Among the most chilling testimony of the Jan 6 Committee hearings, alongside images of violent protesters circling the homes of election officials and insurrectionists shattering windows to enter the U.S. Capitol, were the mild words of Gabriel Sterling, the chief operating officer to Georgia’s Secretary of State. Testifying Tuesday afternoon, Sterling explained that no matter how many times he insisted to Big Lie enthusiasts that there had been no election fraud, tampering, or conspiracy to steal the 2020 contest for Joe Biden, he could not persuade certain people—including family members and lawyers—that the election had taken place without incident. “I would show them things and the problem you have is you are getting in people’s hearts,” he testified. “I remember this one specific attorney that we know that we showed walking through, this wasn’t true, ‘OK, I get that.’ This wasn’t true, ‘OK, I get that.’ This wasn’t. Five or six things. But at the end, he said, ‘I just know in my heart they cheated.’”
Insofar as these hearings have been masterfully constructed to “get inside people’s hearts,” the fact remains that for millions of Americans, the 2020 presidential election was stolen. And it was stolen because they know in the very marrow of their bones that Biden and Democrats always steal elections. As Heather Cox Richardson pointed out this week, in Otero County, New Mexico, County Commissioner, Couy Griffin—recently sentenced to 14 days in jail for participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol—refused a state Supreme Court order to certify his state’s June 7 primary results. Reached by phone Griffin told reporters: “My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence, it’s not based on any facts, it’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need.”
Hearts that know what they want to know will remain impervious to the facts. Until this week, it appeared to me that the committee was simply trying to lay out the plan—to sketch out the scope of the crimes committed—by Trump and his confederates. These orchestrators of the Big Lie knew that the election had been lost, attempted to pressure Vice President Mike Pence into overturning the results on January 6, pressured state election officials in high office to help them, and abused local elections workers to the point of obscene cruelty in order to claim victory in an unwinnable contest. The hearings are unfolding like a CSI episode: Here is the crime, here’s how we solved it.
But halfway through Tuesday’s hearing, it occurred to me that the real story being told here isn’t just a succession of failed Boris and Natasha-grade schemes to steal an election, but something far larger. Yes, this is surely the story of how future elections will be compromised when elections officials at every level flee from office and are replaced by partisans. And yes, this is also the story of Republicans who say they hate what Trump did but also really love Trump. And it is surely the blueprint for setting aside the 2024 election results if Republicans do not prevail. But the real map being drawn by the committee leads to the crime of stochastic terrorism; the willingness of leaders to liberate and incite vigilantes to harass, threaten, and abuse anyone they please, because anything is true so long as they know it in their heart.
Stochastic terrorism is, according to Juliette Kayyem, “the incitement of random but utterly predictable acts of violence for political gain.” As Kayyem explained it to me after the Capitol insurrection:
It’s when a leader uses his platform to motivate and incite violence in a way in which the violence is much more likely to occur, but who does it and where it’s done is utterly random. So, after a Trump speech, is it more likely someone might do something? Yes. Or a Trump tweet. And he’s able to do this or was able to do this by plausible deniability, that the incitement was sufficiently vague.
The lessons of every one of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings to date have not been that Trump and a handful of vicious and ends-driven allies cobbled together a bunch of stupid plots to steal a presidential election. These plots were the motive, but not the real crime. The real crime, as the committee has been at pains to show us at every single opportunity, has been their willingness to abuse Twitter, Fox News, public speeches, and every other means of mass communication at their disposal to greenlight the urges of random citizens who feel inclined to riot, to break and enter, to terrorize, harass, to assault police officers, and worse. Retaining power may have been a goal, but the real endgame is the terror.
There is no other way to process these shattering hearings than as a protracted, lawless, call and response between President Trump and his followers. Take Ruby Freeman, Lady Ruby, whose harrowing taped testimony described what she experienced after Rudy Giuliani named her as involved in a wholly made-up conspiracy to steal the election.
Giuliani’s call: Trump’s attorney told conservative media that Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss, were “surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they are vials of heroin or cocaine,” as part of a plot to upload illegal votes for Joe Biden.
The mob’s response: As summarized here by Noah Y Kim:
Freeman’s home address was posted on social media platforms, and Trump supporters publicly called for her execution. Strangers camped outside Freeman’s home and ordered pizza for delivery to lure her outside. Photos of Moss’ car and license plate were posted online… One particularly graphic comment underneath a Gateway Pundit article called for the two Black women to be “strung up from the nearest lamppost and set on fire.”
Freeman was ultimately advised by the FBI to leave her home. For two months. They could not otherwise guarantee her safety.
Donald Trump’s call: Unsubstantiated claims of stolen elections in 2020 in states such as Michigan.
The mob’s response: Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson had her home surrounded by armed protesters in the weeks following Election Day 2020. They arrived at night, and called her a “threat to democracy.” Per her taped testimony: “My stomach sank, and I thought, It’s me. Are they coming with guns? Are they going to attack my house? I’m in here with my kid, you know. I’m trying to put him to bed.”
White nationalist Nicholas Fuentes’s call: “What can you and I do to a state legislator? Besides kill him. Although we should not do that. I’m not advising that, but I mean what else can you do, right?”
The mob’s esponse: Soaring credible threats to the lives of state legislators, particularly towards those who don’t back sham partisan election audits.
Trump’s call: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by
The Proud Boys’ Response: The group was allegedly part of a seditious conspiracy leading the front line to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.
As Heather Digby Parton observed after Tuesday’s hearing, this phenomenon has affected public officials at every level nationwide: “We saw state houses taken over by armed militia ‘protesting’ mask mandates. Public health officials were threatened at their homes. School board members were plagued with taunts of ‘we know how to find you’ at public meetings. Many of these ‘protesters’ are armed.” (On Thursday the Supreme Court voted to massively expand gun rights, which means that the armed protesters in future will be ever more armed.)
We should not mistake the Jan. 6 hearings as merely a compelling crime show about a slapdash effort by Trump, Mark Meadows, Ginni Thomas, Jeff Clark, John Eastman, and Rudy Giuliani to stand in the way of the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election. It is that, yes, but it is also an almost unbearable telethon about what happens when public figures call on private citizens to trust their own hearts and to act on their own conclusions in ways that include violent threats, doxing, and terror. Legitimating, celebrating, and encouraging those impulses is the objective here. Steve Bannon has been clear about that from the jump.
The stolen election isn’t the crime scene. The vigilantism and the winking encouragement from the highest quarters of the GOP of future violence is the crime scene. That’s the story the Jan. 6 Committee is trying to tell us. The rest of it is just history.