The ritual censure of the sane that came during the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee was another affirmation of Donald Trump’s control over the GOP. As if we needed one.
The Jan. 6 committee itself was attacked for leading a “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” This seemed to imply that the violent shock troops of an anti-constitutional coup attempt carried a truer version of democratic ideals than the legislators investigating them. Support for seditious acts is now a normal and accepted element of Republican identity.
But after all this, it is worth remembering the ultimate reason that Republicans in the country and Congress are beating down the credibility of the Jan. 6 committee: because it is an institution that will generate truth.
In the normal working of a democratic society, a variety of institutions turn information into reliable truth claims. The courts transform evidence into verdicts — claims about reality that are binding on the citizens involved. At its best, journalism both produces information that challenges consensus and polices itself with a fact-checked commitment to truthfulness.
It has been the most elemental and effective expression of Trumpism to attack and undermine the credibility of truth-seeking institutions. This has involved a multiyear campaign to discredit independent media as an “enemy of the people.” This has involved the repeated charge from Trump that courts and judges are rigged against him. (This accusation has at least twice involved the race of a judge or a prosecutor as evidence of animus.) This has involved a consistent assault on science and medicine as sources of credentialed authority.
The Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch describes a “deliberate, sustained, sophisticated and very effective attack on the system we rely on to make knowledge.” He finds evidence of this tendency in broadsides against free thought from the left. But he concludes that the “biggest single factor is the rise of Trump and MAGA, their takeover of the Republican Party, and their turning the presidency (and now the Republican Party) into organs of propaganda on a scale that we have never seen or imagined before in the United States.”
American politics is regularly impinging on matters I certainly did not imagine as a younger man. I came to this field of public service because I believed in a set of policy ideas that would gain implementation only if they were to persuade Republican leaders and, eventually, a presidential campaign. Even at that point, Washington politics was not a feast of reason. But it involved an argument about a common reality: What set of ideals and proposals would work best?
Relating this to our current circumstance is like comparing oranges and existentialism. There is no common ground of facts and reality in which to argue for superior policy. There is hardly any discussion of public policy on the right at all. The evidence of loyalty — the method of belonging — is to adopt a view of reality that has no contact with reality. Do you solemnly swear to affirm the “big lie” and accept no source of authority other than Trump’s?
The RNC made the pledge repeatedly. And its subverting of the authority of the Jan. 6 committee is closely related to these matters. This target was not casually chosen. Because of its investigative powers and the participation of Cheney and Kinzinger, the committee will be an independent source of truth. And Republicans have no intention of refuting its findings. Their goal is to intimidate, discredit and defame the committee — to destroy its standing as a source of reality.
This consistent goal has turned activists and leaders on the right into serial, institutional arsonists. Anything beyond control must be put to flame. This political vision is not even the estranged, distant cousin of Edmund Burke or any other conservative. It is the direct progeny of “Burn, baby, burn.” It is triumph of anarchy and chaos.
This approach to truth encourages a certain kind of citizen, fosters a certain kind of politics and results in a certain kind of leader.
In the absence of accessible truth and persuasion, citizens turn to defamation and intimidation. In the absence of a shared reality and principled debate, politics becomes a measure of raw power. In the absence of a moral respect for truth, character matters for nothing and demagogues are granted every advantage.
And yet one thing should comfort us: Even in a land of lies, truth is always an option — and it promises to set us free.