Even as the riot of January 6, 2021, was unfolding, and Americans could see a mob of Trump supporters storming the Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, Trumpists were telling people not to believe their own eyes.
They said the rioters were harmless tourists, they claimed the riot itself was an inside job by the FBI, they insisted that antifa was responsible, and they declared the violence to be justified or at least understandable. Some made several of these claims at once.
So when the Fox News host Tucker Carlson last week attempted to rewrite the history of January 6, using footage provided by the newly inaugurated Republican House majority, it was hardly surprising. Not only had similarly contradictory claims been in circulation since the day of the riot, but Carlson himself had aired propaganda making parallel claims two years ago.
In the short term, Carlson’s efforts may convince those loyal viewers who are predisposed to believe him, his now-documented dishonesty toward his own audience notwithstanding. But in the long run, January 6 is likely to be recalled as a violent if clownish attempt to end constitutional government, in large part thanks to the work done by the much maligned January 6 committee. And although the investigation was disparaged when first announced—the New York Times columnist David Brooks declared that the committee had “already blown it” before its first hearing—history suggests that the meticulous records collected by the committee will shape American memory of the event. By itself, the proper preservation of records showing just what happened and why vindicates the committee’s work, no matter what detractors may argue.
January 6 is not the first time congressional committees have taken on the responsibility of investigating acts of political violence aimed at democratic sovereignty. Most Americans now remember the first Ku Klux Klan, a white-supremacist paramilitary organization that terrorized Republicans and freedmen in the aftermath of the Civil War, as one of the villains of American history. But at the time, there was vigorous debate over whether the Klan even existed. Supporters of Klan violence argued that the entire organization was a fever dream of freedmen and Republicans, who were simply trying to justify a federal power grab in order to better persecute conservative white Southerners. Sound familiar?
As Elaine Frantz Parsons writes in Ku Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction, part of the confusion arose as 19th-century Americans acclimated themselves to a novel news environment in which national affairs could be rapidly reported across the country. News consumers found themselves trying to differentiate between contradictory, partisan accounts of events and having to decide whom to believe.
“Northern Democratic papers, such as the New York World … took the position that the Klan did not exist. For the most part, Democratic politicians, North and South, did the same. Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware sarcastically commented on the floor of the Senate in the spring of 1870 that it was his dearest wish to see an actual Ku-Klux (that ‘convenient class’) before he died,” Parsons writes. “Ku-Klux skeptics imagined a vast conspiracy between the government and the press to construct the Ku-Klux wholesale.”