AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

From the Center

When the schedule for the January 6 House committee hearings was announced, there were several bold-type witnesses who seemed guaranteed to drive television ratings and news coverage. Former President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, Attorney General William Barr, campaign manager Bill Stepien and a passel of advisors to Vice President Mike Pence and other Trump White House aides would almost certainly draw immense public and media interest.

Almost lost in the shuffle was Michael Luttig, the retired appellate judge whose participation seemed as if it would a somewhat interesting but fairly minor footnote to the proceedings. One of the committee’s primary communications strategies has been a conservative-man-bites-Republican-dog message to demonstrate how many members of Trump’s GOP disagreed with and/or warned against the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Even for the relatively small percentage of the population that was familiar with the respected conservative jurist before last week, Luttig’s expected criticism seemed like more of the same, without the immediate impact and practical value of witnesses whose roles on January 6 were more directly relevant to the committee’s work.

But in addition to his condemnation of Trump’s behavior and his dismissal of the legal advice he had received, Luttig also offered what may have been the most consequential argument that has been heard in the hearings to date. More important than whether Trump had intentionally provoked the Capitol rioters, than how the committee hearings would impact the midterm elections this fall, and even more critical than whether the Justice Department would bring criminal charges against a president for the first time in our nation’s history, was Luttig’s warning to the country about the uncertain state of our democracy.

Luttig made it clear that Trump’s Republican party deserved a disproportionate share of the blame for the threat the United States now faces. He refers to “an immoral war”, which he says was “irresponsibly instigated by the former president and his political allies, and his supporters.” The retired judge also blamed Trump’s efforts to overturn the election as having “laid waste to Americans’ confidence in their national elections” and “recklessly put America herself at stake.”

But Luttig does not absolve the Democrats of responsibility either. He is unsparing in his criticism of both political parties, decrying their “coarse, desensitizing, dehumanizing political vile” which leaves Americans “living in a fictionalized world of divided loyalties between party and country.” Ultimately, he frames January 6 as the day we came “face to face with the raging war that it had been waging against itself for years.

He then turns his attention to our precarious path forward. He invokes the Civil War era when he says the nation is at “a foreboding crossroads with disquieting parallels to the fateful crossroads we came to over a century and a half ago.”  And he warns the leaders of both parties that their current emphasis on division and vilification will put the nation’s democracy in even greater danger. (Although he strongly believes that the nature of the January 6 debate will require Republicans to take the first steps.)

His testimony generated few headlines. When the hearings have concluded, most summaries of the proceedings will reference his words briefly, if at all. Many Republicans will dismiss him of his lack of fealty to Trump. Most Democrats will overlook his observations to focus on those witnesses who can directly implicate the former president’s involvement in the violence or his efforts to overturn the election. But in the long run –whether Trump ends up in prison or back in the Oval Office – no words from these hearings will matter more than Luttig’s.

Luttig is a jurist, not a political strategist. So it isn’t surprising that his prescriptions for how to achieve more productive political discourse are not nearly as compelling as his warning of what will become of our democracy if we don’t act.

But the clarity of his analysis makes it clear how high the stakes of inaction might be. If we aren’t willing to attempt a dramatic course correction, he predicts, “we will consign ourselves to another Jan. 6 in the not-too-distant future, and another after that, and another after that.”

A democracy can survive one January 6, in other words. We won’t necessarily be so fortunate again next time.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

Want to talk about this topic more? Read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.