On Wednesday afternoon, the House impeachment managers laid out the series of tweets, speeches, and interviews in which former President Trump had conditioned his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol. They showed how he riled up his supporters against the election and stoked their rage. They showed how he planned and repeatedly promoted the January 6 rally. They showed how he applauded violent and intimidating messages from his supporters, demonstrating his support for their actions. They showed how his campaign political action funds spent $50 million spreading the lies about the election, advertising the rally, and planning for the event.
Do I think the Senate will vote to convict former President Donald Trump? No. Am I watching the proceedings anyway? Yes. For professional, historical, and patriotic reasons.
I’m a professional historian, and I consider it my calling to put our current moment in a historic context. I am especially motivated by a desire to explain the origins of our country, government, and institutions. I share this insight and historic parallels in written materials, such as books like The Cabinet, op-eds, and social media posts, as well as on podcasts, TV, and radio. I cannot do my job if I don’t have detailed information about what’s happening right now. I want to be able to answer questions and discuss the events thoughtfully and accurately on the news and in writing. Nothing compares with watching it live. This time investment has already proven valuable.
I pay pretty close attention to political developments, but I’ll admit I rolled my eyes at Trump’s Twitter rants in the lead-up to the insurrection. I knew his rhetoric was dangerous, but I didn’t fully comprehend the full scope of his messages. Or maybe I was just tired of the constant outrage. I also didn’t know that he had spent so much money fomenting the violence. I would have missed these details if I hadn’t been paying attention.
While these are my personal and professional reasons for watching, you may not have similar professional motivations. But there are two additional reasons you should watch. I spend my days learning and writing about the people who lived through historic moments. There is no doubt that this is one of those times. You are an eyewitness.
I often think of Abigail and John Quincy Adams in moments like these. On the morning of June 17, 1775, they heard gunfire in the distance and walked to a local hill to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill. Over the next 73 years, JQA traveled across the globe as a diplomat, negotiated pivotal peace treaties, served as a senator, was appointed secretary of state, was elected to president, and culminated his public service career with 17 years in Congress as an outspoken abolitionist. Would JQA have developed into such a hugely important public figure if he hadn’t been an eyewitness to history at just eight years old? I don’t know, but 70 years after the Battle of Bunker Hill, JQA remembered the events clearly.
I’d like to be an attentive eyewitness to this moment. Maybe I can provide insight for future historians through my own documentation, but at the very least it makes me better able to appreciate those who lived through fraught times in the past. You too can leave behind personal reflections and better understand our ancestors and our national history.
Finally, as an American, I feel a duty to bear witness. The Capitol was desecrated, both literally with feces and urine as well as symbolically. During the Civil War, Confederate troops never reached the Capitol. The Confederate battle flag was never spotted within the halls of the People’s House. And yet, on January 6, an insurrectionist proudly waved the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy.
The human cost was real. Congressmen and women, their staff, and the journalists at the Capitol were terrorized. Police officers were beaten, injured, and killed. Six people died.
Everyone has different bandwidths and capacities right now. I haven’t been always able to bear watching closely. But I have the emotional space right now and enough flexibility with my work to tune in, so I feel that it’s my patriotic duty to do so.
I would never force my definition of patriotism on anyone else, nor would I tolerate anyone putting their definition on me. But Congress was attacked. Our government institutions were under siege. The president violated his oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Even if Trump will not be convicted and barred from future office, I feel bound to pay attention. I want our government representatives to know there are people who are taking notice of their actions and that there are people who will remain vigilant. So, I’ll be sitting here, watching. Join me.