Co-authored by Nancy L. Rosenblum
Donald Trump’s mindset remains a significant factor for the outcome of the investigation by Congress's Select Committee on the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol. But much confusion exists about the question generally asked: Does he really believe that he won the election and that it was “stolen” from him? The trouble is that an accurate answer is neither yes nor no but yes and no.
This question may assume that belief is definite and fixed. That is not the case. Belief is a form of behavior, often a form of adaptation. It can readily change. An important determinate of belief is the requirement that it be consistent with one’s own larger story, with what the psychologist Jerome Bruner called narrative necessity. Once Trump created the Big Lie about the 2020 election, his narrative necessity came to include at least a partial belief in that falsehood. At the same time, he is consciously aware of manipulating the Big Lie and attempting to impose it on the American public.
I have characterized Trump’s approach as that of solipsistic reality. This means that he is only capable of embracing a version of reality based on what his own self seeks and needs, however removed from accepted standards of evidence. Also, that element of belief is critical for him in effectively disseminating the Big Lie. At the same time, his solipsistic reality allows him to keep the belief active in the face of endless insistence by those around him that he is wrong. Here, narrative necessity joins with solipsistic reality.
To put this in simple language: Trump makes things up, comes to believe partially in his lies, exploits those lies in his assault on truth, and viciously attacks those who question them. He makes broad threats of violence that are sometimes carried out by a righteous subculture of white supremacy groups. Not only are individual lives destroyed but there is a constant aura of political violence.
Whether Trump can be prosecuted under the legal concept of “willful blindness” we will leave to the lawyers. But we can say that Trump’s talent for socially manipulating half-belief is second to none and is enabled by his version of narrative necessity.
Narrative necessity, however, pertains not only to individual psychology but to collective understanding in the larger society. A nation’s stories sometimes emerge organically from history and culture, and sometimes, as today, from the deliberate work of democratic institutions.
The investigation and public hearings by the Select Committee on January 6 are a response to Trump’s solipsistic narrative. The Committee, too, has its narrative necessity, but in a form that contrasts dramatically with Trump’s version.
At one level, the Committee has to expose and counter Trump’s Big Lie, for without the claim of “the steal” the events of January 6 would not have occurred. The Committee’s narrative reclaims factual reality by offering a coherent, comprehensive account of the course of events and the part played by individuals—both those out to destroy the integrity of the 2020 election and those who protected it. The tone of members’ presentation matters: steady, deliberate, and self-disciplined. Although these Congressional representatives’ own safety has been threatened, the emotional undertone of Chair Bennie Thompson’s openings is a combination of outrage and sadness for the nation, rather than fear.
At another level, the Committee’s narrative is governed by a broader necessity: to relegitimate democratic process. Significantly, the formal account of January 6 was not delegated to a remote Special Counsel or to a court but taken on by a Congressional committee of bipartisan elected representatives chosen by the Speaker of the House. Committee members understand that, in this moment of crisis, their charge is to come as close as possible to what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the sovereignty of the people.”
They labor to restore their democratic authority by working as democratic decision-makers must: in the face of uncertainty, disagreement, floods of information, and the need to come together to make difficult judgments. They take special care to articulate how their investigation proceeds and how their public hearings are organized. They demonstrate their adherence to regular investigative practices. They credit their staff, which provides professional counsel. They make the demanding requirements of democratic decision-making legible. In all these ways they are, in Nancy Rosenblum’s phrase, enacting democracy.
Enacting democracy is as central to the Committee’s narrative necessity as is its account of events. Members discuss in detail forms of evidence and interpretation of that evidence. They make use of thousands of documents, combined with hundreds of individual interviews of officials and ordinary state and local election volunteers. All this is woven into an account in which the character of their process—step-by-step—is revealed. The Committee’s transparency is at the center of its narrative necessity.
This disciplined and open process invalidates the attempt by Trump and anti-democratic groups to stigmatize the investigation as the partisan work of a Democratic cabal.
The Committee focuses on accountability, and not only for Trump. Its members offer their evidence and conclusions in terms that can be examined. Accountability in their narrative extends to themselves.
In every way, the Committee provides the antithesis of solipsistic reality.
The January 6 Committee should ultimately be judged not only by its effect on upcoming elections or criminal prosecutions. Its work has profound value for the crucial task of relegitimating—and revitalizing—democracy.
Nancy Rosenblum is the Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics and Politics in Government emerita, Harvard University. She is the author (with Russell Muirhead) of “A Lot of People are Saying: the New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy” (Princeton University Press, 2019).