The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s dominance might end with a whimper, not a bang

Former Justice Department officials Steven A. Engel, Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Donoghue swear in before the House Jan. 6 select committee on June 23. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Pollsters, pundits and Republican operatives have long insisted that the House Jan. 6 committee’s hearings won’t change voters’ minds, largely because Republican voters deep in the right-wing media cocoon are ignoring the hearings. But there’s evidence the “nothing matters” crowd is wrong.

For starters, polling shows increased interest in prosecuting defeated former president Donald Trump. Even before the committee’s blockbuster hearings last week — which featured damning testimony from former Justice Department officials in the Trump administration, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R), and Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss — the percentage of Americans who thought Trump should be charged with a crime was rising. An ABC News-Ipsos poll found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with that earlier this month, compared with 52 percent who said the same in April.

Plus, the right-wing media bubble might not block out exposure to the hearings’ findings entirely. Fox News host Brian Kilmeade let on that Trump’s lawyers never came up with evidence of voter fraud. He also called Trump “unhinged.” And during the network’s coverage last Thursday, Bret Baier remarked on the fact that the hearings featured officials “who again were working for President Trump, [and] stood up saying, ‘we have an oath to the Constitution.’ ” (Disclaimer: I am an MSNBC contributor.) While some voters might not have tuned in to watch the proceedings live, coverage is all over social media. It’s hard to ignore the hearings entirely.

Certainly, MAGA-rally-attending conspiracy theorists are not going to be swayed by any of that. But a mainstream Republican reading an article in, say, the Wall Street Journal will surely absorb the enormity of the evidence against Trump.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

These voters — the Republicans who convinced themselves Trump was preferable to “socialist” Democrats or who believe Democrats are out to pollute children’s minds with critical race theory — are crucial to Trump’s support. For them, the choice might now be Trump or someone who hates Democrats as much as they do but can spare them from Trump’s obsession with 2020.

Trump’s likely 2024 opponents must be licking their chops. As Politico recently reported, an adviser to Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis characterized the hearings as a “continuation of the exhausting circus that surrounds Trump.” The DeSantis adviser insists that big-money donors (who are presumably more rational than the average MAGA conspiratorialist) have become “sick of the s---show.” That helps to explain the anecdotal evidence that DeSantis provides an escape route for Republicans looking for someone “like Trump but less crazy.”

Sarah Longwell, Republican strategist and head of Republican Voters Against Trump, has conducted two focus groups among Republican voters since the hearings began. She tells me that for the first time ever, “zero people in either group wanted Trump to run again in 2024.” She explains: “I’ve conducted dozens and dozens of focus groups with Trump voters since Jan. 6, and almost uniformly roughly half the group or more wants to see Trump run again. So while two groups with nobody wanting Trump to run again isn’t exactly a trend, it is a divergence from what had been an incredibly consistent finding.” She adds that the hearings are reminding voters of “all the baggage that comes with Trump. … They want to move on.” She also notes that there is consistently rising interest in DeSantis.

Indeed, some Republican operatives now comically insist that the hearings (which no one was supposed to watch) might deliver Republicans a “better” candidate than Trump for 2024. That’s an implicit concession that the hearings are making some difference and are bad for Trump.

Of course, swindled people do not like to admit they were swindled. Most Republicans are not going to tell pollsters they now disapprove of Trump or that the Democrats were right about 2020. They are not going to finally acknowledge that the “big lie” was just that — a lie. But many more Republicans might be amenable to finding someone who does not appear unhinged and did not try to use the presidency to reverse an election outcome.

The Jan. 6 committee shows no sign of interest in the downstream impact of the hearings. Its members are there to set the record straight; to ferret out evidence of possibly criminal activity; to identify who enabled Trump and who stood up to him; and, finally, to draft recommendations to prevent another coup attempt in 2024.

Nevertheless, if Trump ends up appearing washed up and struggling to keep his frontrunner status for 2024, that would also be a boon to democracy.

On the morning of Jan. 6, there were signs of the violence to come even before thousands of former president Donald Trump loyalists besieged the U.S. Capitol. (Video: Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)