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Opinion The Jan. 6 hearings’ slippery slope

J. Michael Luttig, a retired federal judge who was an adviser to former vice president Mike Pence, testifies on June 16 during a hearing conducted by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

As the Jan. 6 committee hearings march on, last Thursday’s installment — the third in the series — may turn out to be the defining moment. Witnesses and committee members alike seemed in agreement that former vice president Mike Pence had conducted himself admirably in the face of pressure from former president Donald Trump to single-handedly overturn the 2020 election. All well and good.

But just before wrapping up, the committee’s real raison d’etre became clear, courtesy of an exchange between Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and star witness J. Michael Luttig, a retired federal judge. Thompson cued up Luttig, a prominent old-school conservative, with a request to “share your thoughts on the ongoing threat.” Luttig, who had been halting and deliberate throughout the afternoon, suddenly was more animated.

“Donald Trump and his allies and supporters,” Luttig declared, “are a clear and present danger to American democracy.” Elaborating, Luttig warned that these “allies and supporters” are determined to “attempt to overturn [the] 2024 election in the same way that they attempted to overturn the 2020 election, but succeed in 2024 where they failed in 2020.”

Trump’s “allies and supporters,” of course, include tens of millions of Americans from coast to coast, including moms, dads, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, neighbors and co-workers, a majority of whom still believe — all credible evidence to the contrary — that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

Maybe Luttig didn’t mean all of Trump’s “allies and supporters” are plotting to overturn the 2024 election if it doesn’t go their way. But that’s not what he said — and painting so many Americans with this broad brush, which is how I heard Luttig’s comments, represents an unfortunate and insulting development. To blame Jan. 6 on Republicans as a whole is to misapprehend where the true blame lies: on Trump himself.

But Luttig isn’t the only one who talks this way. As one prominent member of the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), said last year, the GOP, in his mind, “has already become essentially a cult, not just of QAnon, but a whole range of conspiracy theories orbiting around Donald Trump.” This kind of language ought to trouble all Americans of good faith, no matter their politics.

To be sure, there are Republican politicians understandably raising eyebrows, such as Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, who has vowed to decertify voting machines in some counties, and Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens, who this week released an inflammatory campaign ad depicting him on an armed hunt for “RINO” Republicans. Unseemly Trump-style bombast is in fashion in various states, and it may be true that our checks and balances will be tested in the next couple of years as never before. But that is why they exist, and some of us are more confident in their efficacy than are others.

Throughout the hearings, there have been no alternative views presented, no reminders that after 2016, the left and some disenfranchised Republicans engaged in plenty of election denials, calling Trump an illegitimate president who won office thanks to Russian propaganda. Likewise, we should ignore the growing socialist influences in the Democratic Party, the calls for payback against Supreme Court rulings, and the recent frightening threats and acts of intimidation against conservative justices. “Clear and present,” it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

Luttig was a George H.W. Bush-appointed Republican who, like the committee’s two GOP members, Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), is not exactly sympathetic to the Trump wing of the party. But last week’s message contained a disturbing undertone: Those who agree that the 2020 election was fraudulent are not only misguided or merely mistaken, they are untrustworthy and undemocratic. Beware of them!

It is additionally alarming that concurrent with this is a growing call for journalists to adopt the same posture toward the Republican Party. Nearly every week brings a new admonition from the Fourth Estate for journalists to abandon “both-sideism” in their political coverage. One example among countless others comes from Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, who recently said that “as the Republican Party en masse has become an increasingly dangerous, anti-democratic force, equal time for the parties has become equal time for truth and for lies.”

Jacob was interviewed by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who similarly chides journalists for not declaring “MAGA” adherents a fascist threat. For conservatives, the trend is merely proof that mainstream media journalists have finally found an excuse to do what they have long dreamed of doing: treat the Democratic Party as the only legitimate party and the Republican Party as a pariah.

The movement to declare the GOP an authoritarian danger is a step leading not to any national agreement on threats to democracy, but rather toward further polarization. The Jan. 6 hearings are yet another example of a political, cultural and media landscape already separated by a yawning chasm — liberals governing and reporting only for liberals, conservatives governing and reporting only for conservatives, and each side accusing the other of presenting a clear and present danger to democracy.

It is not some future dystopian nightmare. It is here.