As the bipartisan House select committee investigating the violent attack on our Capitol on January 6, 2021, is set to hold its first public hearings on Thursday, I am looking for it to include a clear and consistent theme. Our democracy needs saving. To save it, we must not allow white supremacists to be the foot soldiers of any political leader, or this cancer will spread and violence will grow.
Much of the news attention and the focus of many hearing watchers will be on the words Donald and Trump. I share the desire to see more of the evidence that connects the former president with the events of incitement and sedition that day. No president or former president should be allowed to float unaccountably above the law. Nor should he be able to avoid his ties to the very white supremacy that stormed our Capitol and murdered 10 people in Buffalo, New York, because they were Black.
White supremacy is a central feature of this story. The Proud Boys were some of the most motivated of foot soldiers in planning and executing the violence that shocked the nation that dreadful day. The Proud Boys’ former chairman, Enrique Tarrio, and several members have been charged by the Justice Department with the most significant possible charge for January 6 violence: sedition. These new charges, added earlier this week to their previous conspiracy charges, tell us what the committee surely has evidence of, as well. White nationalists and extremists organized intentional violence to stop the vote counting mandated by our Constitution and to “oppose by force the authority of the government of the United States.” This does not distract us from the important questions of who helped, supported, or incited them to act, including Trump. We will have to wait for that trial to play out, but we do not have to wait for the committee to reveal this evidence.
Remember that Trump henchman and convicted felon Roger Stone had a relationship with the Proud Boys and with another extremist group, the Oath Keepers, many of whose members are also indicted for crimes related to January 6. Stone affiliated himself with the Proud Boys in 2018 by calling himself a “Western Chauvinist,” their whitewashing description of their own hateful beliefs.
Don’t let the language fool you. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has found, the Proud Boys have been considered a gateway group for white nationalist groups. It says that “rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric. Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings such as the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.” The antisemitic and hate-filled rally resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a counterprotester.
That rally was the Proud Boys’ attempt to rebrand as merely “alt right,” as opposed to the out-and-out white supremacists they are. Remember that Trump worked to help them do just that when he infamously tried to suggest that “both sides” had “very fine people.” But Trump didn’t stop there. Unite the Right was a taste of what was to come on January 6, 2021, with the same organized hate-filled provocateurs.
Trump did not stop at sympathizing with the Proud Boys and their ilk. During a 2020 debate against Joe Biden, Trump refused to condemn white supremacy. Instead he asked the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” He called out Proud Boys by name, unbidden by the question the moderator, Fox News’s Chris Wallace, asked him. I don’t know whether the January 6 committee has any direct evidence that Trump or his agents, like Roger Stone, actively recruited the Proud Boys to disrupt the vote counting in Congress that terrible day. I do suggest that his debate comment is evidence that Trump knew who the Proud Boys were and viewed them as foot soldiers.
It’s not just the House select committee that is at work this week to expose this hatred. Two Senate committees are also holding hearings on white supremacy this week: The Senate Judiciary Committee has heard testimony already, and the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee holds a full committee hearing on the same day as the January 6 committee. These are not and should not be treated as totally unrelated hearings.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard from an elderly victim’s son Tuesday. Garnell Whitfield lost his 86-year-old mother to the Buffalo shooter’s hate. His sorrow inconsolable, he demanded of the committee, “Is there nothing that you personally are willing to do to stop the cancer of white supremacy and the domestic terrorism it inspires?” It is the right question, and one that all of Congress, indeed all of government and all Americans, must answer.
Racist and hate-filled violence has been growing rapidly in this country, and the American people are seeing and feeling that. The House committee faces real challenges to get the ear of the broad American public. At a time when a slim majority of Americans believe Trump was largely not responsible for the January 6 violence, an approach that emphasizes Trump’s very clear role in hate will be a timely and important narrative, especially when there’s reason to worry that the Americans who need to hear this message won’t. Fox News has already said it won’t carry the hearings in its prime-time hours and may not even talk about them.
Support for our democracy is not and should not be partisan or political. Trumpism has a violent foundation in organized white supremacist and extremist groups that lead to authoritarianism. We are well on our way. The committee can make this plain and fact-based, helping Americans see that the dead we mourn in Buffalo are also a casualty of Trumpism and that January 6 was the wake-up call for all of us that the infection is seeping into the bones of our society. With eyes wide shut, we will fail to see that Trump helped enable and spread it and that the violence of January 6 presages more racist violence, including in our elections. We can defeat this with eyes wide open. Survival requires being clear and consistent that Trump is white supremacy and we have to take it down.