The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol has now completed its second two-hour hearing, with its third hearing scheduled for this afternoon. The Committee has clearly done much important work, and its presentation of its findings is off to a good start. At the same time, unless the Committee finds ways to communicate more broadly and deeply, so that its hearings and findings become politically actionable, there is a danger that its important task of public enlightenment and activation will fail. In that event American democracy itself, such as it is, will be placed in even greater danger.
Last Thursday’s “prime time” evening hearing presented vivid testimony and video footage of the January 6 attack itself. The two-hour session made very clear that the event was an extremely violent attack, that it was planned in advance, and that it was encouraged, egged on, and celebrated by then-President Trump. Many commentators found the hearing powerful. I found it somewhat boring; it rehashed things that have mostly been long known and covered by the media, and I thought the decision to feature the testimony of a British documentary film-maker was ill-advised (it is important for the hearings to be televisually “produced”; but emphasizing the mediated nature of the video evidence seems counterproductive to me) . But the televised hearing did effectively represent the violence, destruction, and terror performed by the insurrectionists.
This past Monday’s morning hearing was more powerful. Through the calling of credible witnesses and the effective use of videotaped testimony, the committee, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, established with extraordinary precision that Trump’s “Big Lie” about election theft was a lie, that every responsible person in his own administration knew it and repeatedly told him so, that he chose to listen instead to a drunken Rudy Giuliani and to continue spouting his “Big Lie” to this day, and that his intention to claim “fraud” if he lost was established as far back as 2016.
As The Bulwark columnist Mona Charen—who has been relentless in her critical coverage of Trumpist lies—has pointed out, while the inner-workings of Trump’s twisted and narcissistic mind will always be inscrutable, “Of Course Trump Is Responsible for His Lies,” insisting rightly that “it’s not what he believed that matters, but what he had the responsibility to know.” Monday’s hearing established beyond doubt Trump’s malevolent malfeasance and arguable criminality. And, because Trump and his “Big Lie” still dominates the Republican party, the case that the Committee is making before the public goes beyond him and those closest to him. As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin has noted, “No Republican candidate should be able to escape the Jan. 6 hearings.”
Trump’s responsibility—indeed, his political guilt—is beyond reasonable doubt, and the Committee will no doubt continue to lay out the case, in the methodical manner laid out by Co-Chair Liz Cheney in her opening remarks, and eventually to publish a report that will help to establish a historical record.
At the same time, the historical record has long been pretty clear to anyone not in the grip of Trumpist delusion or Claremont Institute cynicism. The Mueller Report, the two impeachment hearings, and innumerable first-hand and journalistic published accounts long ago left no doubt as to Trump’s effort to obstruct, delegitimate, and overturn the November 2020 Presidential election results. The January 6 Committee investigation, hearings, and eventual recommendations are important.
But their evidentiary importance pales in comparison to their legal and political importance.
Two questions must loom largest as we now think about January 6.
The first is a simple yet deeply important legal question: will the information collected and disclosed by the Committee be used by the Justice Department to expeditiously investigate and prosecute all of those responsible for the crimes that appear to have been committed? Attorney General Garland’s commitment to “due deliberation” and “due process” is admirable. At the same time, the phrase “justice too long delayed is justice denied” is more than a famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. It implicates a very important legal idea that is also necessarily a political one: that crimes and criminals must be punished, publicly, for the sake of retributive justice but also restorative justice. And if the high-level organizers and abettors of the January 6 coup attempt are not punished, expeditiously, there can be no healing, much less strengthening, of the democratic institutions that their actions have seriously damaged.
The second, on which I will focus now, is straightforwardly political: how can the testimonies and videos and truths established by the Committee become politically actionable, so that they can play an effective role in helping the Democrats to retain control of Congress in this year’s elections and to retain the Presidency in 2024?
While the Committee is nominally a “bipartisan” enterprise, and cannot even seem to intervene directly in the electoral process, it is obvious that public and political responsibility is indeed the Committee’s central purpose, and equally obvious that the upshot of its work is the general principle that those politically responsible for what happened on January 6 ought to be publicly exposed and condemned, that they attempted to overthrow democracy, and have thereby forfeited any legitimate claim to public office. What else can it mean for Liz Cheney to publicly declare that “Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain?” It seems pretty clear that while Cheney still considers herself a “Republican,” she strongly opposes all of those in her party—virtually everyone else—who continues to side with Trump and Trumpism (indeed, she is well aware that she is likely to lose her own upcoming Republican primary, and that the only other Republican on the Committee, Adam Kinzinger, is not running for re-election).
It is thus patently obvious to everyone participating on the January 6 Committee that it would be a disaster for constitutional democracy for a Republican party led by Trump and animated by his “Big Lie” to regain power in the upcoming November election. For such a victory would both politically reward supporters of January 6 who are hostile to constitutional democracy, and authorize these supporters—the Republican party in both houses of Congress—to employ their power to further undermine democracy. It is clear that the very first order of business of a Republican House majority, should one be reinstated, will be to abolish the January 6 committee and put an end to all other committee investigations of illegality and malfeasance under Trump. It is equally clear that the second order of business will be to use the investigatory and subpoena powers of Congress to promote the “Big Lie,” by relentlessly and vengefully investigating and obstructing Biden, his family, and his administration in ways that will make the old Hillary Clinton-Benghazi hearings seem like child’s play, and perhaps even extending to impeachment itself. Jim Jordan, who would be the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee in a Republican-controlled House, has made this clear, and indeed there is no reason to think he would not also take aim at the Democratic party, the so-called “radical socialist left” in Congress, and various and sundry supporters of “critical race theory” and “antifa” that he and his ilk regularly scapegoat.
Such a scenario would further torpedo our already frail and damaged political institutions, and also make it that much more likely that we could see the re-election of Trump in 2024.
That would mean the end of constitutional democracy in the U.S.
And it would thus clearly represent a monumental failure of the January 6 Committee’s primary public mission.
And so as important as is the unquestioned integrity and seriousness of the Committee’s hearings, perhaps more important is the way that the Committee and its hearings are communicated to the public at large and especially to those citizens who are not avid watchers of MSNBC or CNN, but who nonetheless might reasonably be regarded as “independent” or “undecided,” and who might actually be influenced by what they learn if it is effectively conveyed to them.
“There is only the relentless march of evidence, all of it deeply incriminating to a certain former president who keeps insisting that he was robbed of his rightful election victory. The committee’s recent hearings — there have been two in the past week, with more planned — have been organized like carefully choreographed television productions, and I mean that as a compliment. The committee has been focused on doing what all good television productions, whether factual or fictional, do: telling a story that enthralls the viewer.”
Boot is correct about the “production value” of the hearings, and it is surely true that this strategy of turning the hearings into “must see TV” has contributed to good viewership (though it is worth noting that while the opening hearing in TV “prime time” netted around 20 million views, the viewership for the second hearing was only 10 million).
At the same time, we live in an age in which network television, and especially episodic network television, is a decreasingly important mode of either entertainment or news. There are good reasons to be skeptical of the idea that seven hearings spread out over a few weeks, with five of them scheduled during the working day when many people are unable to watch television, are likely to even be the most effective way to produce the hearings as a “television show.”
More important, we live in a digital age in which social media are the most important means of all communication and television screens are fast becoming a thing of the past. And yet it is clear, as the Post reported days ago, that “Social media platforms take a back seat at Jan. 6 hearings.” The Post headline ends with the words “for now.” But there is only “now.” And it is hard to understand why the Committee, its staff, the staffs of all Committee members, and indeed the staffs of all Democratic party organizations, have not hit the ground running with a major social media campaign.
On Tuesday, the day of the second hearing, I counted ten Tweets posted on the Committee’s Twitter feed, with none of the Tweets receiving more than 170k views, and most receiving less. That is not a lot of Twitter activity. A perusal of the feed in subsequent days indicates very little activity. Why has the Committee, or other parts of the Democratic establishment, failed to organize a massive social media blitz on Twitter? Thousands of college students could easily be mobilized to volunteer tens of thousands of hours during this summer break to Tweet out messages and video clips for the Committee. An effort could be made to enlist the help of some of the top Twitter “influencers” in spreading the word. Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Ellen Degeneres, Britney Spears, Tom Hanks, Beyonce—have any of these liberal democrats been asked to post even once about the hearings? Jennifer Lopez sang beautifully at Biden’s inauguration. Has she been asked? Barack Obama’s Twitter feed is the world’s most followed feed. And even hisTwitter feed has barely mentioned the hearings. What’s up with that?
I spend hours every day on Facebook, which I use mainly to communicate about politics. I do not think I have received a single specially-targeted post about the hearings. Every single time I do a Google search of a book, film, recording, or recipe, within seconds I am bombarded with related Facebook ads. And yet with the hearings . . . nothing.
It is impossible to believe that this is the best that can be done.
On a more basic level, the Committee’s own website it primitive. Its “Media Center” consists of nothing but eight“press releases” since May 1. Its “About” link consists of one incredibly long text legalistic that seems cribbed directly from the House charge to the Committee. And its “Home” page consists of links to transcripts of Committee opening statements along with a few other things. Clearly no effort has been made to use the site to truly engage ordinary citizens.
Compare this with the very impressive Website of the Lincoln Project or Twitter feed or Website of the Republican Accountability Project. There is no comparison. While the Committee’s website contains the bare minimum of information, the “January 6 Clearinghouse” posted at Just Security is a treasure trove of resources. While the Committee occasionally posts a “press release,” the newly-formed Defend Democracy Project posts incredibly informative daily press digests and fact sheets.
It could be said that the efforts noted above underscore that the Committee hearings are feeding a substantial civil society infrastructure of digital communication, and that via these other interwoven networks the relevant information is getting out. That is a fair observation. But it does not detract from the obvious and more important point: if the Committee, and the Democratic party leadership that is behind its formation and its hearings, does not do a great deal more to effectively communicate with and mobilize a mass public and more targeted digital publics, then a precious opportunity to really influence public discourse and public opinion in the lead-up to a watershed election will have been squandered.
It is not enough to believe that “due diligence” and “due process” are sufficient to accomplish public accountability and public education. It is beyond naïve to imagine that “the truth will out in the end.”
Indeed, the Republican party, and especially the Trumpist movement that has captured and that now controls this party, have long understood that framing is everything and truth itself counts for little. Indeed, the right has engineered an effective form of public communication in which the truth counts for less thannothing.
Republican leaders, ideologists, and social media influencers are busy, right now, turning attention away from January 6 and towards the fictitious danger posed to America by trans swimmers and “critical race theorists.” They are continuing to promote the “Big Lie,” which continues to be believed by between 60% and 70% of Republican voters, and which is fueling major victories in Republican primaries across the country.
Much more than an effective communications strategy will be necessary to counter these developments and to stave off likely Republican victories in November.
But without a very substantial, high-profile, and savvy communications strategy–designed by real experts and staffed by a serious professional communications team and a mass of volunteers–the January 6 Committee Hearings will become nothing but a historical footnote, a less entertaining constitutional version of “Cop Rock.”
It is not too late for Committee leadership and Democratic party leadership to wake up. But time is fast running out. And nothing less than the future of constitutional democracy in the U.S. hangs in the balance.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, from 2009-2017. Author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (2018), Professor Isaac has published in a range of public intellectual venues, including Public Seminar, Common Dreams, Dissent, the Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Guardian.