The January 6 Deniers Are Going to Lose

Adam Serwer / The Atlantic
The January 6 Deniers Are Going to Lose Before the riot, Donald Trump supporters participate in a rally - at which the then-president urged supporters to "fight" - in Washington, near the White House. (photo: John Minchillo/AP)

Just look at what happened with the Ku Klux Klan.

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.”

The first Klan was a decentralized terrorist organization whose goal was to restore the antebellum racial hierarchy. The majority of the white South at the time agreed with its goals, if not its methods. Democrats North and South understood that the political violence of groups like the Klan could discredit their efforts to restore white supremacy, and so they felt they needed to rationalize or deny that violence in order to win sympathy to their cause.

Conspiracism is not new to American politics. There were no deepfakes or altered screenshots in the 19th century, but neither was there high-quality video or photography. Then, just as now, people had to choose whom to trust, and some outlets were willing to lie to their readers in service to what they saw as a greater cause—my former colleague Matt Ford once described Klan denial as America’s first “‘fake news’ crisis.”

Reports of Klan malfeasance in Republican papers were sometimes wrong or exaggerated, and Democratic papers seized on these errors as proof that the Klan’s existence was fiction, even as they downplayed or justified the violence itself and even as the bodies of murdered freedmen piled up. “Democratic newspapers printed blanket denials of the existence of the Ku-Klux,” Parsons notes, “during and after its most active period of violence.” Sensational and bizarre details of Klan rituals and behavior were used to taunt those sincerely worried about Klan violence, as if they were simply gullible idiots willing to believe anything. Klan deniers “extended an invitation to those northerners who believed themselves to be too ‘intelligent to be imposed upon’ by fantastic stories and mysterious terrors.”

This rhetorical style is common among those who deny the significance of January 6. Because that day’s events cannot truly be contested, they find it simpler to mock those who are concerned about democracy as hopelessly naive or pathetically earnest, or to highlight the buffoonish behavior of some of the participants to claim that they were benign. But, of course, the first Klan was both buffoonish and deadly; there is nothing to say the two cannot coexist.

Klan denial was successful at changing the subject, at least in the short term. “The debate over the Ku-Klux never effectively silenced those who argued that the Klan did not exist at all,” Parsons writes. “Despite massive and productive public and private efforts to gather, circulate, and evaluate information about the Ku-Klux Klan and despite the federal government’s devoting attention and resources to the Klan as though it were a real threat, the national debate over the Ku-Klux failed to move beyond the simple question of whether the Ku-Klux existed.”

It worked because of the half-truths people are willing to swallow in order to survive with their self-perceptions intact. Reconstruction-era Republicans used the persistence of racist violence in the South as a political weapon against their Democratic opponents. Klan denial helped Democrats rationalize reports of that violence away as a partisan conspiracy to strip them of their rights. They made themselves the true victims of the narrative, preserving their conception of their own benevolence and of the evil of their political opponents. “Part of the allure of misrepresentations,” Parsons notes, “is that they can help individuals or societies gloss over their own inconsistencies and develop more robust and appealing self-understandings.” When Republican Representative Andrew Clyde went from barricading doors in the Capitol against the January 6 mob to calling the attack a “normal tourist visit,” it wasn’t because he was having difficulty navigating a complex media environment.

Fashioning an “appealing self-understanding” would tempt Republicans in turn. Toward the end of Reconstruction, as the GOP shifted away from the defense of Black rights, news of violence against the emancipated became politically inconvenient. They, too, began to dismiss reports they preferred not to believe, those suggesting that the work of defending Black rights—a burden they no longer wished to bear—was yet unfinished.

In the long run, however, Klan denial became merely an interesting historical footnote. As incentives changed, so too did understandings. The same Democrats who once denied the Klan’s existence would eventually celebrate Klansmen as heroes of Lost Cause propaganda, applauding works like D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. But that interpretation proved no more lasting.

The contemporary understanding of the Klan is not grounded in either Reconstruction-era denial or Jim Crow–style celebration. Instead, it has been shaped by the copious records collected by Congress and federal officials, and by contemporary newspaper reports of Klan violence. Historians used this material to craft scholarly works that left no doubt about the Klan’s existence, imperatives, or ideology—or its crimes. The Republican-run congressional committees that accumulated these records and testimony at the time may have been acting out of partisan self-interest, but our own historical understanding of that era remains indebted to their efforts. So it is with the January 6 committee, which was arguably more bipartisan.

For a time, at least, propaganda produced by right-wing media outlets will successfully fog the perceptions of January 6 among those who trust them. But the meticulous collection of records by the January 6 committee, and by the media outlets that painstakingly reconstructed the events of that day, will outlast the cheap parlor tricks of bullies, cowards, and charlatans, including those whose resources and willingness to lie seem bottomless. Even if they should prevail for a time, the truth will be there for those with clear sight to find it.

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