The video that House impeachment managers showed of the Jan. 6 insurrection is clear, and it’s horrifying. The images are almost cartoonishly obvious, damning and unequivocal — showing members of the mob breaking through a door into the Capitol; telling the police, “We are listening to Trump, your boss”; prowling for Vice President Mike Pence while wearing tactical gear; and promising to return later with guns. It’s the type of recorded evidence that we’ve long been conditioned to see as the climax of the courtroom movie, the bombshell that cuts through deceit and even argumentation, because, well, just look at what is clear as day.
The sense of definitiveness that recorded evidence brings is left over from a time before cellphones, when this material was hard to come by, so we thought of it as a special and incontrovertible resource. Caught on candid camera! If someone is captured on tape, the “caught” is not meant to be a matter of opinion.
Yet here we encounter the central disconnect of the Trump era: As much as it has been defined by misinformation, it has also been defined by more accessible recorded evidence than any time in history, and one did nothing to stop the other. We can see and hear with exact certainty what has been done wrong, and that certainty brings with it the promise of justice. But justice has not and will not be done. If anything, misinformation has eroded the power of these documents more than the other way around.
Think of the “Access Hollywood” recording, released in the fall of 2016, in which the entire world could hear then-candidate Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault. It felt like the death knell for his presidential campaign — not because it revealed him to be worse than anyone had thought, but because the video and audio evidence so certainly removed his awfulness from the realm of argument. But then the goal posts moved, and it was just “locker room talk.” For something to count as powerful evidence, it needed to reach the level of documentation — but with documentation, his supporters could treat video and audio evidence as common, a political tactic as ubiquitous and annoying as any other.
Not even a year later, when a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville killed a protester with his car at a white-supremacist rally, there was instant video evidence. The whole world saw the murder, and the whole world saw Trump describing the perpetrators of the violence at that event, saying there “were very fine people on both sides.” More recently, when a caravan of Trump supporters menaced a Biden-Harris campaign bus driving down a Texas highway in an attempt at intimidation, not only was the video available instantaneously, it was amplified by Trump, who retweeted the footage in gleeful support.
Rehashing these instances of misogyny, violence, racism and illegality is similar, at this point, to presenting the recorded evidence of them: It’s necessary, and still somehow shocking each time, but it makes no difference. We see this more broadly in our culture, too. In the months after George Floyd’s death, video evidence of police brutality proliferated — a cruiser ramming a group of protesters in New York; a Boston officer bragging about violence to a colleague without remembering to check if his body camera was off; a Buffalo officer shoving a 75-year-old demonstrator to the ground. In Providence, R.I., where I live, a police cruiser chased a moped rider named Jhamal Gonsalves until he crashed, putting him in a coma. The video became public right away, at a moment so saturated with awful videos that it gained no national traction. There were, of course, no serious consequences.
Watching the impeachment videos, it was hard not to think of Floyd himself, and the video of his death. We’re in a loop of exposure to the kinds of earth-shattering recordings that were once the rarest commodity but that now bring no resolution — an open wound showed again and again, never sutured.
People who find ways to defend outrages caught on tape — because boys will be boys, or because a cop was provoked, or because rioters were just angry at election theft — aren’t standing up for injustice; they’re making the ultimate attack on the power of the real. A recording supposedly strips away the he-said-she-said, the filter of a particular reporter or pundit or publication that can be accused of bias. Raw footage should be the best way to embrace a shared national reality, the kind that once existed but no longer does.
Nostalgia for that shared reality was palpable as the impeachment managers presented their recorded evidence, borrowing the drama from a time when, if a single news show got its hands on the smoking gun, that would change everything. Making the case on the second day, Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands) introduced clips of U.S. Capitol Police officers calling for backup by saying, “What you are about to hear has not been made public before,” as though the problem is that we just didn’t have the facts until now. As moving and well-made as the presentation was, it also came off like a performance of the way explosive truths should be, and have always been, packaged. But of course the assembled senators lived through the attack captured on video. Will dramatic new presentations of evidence really change their minds about what they saw? Not anymore.
One especially haunting detail: In every piece of footage I’ve seen from the Capitol that day, there are others in the shot holding up their own cameras, broadcasting. No matter how damning, video can’t function as a revelation when nobody expects its contents to be hidden, when each new angle documents, yet again, something that has already been proved and that will not prevent Trump’s acquittal. The emotional power of the real is still palpable in each new snippet, that intensity of seeing the worst of things, the stuff you’d never expect to witness. But that sensation is increasingly an illusion. When Trump or his followers have said or done something unconscionable or illegal, more likely than not it’s been documented.
Yes, it was important to impeach Trump, to show the world the evidence regardless of the outcome, the same way that dash cams and bodycams and civilians’ rights to film the police are all essential. But we are seeing that more evidence has not made our interpretation any more solid or uniform, or ultimately just.