Letting Trump Off the Hook Will Change the Shape of History
Following the passage of the first Enforcement Acts, written to protect the civil rights of the formerly enslaved, Congress created a bipartisan committee in 1871 to investigate reports of vigilante violence against freed people and their white allies in the states of the former Confederacy. The next year, the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States released its report, a 13-volume collection of testimony from 600 witnesses, totaling more than 8,000 pages.
The men and women who spoke to the committee attested to pervasive violence and intimidation. There were innumerable reports of whippings and beatings and killings. “Tom Roundtree, alias Black, a negro, murdered by a Ku-Klux mob of some fifty or sixty persons, who came to his house at night on the 3rd of December last, took him out, shot him, and cut his throat,” reads a typical entry in the volume devoted to Klan activity in South Carolina. “James Williams,” reads another entry in the same volume, “taken from his home at night and hung, by Ku-Klux numbering about forty or fifty.”
There were also, as the historian Kidada E. Williams shows in “I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction,” accounts of terrible sexual violence. Williams describes one attack in which a group of vigilantes whipped their victim, Frances Gilmore of Chatham County, N.C., “set fire to her pubic hair, and cut her genitals.”
Because of these reports and others collected by lawyers, journalists and other investigators, the American public had “access to more information about the Ku-Klux than about almost any other person, event, phenomenon, or movement in the nation,” the historian Elaine Frantz Parsons observes in “Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction.” Between government reports, testimony from witnesses, the confessions of actual Klansmen and the physical evidence of violence and destruction, it would seem impossible to deny the awful scope of Klan terror, much less the existence of the Klan itself.
Yet that is exactly what happened.
“Despite massive and productive public and private efforts to gather, circulate and evaluate information about the Ku-Klux Klan,” Parsons writes, “the national debate over the Ku-Klux failed to move beyond the simple question of whether the Ku-Klux existed.”
In fact, as the historian Stephen A. West points out in The Washington Post in a 2022 piece on the committee’s report, “for much of the last 150 years, Reconstruction’s critics trivialized Black witnesses’ testimony in the Klan report and used it instead to discredit the period’s democratic possibilities.”
It is difficult to look at this episode, which transpired a little more than 150 years ago, and not think of the House Select Committee on Jan. 6, which compiled a similarly painstaking record of fact on the effort to subvert the 2020 presidential election. Thousands of pages of testimony. Tens of thousands of hours of video footage. The words, under oath, of men and women who participated. The physical evidence. The broken bodies and lost lives.
We know, as much as we can know anything, that Donald Trump led a conspiracy to overturn the results of an election that he lost. We know that this involved an attempt to derail the certification of electoral votes. We know that he assembled a crowd of thousands to protest that process. We know that he told that crowd, soon a mob, to “fight like hell” to try to seize the victory they could not win at the ballot box.
But despite this unambiguous evidence of insurrection, there is a concerted effort — either out of skepticism or denial — to present the events of Jan. 6, including the schemes that led up to the attack on the Capitol, as something else. The legitimate protest of an exuberantly disappointed group of ordinary American voters, perhaps, or — in the rendering of Trump’s most devoted apologists — a last-ditch effort to save the Republic itself from the illegitimate grasp of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.
It is tempting to say that the facts contained in the Jan. 6 committee report will stand on their own, that the body of evidence is simply too great to sustain a posture of skepticism and denial. But facts are mediated to us through our beliefs, experiences and interests. Most people do not and will not believe facts that cut against those beliefs, experiences and interests.
In the case of the Ku Klux Klan testimony, it was in the political, social or ideological interests of many Americans — from partisans of the Democratic Party to leading members of the national press — to downplay the significance of the testimony. The same is true today of the facts gathered by the Jan. 6 committee.
Those facts will not speak for themselves. The struggle for the meaning of Jan. 6 will, like the struggle over the significance of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, resolve itself only through politics. And in much the same way that the collapse of Reconstruction and the political victory of so-called Redeemers heralded the ideological victory of the Klan’s defenders, sympathizers and apologists, it is Trump’s ultimate fate that will shape and determine our lasting memory of what happened on Jan. 6.
In other words, the world in which the attack on the Capitol of the United States by the vengeful followers of a defeated president is just ordinary politics gone a little wild is a world in which Trump and his rioters eventually won.