Last week, a congressional committee began an unflinching conversation with the citizens of this country about, in the words of the committee chair, Donald Trump’s last stand, his attempt to spur the enemies of the Constitution to subvert American democracy.
Facts about what happened during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack were clearly and soberly laid out. Videotaped testimony underscored those findings. The rallying cries of the former president and the ensuing breach of the Capitol were shown for all to see.
It was the first of several hearings by the Jan. 6 committee that are meant, in part, for the history books. But the importance of the hearings isn’t simply about holding Mr. Trump, his allies and the flag-draped thugs storming the halls to account. The hearings challenge all Americans to recommit to the principles of democracy, ask how important those values are to us and face the threats posed to our democratic way of life.
Those threats are real and present, as Mr. Trump prepares to possibly again seek the office he has already desecrated once. The committee is doing its duty to defend against these threats by presenting evidence that the attack on the Capitol was not an isolated event, that it was a coordinated assault and that it continues to this very day. Our duty, as American citizens, is to participate fully in this process, by watching and absorbing the committee’s evidence and considering what it would mean for our democracy if Mr. Trump were to run for president again.
The eloquent restraint of the committee’s leaders was equal to the gravity of the task before them. The chair, Bennie Thompson, a Black former schoolteacher from Bolton, Miss., called back to history. He invoked the words of Abraham Lincoln, who wrote, before the critical election of 1864, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the president-elect,” in making a solemn commitment to accept the results even if a loss might have meant the end of our Union.
The vice chair, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who has been marginalized by her fellow Republicans for condemning Mr. Trump, warned of judgment from generations to come. Addressing her colleagues’ defense of “the indefensible,” she said, “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
The chilling videos and interviews aired in the two hours of the hearing did far more than replay the familiar horrors. They were revelatory and dramatic, showing how Mr. Trump urged his followers to violate the Constitution and refused to rein them in even when his most loyal aides pleaded with him to do so.
Republican politicians, with brave exceptions such as Ms. Cheney, have dismissed the hearings as unimportant, a partisan show trial and an unwarranted political attack on Mr. Trump. The House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy — whose office was seen being overrun in one of the clips — declared that congressional Republicans will issue their own report on Jan. 6, focusing on the security preparations. This misdirection tries to obscure the truth of what is in that footage: Many of the same Republicans had to flee their chamber in panic as a howling mob rampaged through the Capitol.
The absence of full Republican participation in the hearings does not diminish their importance. On the contrary, the absence has prodded Mr. Thompson and Ms. Cheney to ensure that every accusation they level is supported by evidence. Mr. Trump’s heretofore loyal attorney general, William P. Barr, testified that he told the president that his claims of a stolen election were “bullshit.” Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, said that she accepted Mr. Barr’s conclusion. And some of the same Republicans who now downplay Jan. 6 are said to have asked for presidential pardons in its aftermath.
These politicians know that something truly terrible happened on Jan. 6, and confronting it is essential to healing our divided nation. At least 20 million people watched the opening session of the hearings on Thursday; our democracy will be strengthened if they are followed and experienced by everyone, in the same way the Senate Watergate hearings into the misdeeds of an earlier president transfixed the nation in 1973.
The stakes today are arguably far higher: This investigation is an attempt by the elected representatives and civil servants of our democracy to figure out how it nearly came undone. As Ms. Cheney said, “We all have a duty to ensure that what happened on Jan. 6 never happens again.”
Those Americans who still believe in Mr. Trump and his grievances may disagree with whatever conclusions the committee draws, but we urge them to see and hear the evidence the committee has collected from interviewing 1,000 witnesses and gathering more than 140,000 documents.
Those Americans who were horrified by Jan. 6 also must not turn away in the belief that they already know what happened. There is much more to come in future hearings that has not yet been publicly disclosed. Gaining a deeper and more detailed understanding of the forces at work inside the White House, among Republicans speaking and texting that day and at the Capitol is essential to facing an essential truth about democracy: that it depends on leaders who commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
The insurrection and the lies that led to it, as Mr. Thompson put it, “have put two and a half centuries of constitutional democracy at risk.” The danger will remain until Americans fully confront what happened on that day. The committee has given us that chance.