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The House select committee holds their second day of hearings to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 13.JASON ANDREW/The New York Times News Service

David Moscrop is the author of Too Dumb for Democracy?: Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.

The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol is under way. It has already stated as fact, complete with damning testimony, that Donald Trump, then the sitting president of the United States, backed a coup attempt, agreed with an aggressive mob that called for his vice-president to be hanged and did nothing to stop the violence once it began. When the attack was over, five people were dead, more than 100 were injured, and U.S. democracy – long incomplete, inadequate, chaotic and far more fragile than most assumed – was weakened.

Some of the former president’s associates have abandoned him, including former attorney-general William Barr, Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. They’ve made it clear: Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election fair and square.

The hearings are the right and necessary thing to do. There must be an accounting of what happened that day, just as there must be repercussions for those who directly enabled or facilitated it or let it happen when they could have stopped it.

But then what?

One possible outcome of the hearings is a further polarized country and greater distrust of Congress among Trump supporters. At the same time, if congressional action is inadequate, it could sow cynicism among those who expect accountability and punishment for this historic violence.

U.S. politics is heavily identitarian: One doesn’t simply support a party or politician, one’s very identity is bound up with them. Political figures become part of the markers that determine who an American is and what they stand for or reject. For supporters of Mr. Trump, who has still significant clout in the Republican Party, any attack on their party or politician – which is how his supporters will see attempts at accountability – is perceived as an attack on them. For millions of Americans, the House hearings will therefore only serve as evidence that Democrats and “traitor” Republicans are out to get them, that their freedom is at stake and that they were right all along. It’s a vicious, caustic cycle.

Previously, the cycle could be broken by getting political and media elites to support people or institutions pursuing accountability. In the early 1970s, during the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon had his defenders – until enough (but certainly not all) of his key supporters turned on him. Congress moved against Mr. Nixon as public support for the president plummeted; he resigned before he could be impeached. The Republicans reset in the years of Gerald Ford and spent just four years out of the White House before they returned for three terms in a row. But Mr. Nixon, wretched as he was, went away relatively quietly in the end. Mr. Trump and his backers have not done so.

The media landscape is also very different now. Fox News has done its best to dismiss the hearings; Laura Ingraham suggested the much-watched prime-time hearing on June 9 “bombed,” while Sean Hannity said Mr. Trump was “the one person that looks good” after them. The network did not air that first hearing, though it said it would show Monday’s second. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy continues to oppose and undermine the committee, backing Mr. Trump despite contradictory public and private pronouncements last year. So far, the Jan. 6 attack and the lead-up to the hearings don’t seem to have hurt Mr. Trump; he remains the favourite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

Democratic institutions in the United States are now so fundamentally broken, and the country’s population is so deeply polarized, that little punishment may come of the hearings. Or perhaps something will come of them – only to make things even worse in the ensuing backlash. And God help the U.S. if Mr. Trump returns to office, which he well might.

But there is a chance the hearings will undermine Mr. Trump’s political future. As much as folks are wedded to him, boosted by proxies in the political and media space, this could still change – especially if those proxies flee to save themselves or find a more rewarding host for their parasitic ways.

The only way to find out what will happen is to keep on with the hearings and hope that credibility and trust in Congress returns. Of course, America would still be left with the damage the former president has done and the current lot of Republicans, many of whom are awful in their own ways.

Better is possible. But not much better, for now. Nonetheless, there is no choice left but to try.

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