Jan. 6 Committee Isn't Defending Democracy. It's a McCarthyite Witch Hunt | Opinion

The Jan. 6 Committee established by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last July is no mere investigation into the disgraceful events of that day. It is a far more ambitious undertaking.

The committee has embarked on a fishing expedition that has little to do with ascertaining any unknown facts about an event that took place live on television—leaving few, if any, unsolved mysteries for Congress to explore.

It's clear the committee exists to justify the hyperbolic claim that the riot was an "insurrection" or an attempted coup. What happened that day was clearly a chaotic and appalling mess, but not an orchestrated plot. But the committee is determined to find a conspiracy, even if it has to manufacture one. It has spent its time cobbling together a narrative from events and opinions that reveal nothing more than a common desire on the part of former president Donald Trump and some supporters to find a legal stratagem to deny the presidency to Joe Biden.

Open-ended investigations are always problematic. But this one has been made worse by the fact that it was formed to do the will of the majority with none of the customary limits imposed by the presence of members of the minority.

The selection of the committee's membership was unprecedented. Pelosi rejected the House Republican conference's choices for membership in the body. Instead she chose two anti-Trump Republicans—Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), who were eager to assist the speaker in attacking not just the former president but also the party with which they are now only loosely associated.

There is, however, a precedent for how the committee has been proceeding: the hearings conducted by the House and the Senate in the late 1940s and early 1950s that are broadly lumped together under the term "McCarthyism."

The House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chaired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) were the primary engines of McCarthyism. Their probes into alleged communist subversion were not illegitimate in principle. Though their liberal critics often spoke as if there were no American communists, the Soviet Union's archives have since confirmed that party members were spying for Moscow and or had attempted to influence policy and culture at its behest.

But the McCarthyite probes were a parody of anti-communism. McCarthy's efforts often targeted people who were not actual communists, and allowed accusers to publicly shame and ostracize victims, ruining many lives.

Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden speaks to reporters in the Hall of Columns following a ceremony on the first anniversary of the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2022. - Biden accused his predecessor Donald Trump of attempting to block the democratic transfer of power on January 6, 2021. "For the first time in our history, a president not just lost an election; he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol," Biden said. Bill Clark / POOL / AFP/Getty Images

We should have learned to avoid giving partisan demagogues the ability to use congressional power in this manner. Yet McCarthyism is being repeated in the rush to justify treating Jan. 6 as if it were, as Democrats continue to assert, as bad as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or Pearl Harbor.

Like McCarthy, who sought to treat his foes as soft on communism or even complicit in treason, the Jan. 6 Committee has a political agenda. It appears less interested in the actions of the actual rioters than in finding a way to link Trump, his supporters, congressional Republicans and more or less all of those who voted to reelect the 45th president, to a mythical insurrection plot.

No one has been indicted for conducting an insurrection nor, despite the whining of liberal pundits and activists to lock up Trump, is there a conceivable rationale for such an indictment. Trump's claims that the election was stolen were irresponsible. But they were not illegal. He didn't urge violence or for anyone to attack the Capitol at the "Stop the Steal" rally from which the rioters broke off.

Little, if any, of this matters to the committee. As The Washington Post reported, it is engaged in a far-reaching investigation into any effort to question the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. That agenda is leading it far afield from an examination of the specific circumstances of how a group of people wound up pushing their way into the Capitol on the day Congress certified the Electoral College vote.

It's also straying from the object of normal congressional activity, which is to assemble information intended to aid in the writing of legislation. Instead, the committee is taking on aspects of a criminal investigation—something beyond the scope of any congressional committee—and a partisan witch hunt with unknowable consequences.

The committee is casting a wide net to drag in a large cast of Republicans and conservatives who are, to all indications, unconnected to the riot for testimony. That includes White House aides, Fox News personalities and even Republican members of Congress who, like the Democrats, went scurrying for safety when the rioters entered the Capitol.

That amounts to a search for a conspiracy rather than a sober investigation. As with the communist hunters of the past, anyone the Jan. 6 committee deems an unfriendly witness will have to endure assumptions of guilt by association, regardless of the truth of any allegations against them. That truth won't matter to media figures eager to depict the investigators as patriotic heroes and their victims as treasonous conspirators.

The McCarthyite witch hunts largely ignored actual spies as its leaders went after more vulnerable and politically profitable targets. The Jan. 6 committee is similarly focused on an amorphous and likely mythical conspiracy. Its breadth will justify the Democrats' desire to make the insurrection a permanent feature of American politics. But that won't make the committee a legitimate use of congressional power. Far from defending democracy, the Jan. 6 Committee is embarked on an exercise to ensure that its political opponents are silenced.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org, a senior contributor to The Federalist and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.