Their mother, they agreed, would have wanted siblings Dale Petersen and Priscilla Harris to find some way to respect each other’s views about the Jan. 6 hearings, even if Petersen is a die-hard liberal Democrat and his sister is a lifelong conservative Republican.
Harris recalled watching every minute of the Watergate hearings in 1973, a TV event that riveted the nation and persuaded many of Richard M. Nixon’s supporters that their president was indeed a crook. But Americans were more open to facts then, she said: “Every American knew by the end that Nixon was guilty. But now it’s different. Because Trump supporters — no matter what you do, no matter what you say, they don’t believe.”
In snippy debates and in silent tension, with smidgens of hope and wheelbarrows of doubt, Americans processed the first hearings before the congressional committee investigating last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol. Millions watched, looking for evidence that President Donald Trump incited the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, because they want the ex-president held to account. They watched in hopes that Trump supporters might see the folly of their hero’s claims about a rigged election.
But millions more did not watch — because they’ve had it up to here with criticism of a president they admired, or because they’re overdosed on politics, or too busy working to make it through a time of crazy gas prices and expensive everything.
On the line between Tulsa and Orlando, the siblings concluded that despite the barrage of testimony showing how the people around Trump tried to persuade him that he had lost the 2020 election, “there’s just probably no hope in persuading” his supporters that Trump’s claim of a rigged election was utterly bogus, said Petersen, 73, a retired corporate human resources officer.
He concluded from the first hearings that Trump knew that “what he is telling people is false and his intent in telling those lies is to remain in power, or to collect millions.” But Petersen harbors little hope that Trump voters will accept that: “They may take that viewpoint to the grave or, if they’re young enough, they may go 20 or 30 years to come off of that position even slightly.”
His sister, 79 and once a delegate to a Republican National Convention, didn’t share her brother’s admiration for the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.). “Seems like he’s reaching a conclusion before hearing anything,” she said. But she found the Republican vice chairwoman, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), persuasive, and the siblings agreed on that.
Across the country, those who watched were often outraged by the extent of the scheming that led to the attack. In the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Christina Merlo tuned in to show her sons, ages 13 and 16, why it’s vital to take action to protect democracy. Merlo, 53, said she appreciated the committee’s calm approach and said she learned the answers to questions her children may have about “the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, the acceptance of election results.”
Some see spin
Although the first hearing drew an audience of about 19 million, according to the Nielsen rating service, that left the great majority of Americans either relying on video snippets and news accounts or ignoring the proceedings entirely.
In Wheaton, Ill., Dave Seng switched off the first hearing and decided not to tune back in this week, not because he was busy, but because of the stress the hearings caused him.
“I’m conflicted,” said Seng, 54, a software development manager at a financial services company in Chicago. “On one hand, I feel I should watch to gain a firsthand perspective. ... There’s almost an aspect of civic responsibility. But on the other hand, I know the testimony will feed into political spin machines, which will spit out all sorts of garbage.”
An independent who once leaned Republican, he left the party two decades ago, deciding he would rather think issues through on his own than depend on a party he believes is driven more by how its candidates can win than by principles about how to govern.
Less politics makes for a fuller life, he concluded. “I can find enough information in a short period of time to know who I am going to vote for. I don’t need to pay attention to it over four years.”
In Tulsa, Susan Phillips is also steering clear. A two-time Trump voter, she decided the committee’s work is “an incredible waste of my time. I think they have foregone conclusions.”
A retired psychologist, Phillips, 77, said the hearings are designed “to distract us from what’s going on in this country — and I refuse to be distracted. What with the high cost of fuel and raging inflation, I believe our current government wouldn’t want us to be concerned about those things, so they’re putting on a show.”
But in the Fort Worth suburb of Benbrook, where Jerry Grantland remains convinced that Trump was a successful president who never intended for his supporters to storm the Capitol, the hearings have nonetheless helped persuade him that Trump needs to stand down.
Grantland, a 74-year-old Vietnam War veteran who suffers from ailments he traces to exposure to Agent Orange, sees Trump as “a good president who meant well. Things just went wrong, but I don’t think that was his intention.”
Still, the hearings’ presentation of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has persuaded Grantland that the ex-president “certainly has caused a lot of baggage.” It’s time for Republicans — and Trump — to move on and endorse a different candidate, he said: “We old guys just need to give it up.”
‘A tipping point’
Even if the hearings do change some Trump voters’ minds, they cannot save the country from a treacherous, even violent, reckoning, said Kathleen Betsko Yale, a retired actress and playwright in Buffalo.
Yale has been glued to the hearings. As an immigrant who grew up in Coventry, England, during World War II, she finds too many echoes of the rise of authoritarianism in Europe.
“I try to be hopeful,” she said, “but I think we’ve reached a tipping point and we’re going to have to go through some dark times before we come to our senses. Fascism is always about turning people against each other, and that’s what we see in the hearings.”
Yale expects that her great-grandchildren will emerge from a time of American darkness, “but at 83, I doubt I will see that. What we need is reconciliation, but I have people in my own family who are on the other side and we can’t talk about it. We try to get along without going there.”
That sense of despair, that feeling that only those who already viewed Trump as a threat to democracy are gaining wisdom from the hearings, seemed palpable in many places.
“It’s just us people who hate his guts who are watching this,” said Shirley Welch, a 78-year-old grandmother of three in Fort Worth. “I still think this is a good thing. But it won’t change any minds.”
Watching with her 6-year-old Siamese cat, Sophie, perched on an ottoman in front of her, Welch winced as she saw video of rampaging protesters throwing a female Capitol Police officer to the ground. Welch laughed as she heard Trump praising the rioters.
“I’m hoping they can put him in jail, or at least get it where he can’t run again,” she said.
A retired hospital lab technician who used to lean Republican — until Sen. John McCain picked then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 — Welch got a boost from the hearings, especially from the two Republicans on the committee, whom she saw as putting country over party.
But she has no expectation that the proceedings will help heal the nation’s divisions. She’s not asking for kumbaya: “I just want our political people to be normal, law-abiding people.”
Some conservatives have, however, found a new perspective from the Republican witnesses who have testified that Trump’s inner circle knew he lost the election.
Mike Patterson, 49, who owns a graphics design business in Weatherford, Tex., west of Fort Worth, calls himself a staunch conservative and said that the hearings have been “very enlightening,” persuading him that the 2020 election was “probably not” rigged.
The committee successfully debunked the idea that ballot boxes in Georgia had been planted to swing that state’s votes to Joe Biden, Patterson said. He now believes Trump was wrong to keep hammering away with the false claim that he won the election.
“His pride kept him from accepting he had lost,” Patterson said.
Consensus in short supply
That kind of pivot was perhaps what Jeanne Dufort was hoping to witness at the watch party she organized last week in Madison, Ga., 60 miles east of Atlanta. Dufort, 66, a real estate agent who is active in the local Democratic Party, had envisioned a bipartisan crowd coming together to consider the evidence with open minds.
But the 14 people who gathered at the Episcopal Church of the Advent were mostly — well, probably all — Democrats. Like Dufort, they saw the committee “doing a good job of laying the story out,” as she put it. “They’re telling the story from the inside out, saying this is what the president did. This is what he knew. These are the choices he made.”
Five blocks away, at Madison Town Park, Ron Collins spent the first evening of the hearings watching a juggling show with his niece and her son. Collins shared the worries that the people at the Church of the Advent had about the country’s future, but there was no way he was going to watch the proceedings from the church or anywhere else.
“I have no interest in that show,” said Collins, 74. “I wish they would focus on the things this country is dealing with.”
He works for a distribution company now but will soon switch to a post as a hotel manager so he won’t have to drive so much, a job requirement killing his bank account.
“My last three months, I’m averaging $364 a month on gas, going to call on customers,” Collins said.
Almost a half-century ago, Collins watched the Watergate hearings and considered them a valuable lesson in civics, but he’s disinclined to watch this time.
“What’s the difference now?” he asked. “We’ve had two years of riots. We’ve had people that are trying to tear down or burn down police stations. Most of these things were more violent than what happened on January 6. I think the American people are tired of all this. I don’t think anybody realistically believed democracy was threatened that day. … When you see someone in a headdress and a loincloth, it’s hard to take them seriously.”
Collins voted for Trump twice but doesn’t believe the 2020 election was rigged and doesn’t consider himself “a big Trump supporter guy. You have to put aside Trump’s personal behavior and look at what he was able to accomplish.”
That’s the kind of conversation Kathy Mortensen can’t bring herself to have anymore. She considers herself a “middle-of-the-road, common-sense kind of person,” someone who was once a Republican and once a Democrat but ended up alienated from both parties.
Mortensen, a retired teacher in Fort Mohave, Ariz., has been glued to the hearings, hoping to find something to trust. She’s been impressed by “the factual job, reporting without bias. It’s not being sensationalized, and I appreciate that.”
Having grown up during the Nixon years, Mortensen said: “I know that these things should not be brushed aside. They need to be made public.” She wrote a letter to Cheney, thanking the conservative lawmaker for breaking ranks with many in her party to pursue the truth.
But she holds little hope that the hearings will bring Americans closer to consensus. “I struggle to be around ardent Trump supporters,” she said. “I can be with my friends until politics come up, and then I have to change the topic or leave the conversation. I know that’s not how it should be.”
‘That’s the thing about Trump’
Watching the hearings has persuaded some Trump supporters that the ex-president’s fixation on overturning his loss is based not so much on genuine doubts as on his inability to accept his legitimate defeat.
Monday’s evidence, especially former attorney general William P. Barr’s account of how he checked out the fraud allegations and informed Trump that there was nothing to them, helped Jill and Jim Allen of Sugar Hill, Ga., understand that Trump simply rejected the facts.
The hearings have put to rest Jill’s doubts about the 2020 vote, said the retired social studies teacher, who previously worked at the Westminster Schools, a prestigious private school in Atlanta’s wealthy Buckhead community. “I never thought the election was stolen,” she said. “Today confirmed that.”
Her husband, a semiretired financial planner and lifelong Republican, concluded after Monday’s testimony that “there was a lot of denial by Trump. His staff advised him, but he just wasn’t listening to them.”
“That’s the thing about Trump,” said Jill, who is 72 and has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since Nixon. “You can’t tell him anything, especially if it’s something he doesn’t want to hear.”
Yet the Allens, both two-time Trump voters, would vote for him again. And they rejected the idea that Trump’s false election claims led to the Jan. 6 attack.
“I think it was just a bunch of hotheads, a bunch of firebrands,” Jill said. “I would never think Trump would encourage any kind of violence, ever.”
She wishes Trump would drop the election fraud issue, follow Al Gore’s example and accept the voters’ decision, as the Democratic candidate did after the lengthy legal battle over the 2000 presidential election.
Neither Jim nor Jill wants Trump to run again, but Jill suspects he will.
“He’s not a quitter,” she said. “I would vote for him, but I would rather vote for someone else, and [the hearings] solidified that thought. I don’t like when people are unreasonable.”
Still, the idea of another four years of Trump in the White House gives her a certain comfort, she said: “I slept well when he was president.”
Fisher reported from Washington; Shavin from Madison, Ga.; Douglas from Fort Worth; and Canfield from Tulsa. Mark Guarino in Chicago and Jack Wright in New York contributed to this report.