Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) has vowed to continue her challenge to the “big lie,” but her unequivocal statement that “we can’t whitewash what happened on January 6” is up against the fact is that most of her Republican colleagues can and will do just that. They started on that same day of the Capitol insurrection when 147 Republican House representatives and Senators opposed certification of the 2020 presidential election results. They confirmed it when they removed Cheney from her leadership position on May 12 by voice vote. And they doubled down on May 19 when 175 members voted to oppose the creation of an investigatory commission on the events of January 6. That same day, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell also came out against the proposal. Its future is in doubt.
Whitewashing in American politics is not new; it has been used to mask the uglier side of turbulent periods in our past. We are at it again on several fronts:
First, the success in rolling out Covid-19 vaccines helps restore our self-confidence as a “can-do” nation. It also, apparently, allows us to quickly blunt memories of a former administration that thwarted the measures that could have saved thousands of lives. Criticism of the pandemic responses in India and Brazil sidesteps the obvious parallels to the tragedy the United States has just lived through (we still lead the world in cases and deaths) thanks to the incompetence of our national government last year.
Second, the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd becomes a symbol of the success of the American legal system rather than largely the fortuitous result of the courage of a seventeen-year-old who had the presence of mind to record his tragic death. In the meantime, a police force in North Carolina supported by the district attorney’s office blocks the release of the full video of the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr., and Black Americans continue to be killed by police across the nation.
Third, President Joe Biden’s triumph at the polls by a margin of eight million votes and the near-miss of the insurrection of January 6 are celebrated as the victory of American democracy in the face of adversity. One of the country’s two national parties responds by amplifying “the big lie” denying President Biden’s victory, and by doing everything it can to delegitimize that election with the support of 70 percent of the tens of millions of Americans who voted for former President Donald Trump.
The blurring of the political reality of the assault on our democracy is particularly alarming. Senators and the House minority leader join fringe figures to lead the charge to bury the questions about President Trump’s responsibility for January 6 and to create a new narrative before the 2022 mid-term elections. They were assisted by Trump’s former acting secretary of defense, Chris Miller, when, in his congressional testimony on May 12, he backed away from his earlier assertions that the former president helped incite the assault. Their influence on a broad sector of American public opinion should be a wake-up call to all of us. This is not just about one former president’s ego.
The “whitewash” could yet succeed for another reason. There may be new leadership in Washington and new policies, but what about accountability for how our democracy has been undermined? A different kind of complementary whitewashing takes place by not having it.
When will the Department of Justice explain how the building was politicized to weaken the Mueller investigation? How did the Center for Disease Control and White House COVID Task Force bend to political whims to distort the truth of the pandemic? Who will explain why no one in authority at the White House or Department of Defense took an immediate decision to deploy the National Guard while our Congress was under assault on January 6? When will the White House and State Department reveal the full extent of efforts by the former administration to extort Ukraine and undermine our diplomacy? These are political questions that will not be settled in a court of law.
As a nation, we can start by challenging every step to whitewash issues we would rather leave behind. Democrats in Congress and some Republicans will continue to push for the investigation into what really happened on January 6. Congress could also launch an investigation into how the Trump administration handled Covid-19; the administration could release all classified material relevant to foreign interference in the 2016 election and the 2019 Ukraine scandal; the federal government can legally challenge the initiatives to limit voting rights at the state level; the White House can make public all documentation in its possession regarding the efforts to deny the election results after November 3 and on the events of January 6; the attorney general can investigate every questioned police shooting across the country.
In Cheney’s words, “Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure.” The accompanying whitewash which helps make that possible is already underway. In part, we have collectively opened the door to such an outcome by not fully facing up to what our nation has just lived through as a society and as a polity. Let’s start before we forget.
P. Michael McKinley is a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru and a former Senior Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State.