Ordinary guy believed the lie, joined the riot, apologized. Now what?
These men came to testify publicly before the January 6 committee. And in doing so, they allowed their fellow citizens to look at them, to listen to them and to take stock. Can we have community with these men who have tested the seams of our democracy? Can they make peace with those whose votes they ignored and whose lives they threatened?
Stephen Ayres and Jason Van Tatenhove entered the courtroom with very different attitudes about how best to present themselves to the public. They were like characters from totally different fairy tales. One man seemed to yearn for a return to the anonymity, security and calm of simply being ignored. The other looked eager to be a person of distinction.
Ayres described himself as a “family man” who had worked at a cabinetmaking business in northeastern Ohio for 20 years. He’s a guy who speaks in short, gravelly sentences, sometimes mere fragments. He’s a regular guy, whatever that means, who likes to camp and play basketball. He got his place at the witness table because he was also a man who spent a lot of time on social media absorbing former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election. Ayres was not part of any club or organization when he went to Washington with his friends. He was a citizen driven by anger, patriotism and the assurance of like-minded buddies that he was doing the right thing.
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He believed his president when that president told him that the country was in danger. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, he acted. And if Ayres had been right, if Trump hadn’t lied, he might well have been a hero.
Ayres has pleaded guilty to unlawfully entering the Capitol and is awaiting sentencing; he was denounced by his family who saw him bragging about it on social networks. He lost his job, Ayres said, and sold his house. “It changed my life – and certainly not for the good.”
He was dressed as if he was trying to disappear, as if he was trying to become a guy no one noticed on the street. He wore a gray suit and blue shirt and a narrow red checkered tie. Her hair was cropped short and her glasses were modestly elegant. And when Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) asked him if he still believed the election was stolen, he sounded less like an evangelist preaching the gospel of truth than a simply exhausted man. .
“Not so much now,” Ayres said. “I walked away from all social media when Jan 6 happened, I pretty much deleted everything. You know, I started doing my own research and stuff. And for me, for something like that to be that, actually, for that to happen, it’s too big, you know.
“There’s no way to keep something like this quiet,” he said. “With all the, you know, all the lawsuits that have been shot down one after another, that’s mainly what convinced me.”
And later, when Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) asked him what lessons he wanted the American people to learn from his testimony, he issued a warning to his friends and neighbors: “I felt like I had, you know, like horse blinders. I was…I was locked up the whole time,” Ayres said. “The most important thing for me is to take the blinders off. Make sure you step back and see what happens before it’s too late.
Van Tatenhove is also a family man. He told the committee he had three daughters and a granddaughter and was worried about what might happen after the next election. He came to the committee to explain the Keepers of the Oath. “They may not like to call themselves a militia, but they are. It is a violent militia,” Van Tatenhove said.
When committee chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) asked Van Tatenhove to describe the Oath Keepers’ vision for America, his response was vague, which perhaps accurately reflects their vision. It is a blur of upheavals. “It doesn’t necessarily include the rule of law,” Van Tatenhove explained. “That includes violence. This includes trying to navigate through lies, deception, intimidation, and the perpetration of violence.
Van Tatenhove began his remarks by berating the committee, telling them they needed to be more specific in their language and suggesting they needed to sound the alarm even louder about the threat to democracy. But the alarms are already ringing and if anything, the country is becoming desensitized to them. We learn to live with the constant ringing in our ears.
Van Tatenhove did not appear as a chastised or repentant man. He was someone who had come to offer the country his wisdom. He had come to put the January 6 committee in the clear about January 6. “I think we need to stop mincing words and just talk about truths,” he said, “and what it was going to be was an armed revolution. But frankly, we know that.
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Van Tatenhove spoke his truth as if it were a revelation when in fact it is something the Thompson committee has been saying and showing for weeks now. Are we listening?
As soon as he entered the courtroom, Van Tatenhove distinguished himself. In a room full of suits and ties and sports jackets, there was a man in jeans and a denim jacket. He wore a black punk rock band T-shirt and a pair of sneakers. His refusal to bow to congressional traditions was written in bold. Her attire was not shocking; he aspired to be memorable. Who was the guy who testified in jeans and a T-shirt? Oh that’s right. Van Tate-something or other. He was part of this militia which tried to foment a coup.
Van Tatenhove was covered in tattoos, several of which were just visible under his side-swept gray hair. Thompson introduced him as a former journalist and artist. But he was mostly a man who didn’t want to blur in the spotlight. Viewers may recall the sight of Van Tatenhove at the witness table. They may remember telling him that he finally quit the Oathkeepers when he heard members denying the Holocaust. And maybe people will applaud that or just turn away in disgust that he was involved with them.
Ayres was the guy with the bland suit. The forgettable who thought he was saving democracy. The man who believed the lie until he broke a pact with the country he went to protect in Washington. He was the witness who on Tuesday shook hands with police officers who had been abused, assaulted and beaten on January 6 and apologized for them. This is not enough to fix our democracy. It wasn’t much at all. But for now, that’s all we have.