tracked more than 900 individuals charged by the Department of Justice with everything from parading in the Capitol to seditious conspiracy. We interviewed roughly 30 of those defendants about their motives. What my team and I learned, and what we did not have the capacity to detail with specificity in the report, is how distrust of the political establishment led many of the rioters to believe that only revolution could save America.
It wasn’t just that they wanted to contest a supposedly stolen election as Mr. Trump called them to do, they wanted to punish the judges, members of Congress, and law enforcement agencies — the so-called political elites — who had discredited Mr. Trump’s claims. One rioter wondered why he should trust anything the F.B.I., D.O.J., or any other federal entity said about the results. The federal government had worked against everyday Americans for years, the rioters told us, favoring entrenched elites with its policies. For many defendants — both those awash in conspiracy theories, as well as some of the more reasonable Trump supporters at the Capitol that day — a stolen election was simply the logical conclusion of years of federal malfeasance.
With the legitimacy of democracy so degraded, revolution appeared logical. As Russell James Peterson, a rioter who pleaded guilty to “parading, demonstrating, or picketing” in the Capitol, said on Dec. 4, 2020, “the only way to restore balance and peace is through war. Too much trust has been lost in our great nation.” Guy Reffitt, who earned seven years in prison for leading the charge up the Capitol steps while carrying a firearm, made a similar case later that month: “The government has spent decades committing treason.” The following week, he drove 20 hours to “do what needs to be done” because there were “bad people,” “disgusting people,” in the Capitol. Oath Keepers convicted of seditious conspiracy and other crimes, like their leader Stewart Rhodes, had long believed that a corrupt group of left-wing elites were preparing to upend American freedoms and that only militias like themselves could save the Constitution. Their loss of faith in the federal government had led them to the delusion that their seditious behavior to keep Mr. Trump in power was patriotic.
Strikingly, these comments came not only from domestic violent extremists; some came from people who appeared to be ordinary Americans. Dona Sue Bissey, a grandmother and hair salon owner from Indiana, said shortly after the attack that she was “very glad” to have been a part of the insurrection; Anthony Robert Williams, a painter from Michigan, called Jan. 6 the “proudest day of my life.”
Since the 1960s, political scientists have surveyed Americans and measured the steady decline of public faith in the federal government. Again and again, they have described the predictable consequences of people believing that the deliberative system has lost its legitimacy; almost always, they will turn to alternative means to get what they want, even if it means destroying their government in the process. The attack on the Capitol was a perfect example. William Dunfee, an Ohio pastor facing felony and misdemeanor charges, told his congregation on Dec. 27, 2020, that settling “your differences at the ballot” did not work, so they should make the “government, the tyrants, the socialists, the Marxists, the progressives, the RINOs” in Washington “fear” them.
Some have criticized our report because it focused on Mr. Trump and his Big Lie instead of diving more deeply into other causes, such as declining faith in government or racial resentment or economic inequality, which pushed people to believe patriotism required storming the Capitol. Far from ignoring those concepts, we have released many of our documents publicly and archived the rest so that historians, political scientists, sociologists and many others can scrutinize our findings in ways we could not, examining the causes and consequences of Jan. 6 with a longer time horizon than we had.
Our report proposed several straightforward fixes to prevent another sitting president from contesting a fair election. But solving the core problem — lost faith in government — will take more time, and a battery of far more complex remedies.
The most important step elected officials can take — aside from choosing not to undermine our institutions for their own political gain — is to advance a comprehensive set of election and campaign finance reforms to make politicians more responsive to their constituents than to the money and voices of the few. Congress could also create universal election rules that encourage all citizens to vote while reassuring a skeptical public that the elections are secure. But beyond that, our leaders need to build trust broadly by tackling economic inequality and reinvesting in communities devastated by globalization and technological changes. At the most basic level, politicians should refocus locally on building roads, lowering crime and revitalizing small business districts, instead of looking for votes by harping on divisive national topics.
Such reforms would not be a silver bullet. A few of the defendants we interviewed complained of being misled by social media, which seems to have pushed them into conspiracy theory rabbit holes like QAnon. Many also had not-quite-veiled racial resentments that drove their lack of faith in government. But at the very least, these reforms might begin to convince citizens that their government works for them, not just the rich and powerful. Once we can restore that baseline trust, we can better avoid future attacks, both physical and intangible, on our democracy.
Mr. Trump did not appear out of a vacuum to upend democracy. His presidency was the culmination of years of political degradation during which voters watched our political institutions rust to the point of breaking. Like any good liar, Mr. Trump succeeded by building his lies off a truth; people no longer trust the federal government because they see its corroded institutions as corrupted for the few against the many. Until we fix that problem, we will not free ourselves from the threat of future political violence and upheaval worse than Jan. 6.
James Sasso served as senior investigative counsel for the Jan. 6 committee.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.
Source: Elections - nytimes.com