The hearings now being held in Washington by the committee investigating the riot that took place on Jan. 6, 2021 remind us of the danger we faced as a nation that day and that we still face because millions of Americans — including thousands here on Cape Cod — believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Sarah Longwell, writing in The Atlantic, reports that 68 percent of Republicans — and 35 percent of Americans as a whole — believe that Trump was the true winner of the election and should be president right now.
People aren’t sure where to focus their skepticism. “Attempts to set the record straight tend to backfire,” Longwell writes. “A woman from Arizona told me, ‘I think what convinced me more that the election was fixed was how vehemently they have said it wasn’t.’ ”
At a gathering at the Mary Heaton Vorse house on June 2, historian Drew Gilpin Faust, a scholar of the U.S. Civil War, said that only twice in our history has the result of a presidential election been rejected by such a large number of Americans. The first time was 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected, leading to the revolt of the South. The second time was 2020.
“Are we on the brink of another civil war?” I asked Faust.
“Well,” she said, “we haven’t yet had a member of Congress beaten to unconsciousness on the floor of the Senate.” She was referring to the famous caning of Sen. Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts abolitionist, who was savagely beaten by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, an ardent defender of slavery, in 1856.
And yet, the video evidence of the mob attacking the Capitol police on Jan. 6 makes it all too clear how close we were to such an event. At one point, Sen. Mitt Romney did not know he was only steps away from the rioters. As Maureen Dowd wrote in the Sunday New York Times, “It’s amazing that no lawmakers were killed.”
This has me thinking that our susceptibility to lies has a lot to do with the decimation of American newspapers. I was grateful when the American Prospect recently quoted the prescient Walter Lippmann, who foresaw the peril more than 100 years ago.
“Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda,” he wrote in 1919. “The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information. But where all news comes at second-hand, where all the testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions. The environment in which they act is not the realities themselves, but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses. The whole reference of thought comes to be what somebody asserts, not what actually is.”
Faust pointed out that local newspapers are among the few forums where people of widely different views accept a common source of news. That was both a relief to hear and a daunting charge: to maintain the trust of our neighbors.