By Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump’s assault on American democracy had been building for weeks through the then-president’s refusal to accept defeat after the 2020 election. It culminated on that fateful day, with Trump exhorting thousands of supporters gathered in Washington to “show strength,” “fight much harder” and “take back our country,” and then pointing them to the U.S. Capitol, where hundreds breached the building to disrupt a constitutional counting of electoral votes certifying Joe Biden as president-elect.
Anyone witnessing those events but somehow dismissing them as unimportant or exaggerated is likely immune to being moved by anything offered in Thursday’s prime-time televised hearing held by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. The presentation was almost entirely composed of previously reported events — although told in compelling fashion, especially as the committee detailed the violence, mayhem and terror of the Capitol incursion.
There was much focus on the actions of the militant Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. If the committee’s purpose was to convict those groups of planning and carrying out the Capitol incursion, they may have succeeded. If the goal was to prove that they were acting at Trump’s direction — even if they convinced themselves that they were through inferences and assumptions based on Trump’s random tweets — the committee failed. The sometimes convoluted efforts by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee’s chairman, to connect the dots, and video editing that synced Trump’s comments with various insurrectionist acts, were ineffective.
The Jan. 6 committee has been frequently compared with the Senate Watergate committee, but there are stark differences. The Watergate committee, made up of four Democrats and three Republicans, included some members who were either allies of President Richard Nixon’s or were at least relatively neutral. Few believed at the start of the hearings that their work would lead to the president’s being seriously wounded, let alone forced from office.
By contrast, these hearings seem overtly partisan. Some pundits praised the strategy of having Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) play a leading role in Thursday’s hearing. She and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) give the Democrat-dominated committee a “bipartisan” sheen, they claim. But most Republicans likely view Cheney and Kinzinger as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s handpicked GOP substitutes for the Republicans originally proposed by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).
Pelosi (D-Calif.), citing the “integrity of the investigation,” took the highly unusual step of refusing to include two of McCarthy’s picks, Trump allies Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Jim Banks (Ind.). In response, McCarthy, not surprisingly, pulled his other three recommendations, leading Pelosi to seat Cheney and Kinzinger, two Republicans who were high-profile Trump critics willing to buck their party leadership. Kinzinger is not seeking reelection, and Cheney is deep underwater in Wyoming primary polling. Most Republicans will be unimpressed by their participation.
The Watergate hearings seemed built to dig into the facts without a presumption of guilt, while the Jan. 6 committee appeared from the outset to be a prosecution team building a case against Trump and his supporters to score political points with voters. As a recent New York Times headline put it, “Jan. 6 Hearings Give Democrats a Chance to Recast Midterm Message.”
Is the intended audience of these hearings even paying attention? For one thing, Fox News didn’t carry Thursday night’s hearing. And unlike the Watergate hearings of the pre-internet, pre-cable-news age, the Jan. 6 committee hearings are not only competing with multiple avenues of information but also with other significant matters that many Americans consider urgent, including runaway inflation and gas prices, the pandemic, fallout from a pending high court decision on Roe v. Wade, the war in Ukraine, the baby formula shortage, and recent mass shootings that are again focusing attention on gun laws.
All of those issues are pressing, but few more so than a blatant attack on democracy itself. So how did subverting democracy get lost in the shuffle? Much of the blame lies with news platforms that, in the competition for viewers and clicks, have in recent years presented everything big and small as “breaking news.” Chris Licht, the new CNN chairman, has promised to change that culture, a decision that will hopefully begin a snowball effect across the board. Maybe someday, if democracy is again under attack, such a horrific event will seem more urgent than a verdict in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial.
But helping Americans better discern the crucial from the trivial is a goal for the future. There are more hearings to come, but for now, those who hoped that Thursday’s prime-time production would elevate the events of Jan. 6 in the eyes of more Americans as a calamity on par with Watergate or 9/11 — and a major step toward leaving Trump on the ash heap of history — will probably be greatly disappointed.