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The Forest and the Trees

The January 6th Committee hearings are full of interesting tidbits. Don't lose sight of the big picture.
June 13, 2022
The Forest and the Trees
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The January 6th Committee hearings have already been full of fascinating tidbits and mini-dramas. As novelists and dramatists have known for a long time, criminal conspiracies often feature colorful characters and memorable moments.

But in the midst of the color and the drama, it’s probably a good idea to heed a familiar warning, one that was already commonplace five centuries ago. It’s one of the epigrams featured in John Heywood’s 1546 collection of English proverbs: “You cannot see the wood for the trees.”

(By the way, though my knowledge of Mr. Heywood is pretty much confined to Wikipedia, he seems like a fascinating fellow. He was a playwright, a political figure, a wit, and a writer who more or less successfully navigated the political and religious controversies of his time. He was also the nephew-in-law of Thomas More and grandfather of John Donne. I’ll have to read up on him when the hearings are over.)

Anyway, back to the wood and the trees, or as the expression is more commonly rendered these days, the forest and the trees.

There are many ways to try to make clear the shape of the present forest—but this is the simplest I’ve been able to come up with:

  1. Trump lost.
  2. Trump lied.
  3. Trump conspired to overturn the election.

The committee will show how Trump propagated the lie that he hadn’t lost; how Trump pressured state legislators to overturn their states’ results based on lies; how Trump pressured senior officials at the Department of Justice to support this effort; how Trump pressured his vice president to join the conspiracy to overturn the results; and how Trump summoned the mob to Washington and encouraged them to storm the Capitol in a last ditch effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.

So the heart of the matter is that Donald Trump was the head of a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.

Among the other proverbs John Heywood collected in 1546 was this: “All is well that ends well.”

But the effect of Trump’s lies has not yet ended. They remain a poison in our political lifeblood, and the prospect of a similar effort in 2024 lies before us.

The incendiary lies and the criminal conspiracy leading up to January 6th can only be said to end well if elected officials at all levels in both parties repudiate the lies and proclaim the truth. It can only end well if the large majority of voters in both parties come to accept the truth. And it can only truly end well if those who were part of the criminal conspiracy are held accountable, so that we are less likely to be subject to a similar criminal conspiracy again.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.