Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the J6 committee, has been rightly aggressive in denying the former president any room to dodge responsibility for the J6 insurrection against the US government.
During the last J6 hearing, the Wyoming congresswoman said that there was a “new strategy” among new witnesses who have come forward, according to which Donald Trump was fooled by “the crazies” so he could no longer tell right from wrong. She said:
“This, of course, is nonsense. President Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child. Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices.”
A way to exit
Though everyone “is responsible for his own actions and his own choices,” Cheney did make allowances on July 12 for normal people who supported Trump and believed in his Big Lie about the 2020 election having been stolen from him. Cheney even made allowances for some of the people who joined the storming of the US Capitol.
In her opening remarks, she invited viewers to consider two things. One, that everyone around Trump knew the truth, including Trump himself. Yet they went on with their coup attempt anyway. Two, that “millions of Americans were persuaded to believe that Donald Trump's closest advisors in his administration did not.” She said:
“They put their faith and their trust in Donald Trump. They wanted to believe in him. They wanted to fight for their country. And he deceived them. … That may be painful to accept, but it is true.”
I want to point out a difference here. On the one hand, Trump is a grown man. He knew what he did was wrong. He’s accountable. But on the other side, his followers aren’t really adults. They didn’t know what they did was wrong. They can’t be as accountable as he is.
There is a narrow political reason for this difference. Loyalty to the former president is the greatest source of his strength. The objective then should be weakening the bond between him and his followers.
So give his followers a way to exit while avoiding feelings of disloyalty to him. That’s why Cheney spends precious seconds on national television telling followers they were scammed. You didn’t know what he knew. You’re still a good person. You’re still a good American.
The more they doubt this bond of trust, the weaker Trump gets.
Again, a narrow – and necessary – political reason.
Full-grown white men
A terrible moral reason, though.
These men – and the insurgents were almost entirely men: white men – are not impressionable children either. They are full grown. We should respect them enough to presume that they knew the difference between right and wrong, if only on an intuitive level.
When witness Stephen Ayres following the wake of domestic terrorism groups, like the Proud Boys, as they smashed into the US Capitol, he should’ve said to himself, “Something don’t feel right.”
Instead, he said it felt fine.
When asked in testimony if he believed that the Proud Boys and other paramilitaries were on his side, he replied, yeah. He said:
“I didn’t have a problem. I was probably following them online myself. You know, I thought, hey, they’re on our team. Good. That's how I kind of looked at it at the time. I thought it was a good thing.”
Ayres was charged and convicted of trespass. He lost his job. He lost friends. His life is upside down. As a result, he has disavowed Trump. He has warned others against following his criminal example. Ayres even seemed to have volunteered to testify as a kind of penance.
But Ayres was an on-the-ground witness to an insurgency – to a violent uprising against his country. Moreover, he bore witness for the entire duration. He did not leave the Capitol complex until after the former president posted a 4:17 tweet asking the mob to leave.
It’s to his credit that he testified voluntarily as a warning to other Trump loyalists. But that does not change the fact that he was staring acts of sedition and treason in the face but did not see them as such.
Instead, he said, “they’re on our team.”
If we’re to believe Liz Cheney, he’s the victim. If we’re to believe Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, he’s just a normal, ordinary guy. “I’m basically nothing but a family man, a working man,” Ayres said.
I understand, and applaud, the committee’s priority of holding the former president responsible for a failed coup. That’s where the focus should be. That’s the source of criminality that trickled its way down. If they succeed in cutting the bonds of trust between him and his followers, they will have succeeded in wounding Donald Trump.
But if we’re asked to believe grown white men like Stephen Ares did not know what he was doing was wrong as he was doing it, then we must also believe something that most people don’t want to believe – that these normal, ordinary white men are extremely dangerous.
Cheney said that Trump was told the truth about 2020. She claimed that he knew the truth. “No rational or sane man in his position could disregard that information and reach the opposite conclusion.”
Yet that’s what Ayres did.
Ayres was in a position to see the truth better than most. Yet he did not see it as the truth. What does it take for a grown white man to see something bad happening in front of him – say, a violent takeover of the seat of government – but reach the opposite conclusion?
It takes wanting to believe Trump’s lies. It takes wanting to believe something like an election is being stolen. Above all, it takes wanting to be consumed by loyalty to “our team” of full-grown white men to such a degree that you literally can’t see the treason in front of you.
“They wanted to believe in him,” Cheney said.
“They wanted to fight for their country.”
I hope that Cheney and the J6 committee succeed in severing the bond between Trump and his followers. But in the process, let’s not overlook the treasonous bond between white men and white power.
That needs severing, too.